Rows of costumes at the designer's studio. There you can try to find the perfect model and colour.

It's nice to chat with the friends while working.

Yasmin is sewing rhinestones to a belt.




Greetings from Cairo part X
Published in Ishtar 2/2008

Sparkling Finery on Cairene Stage

Translated from Finnish by Anu Toivonen

When preparing for a new routine or an important occasion, every dancer is soon confronted by the most important problem: what to wear? Glittering materials, sequins, beads, rhinestones and lovely, bright colours quickly find their way in the wishful dreams of dancers and every dancer has her own secret dreams. For a beginner, a beaded scarf around the hips will already give a grand feeling, whereas a professional dancer will need considerably more expensive creations to satisfy her inner magpie demanding finery. Acquiring the Cairene stage finery includes a number of twists and turns that every dancer has to quickly master.

A spotlight of history

The basics for choosing dance costumes have remained unchanged for well over a century: on stage you are wearing the best costumes you can afford. Samia Gamal began using high heels while dancing only to show she could afford the expensive western luxury items in question. A country-side wedding dancer will wear her three costumes on alternate occasions: these costumes would not be appropriate even for the chorus girls in Cairo but in her society they are glamorous and fine enough.

The seamstresses and tailors on the first half of the 20th century were in a class of their own in the whole fashion industry. The costumes were largely hand-made and the materials were made to last to the next generation. This is in evidence in dance costumes as well. Each costume was cut to fit each individual dancer and this made it possible for Samia Gamal and her contemporaries to dance in strapless costumes without a second thought. The materials were heavy chiffons, velvet and lace and the costumes of the great stars have lasted surprisingly well. Costumes made as late as in the 1980s may still have been made with such skill.

During the last few decades, stretching materials have brought with them an incredible change. One size will stretch and fit many types of bodies and it is not necessary to cut the costumes so carefully. On the other hand, this will make life easier for the many costume importers and resellers. However, the stretching lycra (*) will not last beyond a few years and in time the elasticity will disappear and the costume that once fitted so well will only look good in the photos and on the video. After thirty years, no dancer will be able to boast dancing in the costume Randa Kamel wore this season as brand new whereas it is till possible to dreamily dance in Sohair Zakiís rhinestone finery.

The glittering and sparkling materials have also changed costume embroidery. It is no longer necessary to fill the whole surface with sequins, so the hem will be lighter and consequently move in a different way.

These developments have created countless new possibilities but, at the same time, some things have undeniably also been lost.

From the designerís pen

There are two basic ways in costume making. Some costumes are ready-to-wear designs in many colours and various sizes, and the same design may be worn by dancers in Japan and in Italy. Many dancers find a costume to their liking in the Internet and, on the basis of a picture, order it from the designer made to her measure. Some costumes, on the other hand, are made for individual dancers to fit the music they are using or after some other specifications. Later, these unique designs may become widespread ready-to-wear costumes, as other dancers want to acquire the same design.

The designers themselves do not greatly differentiate these two ways, and each costume is important during the designing stage as well as during the sowing. Only large group orders may result in quiet grumbling among the seamstresses as the need to produce six exact copies of the same design will become boring after the first two have been finished.

As you quickly develop a close relationship with designers here in Cairo it is, quite naturally, an advantage to live here: the designers will soon be familiar with each dancers personal style and tastes and may sometimes design costumes without any advance planning or discussion. Often the most exceptional rhinestones and individual materials, of which there is not enough to make one costume, turn easily by special order into something new and exceptional. Each time the standard is raised a little higher as the designers know the other dancers will be closely following the Cairene fashions and the starsí latest fads.

Pleasing the crowds

The Cairene audiences differ in many ways from the western ones. In western countries, a dancer alone may be an exotic attraction or a nice addition just like a free snack at the bar. In many venues, the small stage and continuous traffic by the waiters and patrons diminish the dancerís glamour, and the audience have a vague image of a dancer and the dance from their vacations abroad or in the television.

The dancer needs to fulfil the audienceís requirements, which often reflect the situation a couple of decades ago. These may also lag behind as regards the costumes. In Finland, the dancer may largely choose according to her own preferences and the audiences tend to be happy; the Finnish audiences, in general, are not used to glitter so anything glitzy seems exotic. The United States have a longer history in Oriental dance and consequently, the audiencesí old-fashioned preferences for the traditional two-piece costume with beaded fringe and broad chiffon skirt may cause pressure. Many American dancers find they need to balance between the current Cairo fashions, their own preferences and the audiencesí wishes.

