Seafaring Costume Stories and Tips

For over ten years we’ve been making special costumes to dance into the sea. My scrapbooks are incredible displays of ingenuity and memories. I remember dreaming about sea faring dances years before I ever came to Maui. You see, I was a swimmer before I was a bellydancer and I knew the secret yet perfect connection between we women, our bellies and the sea. These dances are astounding lifetime rituals.

Sea Faring Chronicles

In 2001 our theme was Xena Camp so I made a costume to celebrate my Nordic heritage. I called myself Deena the Nordic Princess and wore coins, fur and a horned head dress. It wasn’t very practical for the water as you can imagine but it was still a lot of fun!

My big tip from 2001 retreat is to check out Native Earth sandals. They are comfortable and great for dancing. They are light weight, fit securely, are flexible and won’t slip and slide on the floor. You send them a tracing of your foot and they make the sandal in any color you can think of! They will probably be the only shoes I’ll take to Maui this year outside of a pair of shower flip flops. See

In the year 2000 we had two retreats (Winter & Spring), so I made two seafaring costume attempts. Both involved costumes I had in my closet. One was an orange and yellow Gawazi costume I made 20 years ago out of a striped Indian bedspread. It looked fantastic on the beach. I did a cane dance and a sand shovel dance in the sand with a lot of zip and zag! The other one was a blue sequined straight skirt. When I saw how great blue sequins looked on other dancers on the beach in previous years, I decided to go for the blue! The belt was an old one I’d worn for years in the night club. Time to sacrifice it to the sea. I figured it would be the last sail for that bra and belt, but no! To my amazement I think if anything the sea salt improved it’s condition by cleansing it! It’s still not done dancing. . .

Mesmera looked dreamy in a floaty purple and turquoise sensation with a chain mail bra and belt. John and Rebaba had matching outfits: harem pants, vests and belts . They did a romantic Rudolf Valantino portrayal on the surf. Very cute and very sexy!

In 1999 Sahra did a Gypsy dance to the sun and the sea in a full length gold and orange Renaissance gown! It truly had a lovely and bewitching effect. I did my Hathor movement meditation in a simple gold lamé skirt and top that was laced together with gold cords. It looked like liquid gold in the golden hour of dawn. Mishaal Miyamoto wore a pale blue sequined skirt, top, and veil that worked a glittery magical compliment with the tan sand, deep blue surf and cloud dotted sky. It worked especially well on video.

When choosing color and dreaming up designs, think about the performance environment you'll be dancing in. There is a reason that Hawaiian prints are so colorful: they look good in a tropical paradise. They are healthy and rejuvenating! From my experience and observations watching years of women dance into the sea, my advice is to avoid black, gun metal gray and dingy colors. If you must use these colors, try to contrast them with a colorful veil or accessory. You will be happier with your video documentary in the end.

Costume Construction. . .The Big Sea Faring Belly Dance Costume Tip of 1998 is. . . .

. . . the HOT KNIFE from Jehlor Fantasy Fabrics! This handy dandy little tool is incredible. It saves time in all sorts of craft and costume construction applications. It's basically a soldering iron that works for craft materials and fabrics. It cuts, melts and fuses fraying edges.

The story is. . .

. . . in her costume crafting, the designer Tahia Alibek started utilizing an industrial tool normally used in installation of astro turf. Lori, the owner of Jehlor, seeing how well it worked for Alibek, called the company that made the device and talked them into making a smaller, easier-to-handle model for the craft industry. . .

. . . and there you have it. What a little ingenious device! The Knife and its handy little stand sells for about $29. You can get an attachment for hot setting special sticky backed rhinestones too. The costumers for Las Vegas revues and country western stars are crazy for this! If you do much crafting and costuming you'll want one of these too. JEHLOR FANTASY FABRICS (206) 575-8250. Preparing for our July '98 retreat I used the Hot Knife for making fluorescent colored tassels out of designer kite string. I needed to match the colors of some fabric I was using. It would never have worked without being able to fuse the ends with the Hot Knife. To make synthetic string or yarn tassels . . .

  • Step 1. First test string for fusibility. Then begin by tacking a 12 inch piece of string across the lengthwise edge of a metal spatula with a piece of tape. Leave one end longer than the other.
  • Step 2. Hold the end of a new string with one finger and start wrapping the string from the spool around the width of the spatula side by side all the way across the face of the spatula to about a 1/4" from the edge. Cut string with Hot Knife.
  • Step 3. Place the spatula on a flat surface (piece of old plywood) and carefully cut the strings with the Hot Knife along the edge of the spatula opposite the 12 inch string. This will fuse the end of each strand. Then tie all the strings at the middle in a bundle with the 12 inch strand. Once they are secure, arrange the strands so they fold over the binding string, so the ends meet at the bottom of the tassel and the knob is left at the top.
  • Step 4. Wrap the top of the tassel with the rest of the 12 inch string and knot at the side. There is probably a better way of finishing the knot from underneath. If you figure out how please let me know!

