Re: What Does a Steampunk Bellydancer Wear? Part 1

The answer is “anything she wants” because the music and costume you choose as a dancer for your steampunk number really depends on how you choose to define “steampunk”. Like many other American bellydancers, I’ve been bitten by the steampunk bug and what follows is my research into how best to translate steampunk into a Middle Eastern dance context.

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Silk shantung ghawazee coat worn over paisley cotton voile undertunic. Made by Kathleen Crowley (see blog on sidebar), posted on Tribe.net. Notice how the floor length coat resembles Western dresses of the Victorian era. You could leave the accessories as is or steampunk them up, substituting washers and gears for the coins on the belt and bra, for example. Another possibility would be to go with a knee length coat worn over a full skirt with ruffled pantaloons underneath.

To start with, you could legitimately go 100% ethnic. Steampunk fashion is generally based around a Victorian/Edwardian look and the traditional costume and music of the Middle East have not changed that much in two hundred some years.  My suggestion would be to pick a Near Eastern country that Europeans of the 19th and early 20th century would be familiar with such as Egypt, Turkey, or Northern Africa and use the costume of those regions as a jumping off point.

A second approach would be to base your costume and performance on Middle Eastern dance as seen on the American stage of the late 19th and early 20th century. Thanks to the American Memory project at the Library of Congress, we have actual footage of what early dancers were wearing at the time. Here Princess Rajah balances a chair (notice that she does some floorwork as well) and  Ella Lola does a Turkish dance. You can find second hand copies of these silent films on YouTube, but I prefer to point people to the actual Library of Congress site as it has more context information.

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Princess Rajah spins during her chair balancing dance (American Memory, Library of Congress) . Although her ruffled skirt appears short, it is actually ballet-length, falling a little above her ankle.

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Ella Lola does her Turkish dance (American Memory, Library of Congress). Her knee-length skirt appears to be made of assuit.

This is the dance as it existed when it was first crossing out of the ethnic immigrant communities and onto the Western vaudeville stage. The costumes are variations on either 19th century street/stagewear. The movements are still done today and are completely recognizable to a 21st century Middle Eastern dancer.

A third possibility is to base your costume on a more Orientalist theme–the Near East as seen through Western eyes. “Salome”-style costumes were very popular on the 19th century/early 20th century stage at this time and have a fantasy element that is very in keeping with the steampunk aesthetic.

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Sarah Skinner models her Salome-inspired bra and belt ensemble which she created for her seven veils dance.  Click here and scroll down to the June 24, 2008 entry (“Salome Costume”) for her blog post about the construction of this outfit. Follow her links at the end of the post to read more about Salome and her take on the dance of the seven veils.

Andrea Deagon, an academic and a dancer, has done research on the origins of the Salome story. Her slideshow, “The Salome Dancers: An Eastern Dance Takes Western Roots”,  which showcases a number of the images and performers of the era is available here.

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Princess Farhanna (Pleasant Gehman) posing in her turn-of-the-century bellydance costume.

Princess Farhana also created a beautiful, 1900s-era costume. She writes about making this ensemble on her blog (“Creating Flash Out of Trash, Feb. 23, 2009).  A dancer after my own heart, she used materials she already had and a lot of gold spray paint. The end result: a costume that looks expensive, but only cost $36.00. Click on the Feb. 12, 2009 photo (“It’s a Small World After All!”) for a closeup of the costume including the lace rosettes she hand-glued onto the skirt.

Other Orientalist-inspired eras to look at for costuming ideas would be Art Nouveau and Art Deco. I’ve often thought, for example, that Queen Latifah’s costume from the movie “Chicago” would make a great, 1920s-style beladi dress.

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Queen Latifah as Matron “Mama” Morton belting out “When You’re Good to Mama” from the movie musical “Chicago”. Notice the fabulous arm drapes.

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Re: Mata Hari

Dancer Sarah Skinner models her reproduction Mata Hari costume.

Generally speaking, most Middle Eastern dancers (aka bellydancers) don’t try to create characters when we dance. Our time slot is short, we’re dancing in an informal venue (e.g. restaurant or private home), and we’re just trying to interpret the mood of the music and make sure that the audience has a good time. Our costumes are chosen for their color and flash. Middle Eastern dancers and dance shows typically try to create a Near Eastern (or a Western idea of what the Near East is like) atmosphere.

But every now and then we do get the opportunity to create a stage piece, a dance that tells a story.

Most of us know or have heard of Mata Hari–a dancer, femme fatale, and spy who seduced men for information and was subsequently executed as a traitor. Sarah Skinner became fascinated with Mata Hari (actually Margaretha Zelle’s) story  and was determined to re-create not only the costume, but the dance performance that made her a star. Orientalism–the West’s fascination by and distrust of the “exotic” East–was a driving force in Mata Hari’s career as a dancer just as it shapes Middle Eastern dance today.

On her blog, ShakeMyDay , Sarah discusses the process of creating the costume and the dance. Unfortunately, while there are many great costume pictures, there are no clips of Sarah actually doing the dance. I may have to break down and buy Gothic Bellydance 2 in order to see it.

Sarah’s costume blog also details her other costumes and performances.