Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Costume Therapy

Published in the July/August 2012 edition of Zaghareet Magazine, an international magazine for Belly Dance aficionados.

I slashed through the straps of my best fitting, most expensive “go to” bra. You know the bra I am talking about? The one that makes you five pounds lighter and gives you the perkiness of a twenty year old. Ok,  thirty year old. The one you wear to a job interview or a first date. My shiny, new-fangled stainless steal sewing scissors, razor-sharp, snipped through the straps as my heart-thudded in fear. It’s only a bra, I repeated to myself, while our instructor assured us “it’s only a costume” and it would be alright.

Belly dance takes “retail therapy” to a new level. Of course perfected technique and top form are vital to the dance, but any performer would agree there is nothing more confidence-boosting, mood-lifting or splendor-enhancing  than a sparkly, fits-like-a-glove costume. It is the best therapy money can buy. Being a well-endowed dancer, however, can sometimes make buying a custom-fitted, yet reasonably priced outfit difficult. I knew it was time to start learning how to sew.

My mother was an exceptional seamstress. She made my three older sisters’ clothes when they were young. Purchasing a store-bought Halloween costume was unheard of in my house growing up. But like many “modern women,” sewing was not a skill passed on to me, nor was it even taught at any of my schools. In the days of pre-big box stores sewing certainly, but unfortunately, was not exposed to me as a pleasure or hobby but a necessity in times of tight money for a single mother of four. Prior to belly dance, embarrassingly, it just never occurred to me that I could make my own stuff! Why? I have a job! I can just buy it, right? And besides, I could whipstitch a torn seam by hand in a pinch. That was all I needed to know. As I advanced as a dancer my new hobby suddenly seemed to come along with the same type of necessity to sew that my mother probably felt.
Last spring, the oh-so-talented-in-more-ways-than-one Michelle Morrison of Farfesha Studios in Albuquerque, NM held a costume-making workshop and I decided to give it a try. The year prior had not been kind to me. Dance, both practice and performance, became my escape. The support of the beautiful women of the troupe and the ability to take my mind off the real world of divorce, finances, and work made the studio my sanctuary. And now costume therapy would begin to take on a whole new meaning.

With Michelle’s supply list in hand, I headed to the local fabric store a few days before the workshop with the concept of matching my new costume with a flowing chiffon lavender skirt I had purchased at a swamp meet months prior. A satin in the most delicious eggplant caught my eye as the foundation for the bra and belt set and I was instantaneously hooked. Before I knew it, I was obsessing over rhinestones. 8 mm or 10 mm sequins? 8 inch or 10 inch Egyptian fringe? Bra padding? For me? The DD girl?

Sprawled on the wood dance floor with all my dancer friends, surrounded by baskets of material, coins, shells, ribbon, batting, we spent several Sunday afternoons cutting, fitting, sewing, bleeding. It looked as if a sewing shop exploded on the dance floor. As music played, we drank our tea, talked about men, and let the children run wild. Satins and baroque fluttered in a rainbow of colors across the wood while we chattered over how it was possible that Rachel Brice bends like that. I realized exactly how it must have felt for women to congregate around the sewing table long ago. It was female bonding, rich with self-confidence and self-worth. Sadly, this has become a rarity among women outside the dance studio in American culture. We are catty and competitive in the dog-eat-dog professional world. We sometimes fight for and cheat over men. We dress for each other, always seeking approval to be accepted from our own gender, the same humans who struggle, create and nurture alike. There are just not enough bonding moments among women to celebrate our sameness and accept our differences. We distinguish ourselves as mothers, a common association among most of us, or we are objectified by the media, and sometimes even devalued by both. If we are not mothers and we are not supermodels, what are we? We are sometimes lost in our identity and don’t always have female role models to help find us.

I have since completed the gorgeous purple costume and am now tackling mermaid skirts and gauntlets. I have started to transform a teal prom dress into a bra, belt and skirt set. My sewing talents have even transferred to my regular wardrobe, altering skirts and embellishing blouses. I find myself now surfing the web for design styles, rather than costumes to purchase. Watching my instructor dance flawlessly in an outfit she created that is just as flawless makes her performance all that much more inspirational for me.

This is more than beadwork, I thought to myself.  It was smiles and kind words from fabulous women of all walks of life that makes you feel everything is going to be alright even if you just destroyed your best bra. It is the delicate hands of people I love and admire, constructing creations as one-of-a-kind as the goddesses who wear them. It was seeing the finished products months later, flaws and all, which had beauty deeper than what was on the outside, like the women who wore them.



  • When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. ~Hunter S. Thompson