Curves and cues: Interview with ATS belly dancer Hillary – Part 3

written by Hayam on March 15, 2017 in Body image and Costuming for any size and Plus size belly dancers and Q & As with no comments

Hillary dancingEditor’s note: This is part 3 of a 3-part interview with Hillary. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here

Where do you suggest tall/curvy dancers look for costume components?

Red Camel: Deb has longer-length necklaces and belts relatively regularly and tons of components if you want to make stuff for yourself. And, if you join her Sneak Peek mailing list, you can get first look and discounts on new items in the newsletter.

Flying Skirts: Gwen has been an ATS staple for many years, and she doesn’t charge extra for custom skirt lengths (which fit hips up to 60 inches). She sells covered bras (as well as plain bra bases) up to a D/DD, has belts that fit up to 50 inch hips, and will also work with you to create a custom-dyed item if you aren’t finding a color you want in her listings. She also has an ‘overstock’ section that has some pretty nice discounts (unfortunately it tends to be mostly smaller sizes, but it’s always worth a look).

D.Webb Designs: Debbie is an amazing dance wear and street wear indie designer. She makes tons of practicewear and dance bras as well as the world’s best pantaloons (nicknamed Debbaloons; pretty much every pair of loons I practice and perform in were made by her. She does alterations as well as custom costumes.

Tribe Nawaar: Jennifer covers almost all aspects of costuming; skirts, cholis, loons, jewelry, flowers, zills, even music. Unfortunately she does not offer longer skirt lengths outright, but if you email her she will measure her stock and can let you know what sizes she has available in longer lengths (and doesn’t charge extra for them). She is super helpful and quick to respond to emails; once she saved my butt when I needed a dip-dye skirt for a performance and had less than a week to get one: in just a few hours she measured everything she had, found one in my size and in a color I wanted, and shipped it to me that very day, and I got it with plenty of time to spare.

Crimson Gypsy (she also has an etsy shop): Christine’s cholis are AMAZING for plus sized dancers and she stocks up to XXXL (although they cost $5 extra), very comfortable and stretchy yet still supportive and come in beautiful colors in both cotton and velvet. Extra bonus, many of her designs have a backless look but are cut to still be able to hide bra straps, if you are uncomfortable or unable to perform without one.

Magical Fashions: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Krishna of Magical Fashions, since about 80% of my skirts are from her shop; but, she is the pricier option if you need custom lengths, as she charges $15 per alteration and her shipping is per-item (so buying in bulk doesn’t save you any money). Custom lengths also means a longer shipping time, since they are being made-to-order. But, she has a ton of colors and her skirts are very fluffy and good quality.

Swapmeets on Facebook (ATS Costume Swap & Sell, Tribal Exchange – Bellydance Swapmeet, The Curvy Belly Dancer Costume Swap, Tribal & Fusion Bellydance Swap & Sell, and a few others): if you’re not already in these groups, go join them. They have the obvious downsides of a swapmeet (no returns, limited stock, sellers have varying skill at measuring/taking pics/writing descriptions) but you can find some very nice stuff for cheap. Plus, you can sell any stuff you don’t want, making room in your closet for MORE STUFF, which is a nigh-constant desire for us dancers.

Etsy shops I frequent: ApogeeAdornments (large-sized jewelry, good prices, unfortunately she almost never posts measurements, but will if you contact her about specific items), akcaturkmenCICEM (larger-sized uzbek tassel belts, super-fast shipping), and JewelryArtisans (many beautiful tribal rings above a size 8).

Hillary Street FestivalWhat are your favorite costume trends?

It’s not so much a trend anymore since it’s become so common as to be considered canon, but I love the look of the hair garden more than the original turban. The garden is a little gentler and easy to build, and can be made to work with many face shapes. However, my opinion is heavily swayed by the fact that the turban does not work with my face shape.

Also, like most belly dancers, I am a huge assuit junkie. Assuit scarves are some of my favorite accessories, and lately I’ve noticed Carolena wearing an assuit veil draped across her torso and over one shoulder in lieu of a coin bra and bare stomach, which is an awesome and comfortable way of covering up and keeping to the ATS aesthetic while still leaving your back open (to help with cue visibility).

Ashiwariya skirts and Uzbek segusha tassels are definitely some of my other favorites, they add a lot of color and texture to a costume without being overwhelming. The use of sparkly net belts has also been on the rise the past few years, which is a very cute way of adding some dynamic sparkle to a traditionally more earthy costume. I’ve recently been getting into gul (medallion) belts; they’ve been around forever but I just bought the components to make my first one, and I’m really excited because it instantly adds that antique look to any ensemble and also can be made to be completely variable (sewing loops on the back and sliding them onto a belt instead of sewing them directly onto a belt and keeping them static), letting me switch out guls and create many versions of the same belt.

Examples of tall/curvy ATS dancers whose costuming you admire?

Wendy AllenWendy Allen (FatChanceBellyDance Emerita): All of her costumes have that extra ‘oomph’ of layers upon layers of gorgeous fabrics and patterns and accessories that are still harmonious and balanced. She really works the antique color palette and makes pulling off bold costumes and chunky jewelry look easy (IT ISN’T).

