Curves and cues: Interview with ATS belly dancer Hillary – Part 1

written by Hayam on February 15, 2017 in Costuming for any size and Q & As with 2 comments

Curves and Cues: HillaryEditor’s note: This is part 2 of a 3-part interview with Hillary. Read Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

Foreword: I noticed that there wasn’t too much on American Tribal Style (ATS) costuming on Belly Dance at Any Size. I thought it would be nice to reach out to one of my best buddies for some inspiration! Hillary is one of my oldest belly dance friends, we grew up together as baby bellies and then our careers diverged; I went cabaret and she went ATS. She has blossomed into an incredible ATS dancer. One of my favorite things about Hillary is that she has an incredible eye for detail and works at styling her costumes until they are perfect. She comes up with creative solutions in a costuming world that isn’t always accommodating towards tall/curvy ladies. I love that she never settles for less and is always on the hunt for new things. I knew she would have some great tips and tricks for anyone struggling with their ATS closet. I definitely learned a lot from my interview with her and I hope you enjoy! ~ Hayam

Hey Hillary, let’s chat about ATS costuming! Can you tell me a little bit about your experience as a tall/curvy dancer?

So. I’m going to spend the next several paragraphs talking about the minutiae of what I have learned about ATS costuming as a plus sized woman, most of which are details you probably don’t think anyone notices or cares about (and you might be right!). However, as a plus size dancer, I know there is a bit of disconnect for us in the dance world, especially concerning costuming, and one of the ways to close that rift is to talk about it. Middle Eastern Dance—especially ATS—is all about the dance itself and how you feel and emote and connect with your troupe members and the audience. To strip that away and focus solely on costuming and your ‘look’ is a disservice to dancers and the dance itself. Therefore, the note I would offer before we dive into this is this: a lot of what I’m about to talk about is based on my personal taste, so don’t think that any of this stuff is the absolute WORST thing you could possibly do or wear. Instead, this is more about tricks and ideas that I have discovered help me look and feel my best and I wanted to share, because there’s something really special about putting together the perfect ensemble or wearing a piece that you made/altered that fits like a glove. In the end, however, the most special and beautiful things you can wear onstage are confidence and love.

Since I’m going to be talking about bodies (specifically my own) a whole bunch, you should probably know what I look like: I am tall (almost 6’), pale with short, curly dark hair (think Snow White), OMG-I-love-donuts curvy (245 lbs), and disproportionally small-chested. I have thick upper arms, EXTRA thick thighs and a big ol’ booty. I learned a long time ago that I am not meant for an “off the rack” world.

When you are plus sized, you either sink or swim: find what works and stick to it, find what kinda-works and alter it to make it better, or else suffer through uncomfortable/ill-fitting/unflattering clothing for the rest of forever. Luckily, the market is changing (albeit slowly), but in the meantime it has forced me to really get to know my body and get crafty about how I want it to be dressed, which of course immediately spilled over into dance. I am a perfectionist and put stupid amounts of attention into little details (my friend’s nickname for me is Cactus Butt), which leads me to create or alter almost every costume piece I buy.

What are the components of a great ATS costume?

Classic ATS costumes have a number of components: pantaloons, skirt(s), hip adornments (scarves, belts, tassels, fringe, etc.), choli, coin bra, jewelry, and hair adornments (turban or hair garden). I say ‘classic’ because the costume can vary based on personal taste or events: sometimes the venue isn’t conducive to wearing a 25-yard skirt and it’s easier to wear pantaloons and hip adornments; sometimes you are doing a more folkloric-, flamenco-, or Indian-inspired song/piece and want to alter the costume accordingly; or sometimes the troupe has a lot of busty girls who just don’t feel like schlepping their coin bras back and forth! However, that variability is all a part of the magic of ATS costuming.

My favorite costumes are the ones that really work the majestically-coordinated jumble; a veritable butt-ton of layered hipscarves, tassels, and drapes make the costume look so rich and varied and individual, and yet still harmonious (both within itself and also with the other members of the troupe). To me, this heavy, bold, antique look brings a certain mystery and history to the dancer/performance that isn’t present to the same degree with costumes that are more bare; but, every troupe’s/dancer’s style is different. The key, no matter what, is balance: balance of shape, balance of fabric patterns, balance of color, and also balance of hard and soft; the juxtaposition of the ‘hardness’ of the metal in the hair sticks, jewelry, assuit, belts, and bras paired with the ‘softness’ of the fabric of the fringe, hipscarves, and fluffy skirts is a part of what makes ATS costuming so alluring and dramatic.

Great ATS costumes also come from knowing how to work with color; often the best costumes are based on complementary color schemes that really make the costume pop (teal and brick/rust is one of my favorite combos). Some dancers wear mostly black accented with pops of a single bright color. Other dancers keep their colors more muted and stick to the warmer, more antique-y looking colors (dusty orange/red/purple, dark teal, gold/dark brass). Unfortunately (fortunately?), the autumnal palette doesn’t quite fit with my coloring, so I tend to work with more jewel tones: royal purple, burgundy, bright teal/blue, sometimes olive green, and silver/pewter. I still struggle with putting together the perfect costume, but the longer I dance and the more performances, pictures, and videos I see, the more inspiration I get.

Wendy's costume at North Eastern ATS Dance Camp

Wendy’s costume at North Eastern ATS Dance Camp. Photo by the Dancer’s Eye.

