Egypt: Belly Dancing Costumes, raks sharki

Belly Dancing Costumes

by Diaa Khalil

A typical professional belly dancing costume worn by Daleela

Egypt! What a beautiful name, what a beautiful country, what a beautiful place to be. Egyptians! What a warm, kind, generous, and friendly people they are. Egyptian women! One could write forever about their beauty. They are kind, faithful, lovely and very sensual, especially when they are dancing. Not just any dancing, but when they are belly dancing. They can warm you to the depths of your soul when they dance. Belly dancing flowers in every Egyptian girl's blood as she grows up. In fact, there is no Egyptian woman who cannot belly dance.

The name "belly dance" or "raks sharki" has a long and colorful history. Belly dancing does not mean moving only the belly. When women belly dance, they use their entire body including their head, hair, shoulders, arms, hands, chest, belly, hips, bottoms, legs and feet. It is magic!

Belly dancing is not popular only in Egypt; but in many oriental countries. Egypt, however, is the first country to come to mind when one thinks of belly dancing and famous belly dancers like Lucy, Dina, Fifi Abdo and many more. It is the country that most aspiring foreign dancer's hope to visit and possibly participate in festivals, or take classes, attend a show, buy music, and purchase that special, custom made costume of their dreams.

Rectangular scarf

Triangular scarf

Top: Rectangular Scarf, Bottom: Triangular scarf

A belly dancer can dance wearing any kind of clothing in a casual setting, and may simply tie a beaded hip scarf about her. However, on stage, in a restaurant, or at a party, a dancer will wear a flashy cabaret costume. These colorful, beaded costumes are as important and necessary to the dancer as the music she chooses for her dance.

Belly dancer hand clappers, called zill

The costume in itself is like a musical instrument. A costume is an extension of the dancer's personality and her abilities. A well made and well fitting costume is what makes the difference between a professional performer and an amateur dancer. For example, an ill fitting costume on the most technically correct dancer can make her look like a beginner, while some belly dancers will wear blatantly sexy costume to redirect the audience's attention to their body and away from their poor dancing. However, some dancers do prefer to wear a plain galabya, a much more plain costume, to prove their dancing ability without relying on the costume decorations to enhance their movements.

Left: a Bra and Belt, Right: a

a Bra and Belt, Right: a "Top" Style Belly Dancing dress

The foundation of the belly dance costume is the bra and the belt. Belly dance costume designs are divided into styles depending upon the number of pieces in the bra and belt. An "oriental" costume contains several pieces, including a bra and one-piece belt, a skirt, which may or may not be attached to the belt, and a veil. The "Turkish" design contains three or four pieces which include a bra and a two or three piece belt with a skirt and veil. Again the skirt may or may not be attached to the belt.

Both of these are

The third kind, called "top", is a one piece costume consisting of a bra connected to the skirt with a lycra mesh which may be the color of the bra and skirt or may be flesh colored, and a veil (there is no belt). The forth design consists of a bra and skirt without a structured belt. In other words the belt is a part of the skirt. This style will also include a veil. Other matching accessories available are gauntlets, anklets, wrist cuffs, upper arm bands, head and hair bands, necklaces, earrings, etc. However, some dancers just buy a bra and the belt separately to match other skirts and veils they may already own. Acquiring a dance wardrobe is an on-going project, particularly for professional dancers.

There are also "ethnic" style costumes. The Se'edy (Upper Egyptian) balady dress or galabya falls to the ankles. It is made of one piece of fabric with long wide sleeves and is open at the sides. The second, called Eskandarany (Alexandrian) has a body made of one piece of solid colored fabric. Attached to this, beginning at the knee, are three pieces of gathered fabric of three different colors sewn horizontally and creating a frilly, mid-knee length dress. From the gulf area there is the "thobe', which is a long, wide, flowing, highly decorated, somewhat shapeless dress. Nevertheless, if used properly and creatively it is the feature of a stunning dance routine. Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria have their own styles though Lebanon and Syria are more like Egyptian styles (oriental). Turkey aggressively competes with Egypt in producing costuming supplies.