Maria Naja Richardson Maria Naja Richardson (founding member of Manhattan Tribal, director of Tribe Hamsa): When I first started dancing in the Manhattan Tribal Collective, Naja’s pictures were the ones I stalked for costume ideas. Surprisingly, she is the exception to my All-Layers-All-The-Time rule. Time and again, I’ve seen her create that coveted rich layering look with only a few key pieces (which is a great skill when packing for gigs). She stands out in her use of color and accessories, making pretty much any palette look good on her and bringing her elegance and sassiness into all her ensembles.

Janet TaylorJanet Taylor (formerly FatChanceBellyDance, Tessera Tribal): Janet inspires me in a ton of ways–not only is she tall, but she also has short hair, both of which cause(caused) my most prevalent costuming issues. Janet never looks like she is “too tall” for her costuming (i.e., skirts being too short, belts too thin). In fact, unless she is standing right next to other dancers in Tessera, it is hard to tell that she is taller than everyone else by several inches. Her proportion skills are just that good. Janet also moves without apology for the space she takes up (and wrote an amazing blog post about it, you should read it).

Diana SaylorDiana Saylor (Elm City Shimmy): Diana is another living goddess walking the earth. She is tall and pale and makes color and costume creation look completely effortless. She pairs textures and colors that, when I see them in my head they don’t make sense, but I see them on her and suddenly nothing else does (if you can’t tell, she’s another whose ensembles I mine furiously for inspiration). She also carries herself with incredible poise and grace, which is what happens when you are a goddess so I shouldn’t be surprised.

Jesse StanbridgeJesse Stanbridge (FatChanceBellyDance, Tessera Tribal): Jesse has similar coloring to me and is one of the few well-known ATS dancers who I see working with a similar royal/jewel-toned color palette. Her hair gardens and costumes always give me tons of ideas for color and pattern combos from what I could make out of my own closet, especially since I tend to wear these colors not just in dance but also in everyday life.

Becka BombBecka Bomb (Kamalah Tribal): Becka is another one who has mastered proportions in her costuming. She does an excellent job of “dressing down” her ample bust and works with voluminous belts and tucks to create balance in every ensemble (especially her hair gardens), and she always looks beautiful.

Do you have any more advice for tall/curvy ATS dancers?

Overall, you can probably get away with not paying attention to most of the stuff I’ve mentioned here. But, if you want to step up your game, be prepared to spend the time and do your research: sometimes being tall and curvy means going the extra mile to track down a vendor for measurements, spending twice as much time searching for things that actually fit, never being able to shop at in-person vendors (who rarely carry a lot of bigger/taller stock), returning or reselling things that don’t fit, and constantly learning what looks good on your body.

Prepare to pay more: for alterations, custom lengths, and buying two belts to make the “Super Belt,” even making your own stuff costs money, since components ain’t cheap and knowledge takes time.

Definitely never stop learning. Most of what I’ve written here isn’t anything anyone told me, it’s something that I learned or created myself through trial and error trying to solve a particular problem, and I’m always finding something new to fix or alter. On that note, learn to be crafty! Once you start making alterations to make pieces better, you’ll never settle for something being merely “good enough” again (unless it’s 2:00 am the night before a 10:00 am gig and you’ve been sewing for hours…then all bets are off, and my Cactus Butt turns into Whatever-Works-For-Now-I-Am-So-Tired Butt).

ATS FunMost important of all, love yourself! A friend of mine is one of the most beautiful dancers I’ve ever met. Whenever we duet together there is this unbelievable spark. She is so talented and so much fun to dance with and has a perfectly queenly, serene performance face…and yet she hates mirrors and is terrified of having her picture taken and is incredibly self-critical, because she (like so many of us) has been mocked/teased/bullied for her body and has internalized it, despite how gorgeous and gifted she is. It baffles and saddens me, and makes me work extra hard at reminding her of how amazingly hard-working and talented she is and how much she has to be proud of, because she deserves to feel that way about herself.

There is a wonderful quote in a book from one of my favorite series ever (The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss): “You meet a girl: shy, unassuming. If you tell her she’s beautiful, she’ll think you’re sweet, but she won’t believe you. She knows that beauty lies in your beholding. And sometimes that’s enough. But there’s a better way. You show her she is beautiful. You make mirrors of your eyes, prayers of your hands against her body. It is hard, very hard, but when she truly believes you, suddenly the story she tells herself in her own head changes. She transforms. She isn’t seen as beautiful. She is beautiful, seen.”

It’s a part of life that we are what we are, we look how we look; and some people will always be terrible to those who don’t fit their arbitrary definition of beauty. The good thing is, regardless of those jerks, we are all still gorgeous and rock the stage (or sidewalk, or subway or wherever), and part of what helps me feel even more gorgeous is being confident about how I look in my costuming. Love yourself, dress well, walk like a queen, and you are “beautiful, seen.”


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.