Assembling Your Gig Bag
Updated: Mar 20
As bellydancers, we do a lot of jobs that, for some
other performers, would be spread out amongst a team. We are our own stylists and sometimes our own costume makers, wardrobe masters, dressers. Our own hair dressers and makeup artists, our own web designers, copy writers, publicists, agents and negotiators, our own choreographers (loosely speaking), artistic directors, sound editors, prop masters, producers, and stage managers. Each of these jobs in a theatre production would have their own kit to bring with them to each show, the tools they need to ensure the show runs smoothly. Luckily, we don't have to haul all of those kits with us everywhere we go! So what are the most important things to have with you at a gig?
Some dancers I know take a single shoulder bag containing just their keys, wallet, skirt, belt, veil, and cymbals, with their costume bra already on. These include experienced, professional dancers working multiple gigs in a night. The upside to this approach is it is easier for them to stow their bag during the show. I am on the other end of the spectrum, having been both a wardrobe head and stage manager for theatrical productions, I tend to be the one that can rescue fellow performers backstage if needed. More often, I can rescue myself!
For the TL;DR crowd, there's a list at the bottom ^_~
If you're only going to take one piece of advice, get a bag with wheels!
Stressed shoulders before performing is no good, and these days you can get 4 wheels that spin in all directions and it's a dream come true. I shlepped all sorts of other bags around before I wised up, so save your money, shoulders, and time and go straight for a bag with wheels.
I can't say for sure if hard sided or soft is better. I really liked my old hard sided bag, it felt secure and I never worried about running through puddles or rain and the TSA lock with a combination opener was perfect. But I'm also enjoying having pockets on the outside of the bag with my current model. I use the small pocket on top for safety pins, fan, iPod, business cards and seed tips, and lip stain. This is where I keep the things I might need last minute for a show. The larger pocket on the outside I treat as a purse. I stuff my water bottle into it (although a camel pack would be better), my wallet, extra phone battery (especially if you keep gig details, like the address, in your phone!), and cell phone. I also have a small lock on those zips.
You want to pick one small enough to carry up stairs, fit into cramped "backstages" and keep you from over-packing, but big enough to not squish your veils and skirts. I fit my candle tray and large pillar candles into my bag and wanted room for 2 costumes, so mine is probably at the max size, I sometimes find "backstages" with it a little tight, but then I'm in Manhattan. (Speaking of which, someone with less upper body strength than me wouldn't want this size on the trains).
Pick one with a place for accessories and undies: so you can get to them without digging. Mine has a mesh pocket on the inside that I use for this. In that small mesh pocket, I keep an extra bag, the foldable grocery kind, to put civilian cloths in (the ones you wear to or from the gig) and keep them together for changing back into.
I also keep a plastic bag to keep my shoes from making a mess on anything else in the bag, and a plastic shelf liner sheet as a changing mat. This way I can take my shoes off in a nasty bathroom, or on a floor covered in melted road-salt-snow and keep my feet and costume clean and try until I'm ready to put on my dance shoes.
You COULD just throw everything into this main pocket,
but I don't recommend it. If you didn't have nerves before, digging in a panic hoping you didn't forget a part of your costume will create them! You'll also look more professional if you can pull your veil out of the bag without it looking all crumpled. Group things in your bag by WHEN you need them. Everything need when you're changing goes together, what you need when you're setting up props and music, things for when your costume needs mending, stuff for when you inexplicably get makeup remover splashed in your face should all be together, etc.
That MAC bag in the photo is where I put candle sticks, a nice lighter, and my tray. The brown bag next to it has pillar candles in it, which I burned down and put liquid fuel tea lights into. Those are inside a ziplock in the bag with them. These are the "set up the tray prop" bags. I would combine them, but don't want the candle stick holders to beat up the pillar candles.
The cat bag there has a hard core from a paper towel roll. I fold my veils long ways and then roll them around it to keep them from getting wrinkled. I include a dryer sheet, to control static. I also put my zills together into a baby sock and put them in that bag. This is the "everything else is set and it's time for the last touches" bag.
You can see some packing cubes in the photo, which I use to organize costumes. For a while I was doing a two part show, with the same bedlah and changing my skirt and arm decorations between sets. So I put my bedlah (wrapped in fabric so that nothing would snag) in the green one, my big chiffon skirt and pantaloons in the big blue one, and a slimmer type of skirt in the grey one. Put arm decorators in first, then your skirts, then undies (and body stocking, if you wear it) in last. The idea is that the things you need to put on first are closest to the opening, so when you're in the little bathroom stall getting ready you can reach them easily, and not need to dig and have another part of the costume get pulled out and land in the toilet, or something.
Exactly what I put into the bags changes, but I always follow the idea that things are grouped by when I need them, and organized to avoid accidentally dropping something or having to dig through a pile of chiffon. Your cover up can get tossed into this main compartment, or into a packing cube, too. For bigger props, just because of their shape it's not practical to get things like swords, canes, wings, or bigger trays into the gig bag. That's why it's so important to have room for your "purse" in your main gig bag. You might need a separate bag for these bigger things, and 3 bags to 2 arms on a commute is no fun!
That's it for the bigger items, but we haven't gotten to the little things that can save your life in a pinch. So what is in those emergency bags? In the "door" of my bag there is a bigger mesh pocket in which I keep the two zip locks pictured above. They're just in those bags to keep everything from clumping into the bottom. One bag is first aid and music, I also keep "fast flats" in it (a life saver!) incase I forget dance shoes. The other is costume and makeup savers.