Sea Faring Costume Sails Off Course

In January 1998 my Sea Faring Costume was inspired by my recent trip to Egypt and Turkey, where I fell in love with that particular shade of blue th at seems omnipresent in that part of the world. Soon everything in my wardrobe became that shade of blue. An additional inspiration came from undergoing a henna treatment in a Nubian village. A young woman by the name of Haleme applied the henna designs quite skillfully by squeezing the rich mud from a tiny whole in a plastic bag. After 30 minutes it dried and was chipped off with the point of a knife blade and washed in a clear solution.

At first I was disappointed because I couldn't see much of any markings. She smiled and told me to wait and see. To my surprise, in a few minutes I looked again and saw very black drawings on my hands and arms. The clear solution must have been some sort of developer. I asked Halame how the henna worked so fast. She said, "Oxigent." Not knowing what she meant, I asked her where she got this "Oxigent." She told me, "The hospital." With a little more investigation, I figured out that she must mean Peroxide. It didn't make my skin blister, so it must have been 20 volume hydrogen peroxide. It was indeed, for later a bottle was procured for me by another Nubian woman that said this is what you use for henna.

When it came time to figure out my seafaring costume, I decided I wanted to use some of the blue linen scarves I brought back from Egypt. I would make an ultra-simple costume out of soft blue gauze, drapery fringe and some simple ethnic jewelry accessories. Using my new found henna wisdom, I would off set the simplicity by what I visualized as dark henna skin designs. Since Armando is such an incredible artist, I asked if he would draw Egyptian hieroglyphic designs with the henna on my arms, legs, back and belly.

The only trouble with the idea was that I was very busy planning the retreat and didn't actually get around to testing this plan. On the day we were to enact this process, Armando forgot and went to town, so our timing got cut short. When he got back we tried it anyway, feeling confident that I held a secret expedient. Armando drew some incredible designs, using mostly henna. He did use a bit of marking pen to lay out a few key circles and lines.

I jumped into the sauna for a few minutes thinking that heat would be additionally helpful to the process. To our great disappointment, when I emerged nothing had happened! I looked like I had a mild case of measles at most! Minutes passed but nothing developed. Even worse was that I had one giant circular bulls-eye around my navel in permanent marking pen! Oh no! This is really bad, and weird-looking, I might add. My costume is so ultra simple it looks like nothing without the drawings, and show time is in only 20 minutes! Armando, what shall I do?

From his pocket, Armando whips out a bunch of dark brown marking pens, to simulate henna, and he and his wife Hanya get very busy drawing on different parts of my body. I became DEENA, SKETCH PAD PRINCESS! And you know what? It worked out all right!

About the peroxide: in trying to figure out why it didn't work, the only thing we could think is that there must have been hair dye in the mix they used. Any other ideas, write me!

About the permanent marking pen: it held up very nicely. I finally removed it with a beach-sand scrub down.

There is no seaweed in Maui. If you were thinking of improvising your costume once you got there, I highly advise against it. The preparation is truly a wonderful part of the experience of this adventure and you want to have fun when you get there, so don't bring a work load with you. That's my number one advice!

It's important when designing your costume to think, lightweight yet sturdy at the same time. Knits work well because they don't fray or ravel much, and you can make some nice fringe effects. Also take care not to design something that would be dangerously long and tangley; in fact, think short when it comes to skirt lengths.

Use lots of elastic. Anything not tightly secured, especially on your head, a splash may steal. Be warned that anything dropped on the seashore, the next wave will claim. I found out the hard way, as a strand of my pearls disappeared like magic before my eyes.

As far as themes for costumes go, one can be directly influenced by aquatic imagery: fish, mermaids, sea anemones, coral, sunken treasures from exotic places, fins, scales, sea horses, rocks, netting, seaweed, waves. In constructing my costume, I realized that design concerns would be very different for this natural setting and lighting than for the setting and lighting of a nightclub, for example. Choices of colors, materials, etc. could be very different for this dance environment. It's an opportunity to use ideas that we wouldn't dare try in a nightclub or other land-based arenas.

One easy way to begin a costume is to start with a ready-made bathing suit with sturdy coconut shell style cups for decorating. The belt and skirt could be all one piece worn over a one or two piece bathing suit. Since we leave in January we have the advantage of finding inexpensive trims and ornamentation at Christmas decoration shops. You could also incorporate the use of waterproof body paint into your costume. I'm sure you dancers will come up with all kinds of innovations of your own.

The only rule of our costume contest is that the costume must get wet. . . with you in it! Like I said before, you don't even have to make it yourself. . . but I hope you'll give it a try, 'cause it's part of the fun!