In Egypt a costume designer has many people working for him. More than one person can be working on one costume, and generally they are women. Working side by side, some of them make the base of the bras and the belts, others add the decorations, and others do the finishing work. To make the belt, the designer draws the shape of the belt on a piece of vazlin or pellon, a heavy weight backing much like the material used in shirt collars and cuffs, but heavier. The layout is then usually cut three times to make the same shape to create three layers. The designer then irons the three layers together to create one strong flexible sheet. Adding the chosen fabric and covering to the sheet of the belt, he then irons the fabric with the vazlin/pellon and sews them together. It is now ready for the decoration process. The construction of the bras is not much different than that of the belts. The designer first makes the size of the bra cups from leather like material, creating a very hard foundation. The sides of the bra are made from the vazlin/pellon the same way as the belts. The bra is then ready to be covered with the fabric.

An unfinished belt

Another side of the unfinished belt

Making a belly Dancing Bra

Making a belly Dancing Bra (base of the bra)

Making a belly Dancing Bra and Belt

The decoration process consumes most of the time in costume creation. The items used in the decorations are unlimited, but we can discuss the most popular items used in Egypt:

Beads and sequins for belly dancing dresses

Beads are of glass or plastic, pre-strung and sold by the meter or separate to be strung by hand and sold by the kilo. Of course, glass beads are better looking and catch and reflects the light very well. Glass beads, though breakable, also hold their color better. The beads come in many sizes, shapes and colors and are usually imported from India, Czechoslovakia, Korea and Japan.

Sequins may be plastic or metallic, and are sold by the kilo. The plastic variety are better than the metallic because they do not loose their color like the metallic. The plastic sequins comes in solid colors, transparent or iridescent (varying in color when seen in different lights or from different angles). Metallic sequins only come in solid colors. They are usually imported from Korea or Japan.

Glass or plastic colored gem stones come in sew-on or glue-on variations. Again, the glass stones reflects light better. They are usually imported from Korea or Japan.

Appliqus are made from the above mentioned items.

After the decorative hand work is finished, the last step is covering the back of the belt and the bra with a lining. Using the same fabric as the front side, or a near colored fabric, the lining of the back of the belt and bra should be sewn very carefully, by hand, on the edge and with close, small stitches.

Belly dancing shoes

Of course, it is highly recommended that the dancer talk to the costume designer directly for any details she would like to have incorporated into her outfit, and obviously, for custom made costumes, for the measurements of her body must be taken. Since a foreign dancer may be in Egypt for only a short visit, a custom made costume may be out of the question. Hence, costume makers normally have various sizes of pre-made bras and belts one may choose from. Finding a suitable belt for her is usually not a problem as adjustments in size are easily made by moving the closure hooks on the belt. This is especially true for a two or three piece belt. Often, the problem is in the bra. To have it fit perfectly the dancer has to be careful that she gives the right measurements to the costume maker. If at all possible it is better if she tries on a bra of the style she is having made. Adjustments to a bra can be made, but they are not as easily done as those for the belt. It is far better to have the bra a little too large, rather than too small. The bra should fit snugly, as should the belt, yet have some flexibility to be able to move with the dancer's body.

An American Dancer

Several professional dancers had the following comments regarding the care and selection of their costumes:

"I look for costumes that are strong, sturdy and won't fall apart with a lot of use. I like two-piece chiffon skirts with beautiful sequins or appliqus sewn on. I also like the sequined belts with hanging beads and a strong but soft bra top, sequined and with beads also hanging down about just above the belly button. I prefer China Silk for veils to dance with or chiffon veils. I like matching gauntlets for the arms and matching earrings and necklace.

I have a hard time taking care of my costumes. I sew them when they need to be mended but as for washing them, that is more difficult. I make sure not to put my costumes away in the closet right after a show because the sweat on the costume needs to air out. I heard putting the costumes in a steamed room helps to clean them or uses the steam from a steam iron. I wash chiffon veils and some chiffon skirts in Woolite. Many dancers I know put their bras and belts in plastic bags to take care of them, so they last longer and don't fall apart while they are traveling to do shows." Daleela