That glasses case in the photo is my first aid kit, with bandaids and Neosporin, ibuprofen, and flesh toned KT tape (incase my ankle acts up). If you are responsible for a troupe I recommend having a more substantial kit, including chemical ice packs and info cards with people's allergies and emergency contacts. The break-and-use ice packs are also a good thing to have if you're dancing at a festival, hafla, or stage show put on by dancers (as opposed to a restaurant or catered gig where they would have ice available if really needed) especially if heat is an additional concern besides injuries.
For music, I keep CDs with sets of various lengths and tailored to various types of audiences pre-made and ready to go. I usually make a set specifically for a gig, but just in case, I have these ready. I have a 30 minute set, a 20 minute one, 15 minutes, and a 7 minute belly-gram. There's a set for a cultural fair that is more folkloric, one aimed at a birthday with non-Middle Eastern guests, and one set up for a wedding. Look at the kind of gigs you do, or could imagine yourself doing, and make sets for them that use songs you can dance in your sleep, so that when you've had the CD in your bag for 5 years and don't remember what's on it (because that's how long it took before you forgot that your iPod was crushed/forgotten/had no battery) you can do the show and look like it was intentional. That said, many venues don't have CD players anymore, but having some sort of backup music is still important.
I also have a brush that folds in, a reusable lint brush (no need to find a trash can for the tape coming off a sticky roller, no need to keep buying replacement, and no need to create more trash for the landfill), extra contact lenses (although I've performed without them, blurry audiences always have a smile for you!), and talc powder (great if your thighs aren't used to being in a skirt for long periods of time).
You ABSOLUTELY MUST HAVE A SEWING KIT! And you need to know how to use it. You should be able to reattach a costume strap on your bra and be confident it will stay, be able to sew a hook onto your belt or bra, and be creative with safety pins. These are all things you might have to do AT a show. I once realized after getting to a show that I had forgotten the back of my belt, so I pinned the front of it to my skirt and draped my veil to cover the back. It didn't feel great but it looked good enough for the show to go on. I keep medium and large safety pins, and diaper pins, in a zip lock in the outside pocket of my bag for easy access. Another time, years ago, I had a bra hook snap. I don't mean it came unhooked, I don't mean the thread snapped, I mean the actual metal broke. Ever since then I have added an extra elastic under the costume band, but the day of, thanks to my sewing kit, I left the group number and had my bra working again in time for my solo two songs later.
So, in your sewing kit bring fashion tape, extra hooks and bars, snaps, strong thread, needles (regular sized for getting though hard bras and beading needles to stop a bead-explosion from spreading until you can get the costume home), thimble, and scissors. I also have a tape measure, mini-seam ripper, some straight pins, a stain removing pen, and anti-static spray.
Makeup and hair should be done before you get to the gig, but if you travel and will be bringing your makeup to a hotel room, it's good to have one that won't get shaken up if it turns on it's side. I switched from the metal caboodle to the Mochi Things large travel pouch because of this. I also do not take this with me to a gig if I get ready at home. Instead, I use quality makeup and apply it so that it stays on. Incase I'm walking into a gig and have a wall of water blast my makeup off, or have to touch something up, I have the kit above. At Sephora's checkout line there are mini makeups, and my emergency kit includes:
a tiny tampon (although I recommend checking out this site for more comfortable hygiene items, but that's off topic), a tiny mascara, a tiny eyeliner, tiny lipstick, mini nail file, bitsy hair spray (I don't think you could accomplish much styling with that, but it came with the kit and is good enough that I can un-slippery my hair for sword), and a sample of clinique that my roommate gave me. The little kit from the impulse buys at Sephora also came with breath drops, clear nail polish (which could be better fit into the sewing kit), lip balm, and deodorant wipes, and makeup remover wipes.
If I had to do my makeup from only these items, I could. It wouldn't look as good as if I had my full kit, but it would pass for stage makeup. (I'm pretty lucky that my skin isn't too bad. If you feel you need foundation, bring a "travel size" of that, too). The lipstick can double as blush, the eyeliner can be smudged into a smokey eye, and I have powers to hide my under eye circles, fill my eyebrows, and contour my cheeks and chin in that clinique sample. I'm pretty lucky that people seem to think I have on false lashes if I wear fiber formula mascara (thanks, grandpa!) so if it's a total emergency I give myself an excuse to not have false lashes.
Again, apply your makeup before getting to the gig, and hopefully you'll never need any of these items. But, if you need to McGyver a face, you can.
Here's a final list of what I bring with me:
safety pin baggie
seed tip (a $5 or $10 bill that "magically" appears in your costume: no one is sure who tipped you but they all think they should be next!)
lip stain (for your final touch up before going on)
extra cell battery/charger
plastic bag with dance shoes
foldable bag for street clothes
plastic mat to stand on in the bathroom
costuming pieces organized by when you need them
underwear, body stocking
bra and belt
arm decorations, headbands, etc
jewelry, if you wear it
extra CDs with sets of various lengths and tailored to different crowds
corn cushions (handy for blisters)
flesh toned KT tape
(allergy and e-contact info for troupe members, ice packs if you're putting on a stage show instead of dancing at a restaurant or catered event)
regular and beading needles
hooks and bars
extra safety pins
scissors (small enough for a plane, incase you forget they're in there)
tiny lip stick
tiny eye liner
sample eye shadows
clear nail polish
bitsy nail file