An the beginnings of this seafaring bellydance ritual, we didn't know how to sew for ocean surf; so we experimented, and held no expectation that these costumes would ever be worn again. Well, guess what? Last year I wore my favorite seafaring costume from 1991, just to prove the fact that these costumes can stand up to the elements and the test of time. It worked just great.

Now I'm going to drive you crazy with the details of my own personal Seafaring Costume Herstory. Here goes:

In 1996 I found a perfect two piece bathing suit. It was black with rich but small gold East Indian motifs. I wore a simple gold coined chain belt. The skirt was the most ingenious part. It was made out of a soft turquoise and gold metallic net fabric from Morocco. It didn't even need to be hemmed. I pinched, draped, tucked and layered the skirt and accessorized with head scarves and a black and gold beaded shoulder drape I found on sale at Penny's for $10 the week after Xmas. It was kind of an exotic genie effect. I love the skirt and have been wearing it on land all year for different shows.

In 1995 I decided to rock the boat a bit and be a wild and earthy Sea Pirate. I just happened to have an old coin belt and bra that probably wouldn't see the lime light of the stage again, so it seemed appropriate to donate it to the sand and sea. I combined it with a gypsy blouse and a short red gauze skirt tied in a knot at the knee. I really didn't think I was going to have to donate it to the sea but alas, as my dance unfolded that is what almost happened. At the last minute I forgot to latch it down with either pins or elastic, (can you believe that?) so in the middle of my dance I literally became one shipwrecked bellydancer!

Suzanne Del Vecchio opted for the KISS technique (Keep It Simple, Silly!). She used a two piece bathing suit with a silver shinny skirt that made her look like an abalone shell on the beach. Nice...

In 1994, I made two costumes, one for each of my daughters. Laura wore black footless tights and a black sports bra covered with a purple lamé vest and matching skirt. The skirt was made by attaching strips of lamé to an elastic waist band. Victoria's was made of soft turquoise stretch velour, an idea I got from Mimi Pettibone at one of our previous retreats. Both costumes were decorated with strings of colored pearls.

In 1993 I made two costumes for myself. The first was made from a black all-in-one undergarment I bought in the lingerie department of Nordstroms department store. Any one-piece bathing suit could work as well. I simply decorated it by hand, sewing beads and sequins on to it, inspired by the design of the built-in lace. What you have to remember when sewing on anything stretchey is that you have to tie off and knot a lot. . . sometimes after every sequin. You can't use a long running stitch and expect to retain the stretch. Sometimes you can stretch the garment as you sew, leaving enough slack in your connecting thread; but then your sequins and beads may sag. It depends on your design and materials. I leave the mechanics of implementing your design to your ingenuity, a necessary ingredient when attempting to do any costume making.

I wrapped a piece of fish scale sequined fabric around my hips as a skirt. I fixed it to a waist band and closed it in front. I used what I call pinch-and-tack pleats at hip level center front. I put it on and pinched up a few pleats along the vertical line of the skirt and basted them down until it draped the way I wanted it, cupping in a bit off the thigh like a mermaid instead of falling straight like the edge of a column. Once it was in place, I secured it, trimmed off all excess fabric, and bound and turned under the edges. I did this to both sides then overlapped and hooked it like a double breasted suit. Don't forget the belt hooks * to keep your belt or skirt from riding up on your waist when sitting, squatting or swimming.

This costume was easy but kind of expensive; I spent money instead of time. If I had more time I could have come up with a similar idea and been more economical. But it so happened I found this cool fabric I couldn't resist in the first few hours I had allotted for shopping.

The second costume was made out of an already sequined bra and thong from a Fredrick's of Hollywood catalog. I figured when I ordered it that I would end up cutting up the thong and turning it into a belt. Instead I ended up reinforcing it and connecting a chiffon skirt drape to it. I wore a chain-and-bell belt on top combined with what I think was my most cool discovery. Are you ready? Here it is. . .

Most Cool Discovery of 1993. . .

I took a bunch of gold stretchey cord (which comes in other colors as well) and tied bellydancer coins and paiettes onto it. I could then wear them as loose strand necklaces or wear them stretched around my waist, hips, arms or in my hair. It was very fast, easy, and fun! You might even be able to get your husband, boyfriend or kids to help you make them.

I discovered these two techniques. . . they can work for land-based costumes too!

These little belt hook-a-roos are ingenious devices for keeping your belt and skirts in place. For use with a bikini bottom undergarment the straps maybe worn inside next to the skin. With a one piece bathing suit they are worn on the outside of the suit.

Fredrick's of Hollywood Catalog, 1-800-323-9525; Victoria's Secret swimsuit catalog, 1-800-888-8200; Venus Swimwear Catalog, 1-800-366-7946