"I look for several things before deciding to buy a costume (since I make so many of my own to save money!). The fabric must be high-quality, well woven, no skipped stitches, and heavy-duty enough to stand up to the rigors of performing. The seams must be carefully sewn with not a lot of loose threads so that it will STAY sewn! It must fit exactly correctly or at least be easy to alter if it is too big or too long (that is ALWAYS my problem!). Any coins or other ornaments must be firmly attached so that they are not likely to fall off at the first shimmy! I also look for something that is a little harder to describeit must look classy, elegant, and not too gaudy in colors that will still be fashionable in five years. The last Egyptian costume I bought was a lovely black and gold skirt and top that will never be out of style. I steer away form costumes that are loud or ugly colors or that have big fake jewels on personal places (ask Nancy what I mean) or are too cutesy. Elegance.eleganceelegance! But that is just me..!!" Chris

"Ive been dancing for seven year and I have many beautiful costumes. Many have come from Egypt and many Ive made. "Ive been dancing for seven year and I have many beautiful costumes. Many have come from Egypt and many Ive made.

Tunisian Dancers

I look for something unique when shopping, something that hasnt been seen on a lot of other dancers. Also remember the colors that go best with your skin tone and hair color. I have to avoid warm colors. No matter how beautiful the costume, if the color is wrong it wont look great.

I look closely at the material and bead work. It must be quality strong material and trimmings not too delicate. The sewing should be even and the beadwork tight. I do not buy anything that looks thrown together or glued because it will not last.

After a performance I take my costumes home and inspect them for any damage. I make sewing repairs or bead replacements if needed immediately. I then clean them by putting the pieces of the costume in nylon bags, put them in a Drywell bag with the cleaning sheet (available at grocery stores), put in the dryer for 30 minutes and then hang them back in the closet. They stay looking new. " Erica

A Japanesse Dancer

"One of the things I look at in a costume is the weight of it. A better costume seems to be made of heavier material and there is more beading, so the costume just weights more. Another thing is the stitching, is it small, close stitches, or large ones. A smaller stitch is best.

To keep my costumes in good shape, I always lay them out after I wear them, and let them air out for a few days. Then when I put them away, I store them in a pillowcase, because it is breathable." Vicki

First I look for the style & colors that appeal to me (my preference is cabaret style bra, belt & layered skirt, and I mostly look for a combination of turquoise/gold or purple/gold). I like beadwork as opposed to just sequins (sequins and beads are nice too), and I like there to be a nice thick layer underneath the back side of the beadwork to protect the threads. As far as material, I like sheers, such as chiffon, and tissue lame.

Beaded decoration on a belly dancing dress

Each time I wear a costume, I check it over before I hang it back up. I look for snags, missing beads/paillettes/sequins, etc. I fix anything before it has a chance to get worse (like fixing a lost bead before it turns into 20 lost beads). I spot clean any dirty spots with a washcloth and cold water; if soap is needed, I use a little bit of Woolite. Also, another way to keep costumes from falling apart is not to sit around in them. I try not to sit around in mine (at a dinner or in the car); that crushes the beads. Traci

One final belly dancer explained that "When I buy a costume, the first thing check out the quality of the material. Like the skirt and veil fabric not to be thin, always touch and look to see if it is Simi sheer, like that kind, but thin is cheap and will not last long. The flounces of the skirt fabric, same for the veil the cut of the skirt, is important also, something that will look good when I twirl and shimming, maybe like a tiered-layered look. The bra, like long hanging beads to the midriff so it can hide the hide the midriff flaws. The bead work should be where it doesn't come off the costumes, I have two costumes now, that has very good sequin and bead work, as of yet have not lost both.

Decorative jewelry for belly dancing

Care: Keep mine in each costume has there own plastic large container, every so often I hang them up on a hanger and allow air flow, After wearing a costume, after a performance if the weather permits, hang them outside at night to allow fresh air to freshen, if in the winter just hang indoors. I do not always allow others to wear my best costumes, unless I know that person keeps a clean body. I have an acquaintance all of her costumes smell bad, bought a costume from her, even after dry cleaning, it still had a body smell.

To best go through, about this is good weight in fabric, cut of the skirt for good flow, And how the beads are sewn on."

Click on the images below for a larger version:

"Top" Style Dress "Top" Style Dress Bra and Skirt "Top" Style Dress
Bra and Skirt Top" Style Dress Bra and Skirt Top" Style Dress

Belts and Bras

  • Original Research by Diaa Khalil
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last updated: June 8th, 2011