At a dance retreat last September, one of the featured performers (who I barely knew at the time) was walking past in her full regalia and I could not contain myself, it was just so overwhelmingly gorgeous: black underskirt, striped multicolor aishwarya top skirt, two net hipscarves, one beaded assuit hipscarf, uzbek Segusha tassels, coin belt, assuit bra, subtle rose-patterned choli, talhakimt necklace, hair garden studded with flowers and metal hair sticks…The whole effect was this antique, colorful, sashaying queen—jumbled and yet completely balanced. It knocked my DANG socks off. So of course I yelled out “GODDESS APPROACHING!!!” like a huge dork. Luckily, she laughed. But when I see a costume like that, one that takes my breath away (and compels me to yell compliments at strangers), I know that it’s a great costume.

What are the biggest challenges you face when putting together an ATS costume as a tall and curvy lady?

Most of the challenges are physical, but some of them are also mental. The physical challenges are definitely the ones I encounter the most often, since a large portion of the ATS costuming consists of antiques, and antique things are TEENY: necklaces, bracelets, rings, belts, cholis, skirts, all made for exactly the opposite of my body type. Belts are the worst offenders for me. Twenty-seven inches long? Yeah sorry, nope. That’s like, half my butt. Maybe one butt cheek. Not happening. Bracelets, too: 6” circumference? Nope again. I can barely fit that over three fingers, never mind around my wrist. Even bracelets with cuffs or hinges just don’t work when they’re that small. But, considering when and for what function many of these items were created, it’s not surprising that they tend to be small (especially if originally they weren’t even intended to be used as clothing, as many of the textiles we use in ATS used to be adornments for transportation, residences, etc.).

Unfortunately, antique items are not the only problem children in my ATS closet. Even newly created items can be frustrating. Many skirt vendors make their skirts only 36” long as the default; with my height and body type, this length guarantees that my feet and several inches of ankles will be fully on display—not a cute look. Luckily, some vendors offer custom lengths, but it often costs extra and sometimes the price is pretty high. I’ve excitedly shopped an extremely discounted skirt sale, only to have the customized length totally negate the sale. I have the same problem with pantaloons: the whole look of proper loons is that they are puddling around your feet, and this doesn’t happen if the elastic barely reaches your ankles. The worst thing is that many sellers, of all types of costuming, will often not post measurements of their items (or will post inaccurate ones), which is a problem when you’re trying to find something that actually fits. How dare you.

Side wrap problems

See the sad, teeny little puff? See the giant hole where my loons stick out? Ugh.

Finally, one of the most important things I have learned (and not just in dance either) is that proportions are everything. This is true of all body types, but especially for tall/curvy dancers, as incorrectly proportioned things often have the effect of making us look shorter or bigger, which nobody wants. Personally, I know that certain skirt tucks (mostly the ones that involve wrapping around my body) do not look the best on me because most skirts are simply not long enough to wrap around my bigger-than-average hip. Especially problematic is, even if I can reach the skirt around, there isn’t enough fabric left to have a large ‘puff’ at the tuck, which provides a lot of balance to the ATS look; not to mention that, for tall dancers, this kind of tuck usually creates a big gap/trailing tail situation at the bottom. Belts that are so short and only encompass half my waist tend to emphasize my size because my front is so bare, or belts that are so thin that they are lost completely in the expanse of my belly/hips.

Examples of short, thin belts

Examples of short, thin belts

Wearing a skirt that is too short and shows a lot of ankle cuts me off and makes me look short (plus, there is a certain grace and mysticism to someone dancing in a long skirt, so when you can see my big feet tromping around in a skirt that is too short, that mysticism is totally lost). Wearing a hipscarf that is so hiked up that it only falls a few inches below my skirt elastic makes my hips/stomach look bigger and makes me look shorter. Wearing a necklace that is too tight and sits very high on my neck makes my neck look even shorter and thicker than it already is.

Good vs bad proportions

Shorter and heavier vs. taller and smoother. Proportion magic!

The best thing you can do is play around with different shapes and sizes and see what works best for your body; finding out what proportions to avoid and which to covet have been a huge part of my costuming learning curve.

Mentally, the challenges come from accepting your body and its limitations. When I see someone who is very small and looks amazing in a certain aspect of costuming, my brain immediately wants to copy that style, thinking (hoping) it will look just as good on me, but when I try it—womp womp—it doesn’t. It totally bums me out, especially when I waste a lot of time tweaking it again and again to no avail. Unfortunately, certain things just don’t look good on certain body types; but, the upside is, accepting that and moving on from it can bring you into a whole different area of costuming that DOES look amazing on your body type and makes you feel amazing too.

Stay tuned for Part 2 on the Dos and Don’ts for ATS costuming and Part 3 on where to buy ATS costuming pieces. 

Hillary began her study of Middle Eastern Dance in 2006 with Brenda of Boston, followed by Basimah of northern New York in 2007. She was a founding member of Basimah’s Middle Eastern Dance Ensemble and trained in traditional Egyptian raqs sharqi (using a muscular-driven technique stemming from Aegela of Toledo, OH) for four years. In 2013, curious about other styles, Hillary began taking classes in American Tribal Style (ATS) from Mimi Fontana of NYC, director of Manhattan Tribal; she was invited to join the Manhattan Tribal Collective in 2014 and Tribe Hamsa (directed by Maria Naja Richardson) in 2016. Hillary is also the founder and owner of Third Eye Bling, a shop for facial adornments for all types of dancers with a specific focus on the bindis used in ATS costuming.

About Hayam

Hayam is a performer and instructor of Middle Eastern dance located in Central Massachusetts. She began dancing in 2007 and is currently mentored by Basimah of Canton, NY. Hayam hopes to be an everlasting student of Middle Eastern dance. Her goal is to continue to share its joys with audiences and students everywhere for many years.