In Cairo, every member of the audience has seen several dancers perform Ė at least in the television Ė and each person has their own solid preferences. The shows are long and the contents important. As the audiences want to be entertained, the dancerís personality counts: individuality and own style are essential. One way to create these is by costuming. On a big stage the costumes may be very flashy and personalized costuming adds an element of surprise.

It is important to be sexy, as both male and female spectators want to see sexy dancers. The women may see themselves through the dancer perhaps exploring a way to dress they themselves are unable to experience. The slits in my skirts have opened another 10cm during my stay here and I have permanently added the mini skirt to my wardrobe. My eyes have grown used to the snug and padded costume tops to the extent that during last summerís Yalla! International Oriental Dance Festival, in Finland, I was continuously amazed by the ill-fitting tops of the costumes there.

Any shock effect, even when overdone, is good in Cairo as the people talk and the gossip races at lightning-speed adding to the dancerís name. Others will want to see this dancer and as we all know, no publicity is bad publicity!

Dancerís choice

Every dancer creates an image of her own: Dina became famous wearing skimpy costumes, even though she is currently wearing a lot more material when dancing. Fatima wears a lot of mini-length costumes whereas Asmahan has surprising details in hers. Among the foreign dancers, Leila has become known for her beautiful costumes and her solid fans will always want a copy of her most recent outfit. Even my costumes have started to be copied, as I learned by chance from two different designers during one week.

Most of our Egyptian dancer sisters are apparently not particularly individualistic as regards their costumes and they seem mostly to want copies from the outfits Dina wore ten years ago. It seems they donít have a firm idea of what they want and they seem to change their minds in every fitting. Many designers are not enthusiastic about making costumes for the Egyptian dancers.

As the costumes see a lot of wear they soon become old. A costume reaching one year of age seems to me to be really old and I no longer want to wear it so often. At the same time, the costumes have become more mundane for me. Even though each of them seems perfect at the time of purchase, the most beautiful creation will loose its attraction in time. How soon I am ready to give up a costume is a good gauge: some costumes I still find fabulous even after one year, some I may find dull after a few months.

Raw facts

The costumes wear down a lot faster here in Cairo: there are more shows, you tend to sweat more in the summer heat, air pollution and dust wear the fabrics down and you cannot really wash a dance costume very thoroughly. When dancing, the fringe and hanging decorations mechanically rub the surrounding material and the plastic decorations, such as sequins, cannot take this treatment for very long. In one costume the batch of plastic beads was of particularly poor quality and the gold paint wore off in under two weeks. Luckily, it is very easy to have these replaced here.

Working in Cairo restricts the costumes in some ways. A body net is compulsory even if you donít really feel like you needed one and the area between the hips and mid-thigh must be covered by the costume. If the skirt is mini-length or has a high slit, this problem is usually solved by wearing matching or powder-coloured shorts. Too provocative designs may result in the dancerís being called in front of the Vice Squad.

Once in a while, you need to acquire new costumes. In addition to individual needs, the dancer is once again expected to have brand new, unseen outfits to pull out of the bag on certain holidays - well the dancerís dresser will actually do the pulling. At New Year, the dancer is expected to wear a new costume or two and before the beginning of the season in May or June, the dancers complete their wardrobes for the summer. It is a good idea to acquire a few outfits, as you will not have time to think about costumes when working in July and August.

According to the Islamic calendar, the locals buy new clothes for the holiday of ĎId. ĎId Al-Fitr is celebrated after Ramadan which is the dancersí month of holiday. During Ramadan, you plan and train new dances and when ĎId arrives, the whole show has been renewed down to the costumes. This year, ĎId Al-Fitr is at the beginning of November and at ĎId Al-Adha, a month later, it is a good idea to have a new costume in store even though this is not absolutely necessary. At Christmas, you may dress in red according to the theme of the season, the costume being preferably new although you may use an old one. This same costume will also do later on Valentineís Day.

All in all, you need a large number of costumes, on average at least twelve costumes a year as you need different costumes for every style of dance

(*) Spandex




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