Costuming for a Troupe
Updated: Mar 20, 2022
This post is less about what makes a professional, beginner, or advancing amateur quality costume, and more about the options for unifying a group in different ways. First, you have to decide how unified you want your dancers to be, and then by what means you will unify them. The level of unity and polish your costuming will need depends on the level of performance you're intending to present. Think about the level of investment your dancers are prepared to make, in time or money, and about the skill level of the troupe (in dance or in sewing). In addition to the styles represented in the group, skill level, and performance/venue expectations, you'll want to consider how the colors and costume styles will balance as the formations of the choreography shift. A quick list of things to ask yourself:
-What skill level(s) are my dancers? -How similar are their dance styles and body types? -Who will own the costumes? -Who will make the costumes? -Does anyone absolutely hate or refuse to wear a certain color/style?
-Does anyone have major body image hangups and if so, how can we make them feel confident onstage? -What kind of audiences will we be dancing for? -What kinds of needs does the choreography have? (ex: floorwork is easier & prettier in a full skirt!) -Will we keep these costumes for many different choreographies?
This chart is a very general idea for where to go with groups costumes. Of course, for historical or theatrical numbers the guidelines are different. The reason I don't encourage the same costume for beginners is largely because of the cost Involved. I also think for students it's best to avoid many colors, because their technique will be most dissimilar at this level, and color is a big unifying element that can makeup for this.
You can absolutely have a piece without a specific group costume, the look is usually more suited to beginners at a student show, some other casual event, a piece that has some sort of story to it, or one that highlights individual solos for the majority of the performance.
One note, for historical pieces it was normal for the group dancers to bring their own costumes, so there would be many different styles and a colorful chorus line. It was also the aesthetic for the dancers to look like individuals, rather than having identical movements.
Generally you'll want some sort of unifying visual element for all the dancers on stage together. Picking all the same costume and letting dancers pick different colors is one step up in the level of visual unity, and can create a beautiful kaleidoscope effect on stage, but means that dancers with different body types might not feel as accommodated. This works if your group has similar heights and body types, and are able to execute technique in a very unified way. It's very popular for giving extra excitement to the the look of folkloric numbers, which tend to have more uniform costumes prescribed to them. It can draw attention to the one student with whose cup runneth over if the costume isn't accommodating to such a range. You may run into fitting issues with this approach, as the costume might not be available in the full range of sizes for your dancers, and need to be modified to fit. This might mean losing the one element that ties the costumes together, if dancers have to add fabric to bras, or cut open the sides of fitted skirts to add gussets. It can also draw attention to differences in technique execution, so best used when the dancers have the control needed to make their movements look alike.
This option can also result in everyone in shades of red, pink, orange, and yellow and one or two dancers seeming miss matched with their cooler toned outfits, so discuss before people buy, Otherwise, as soon as the one dancer in blue moves from the center spot in the formation to the end things won't look the same as they did in rehearsal. If the choreography calls for everyone to be interchangeable or you plan to use the same costumes for multiple shows or numbers then make sure the colors will balance out. You'll also need to consider if there are enough colors available for everyone to have a different color. If not, how will you balance the duplicates in your formations? Here are some examples of it working, and how the extra colors add excitement.
Barrakat troupe, Directed by Shems
Notice how the formation changes are choreographed to preserve the rainbow effect.
Another option is to pick all the same color and let dancers choose different styles of costume. I like this option best in a lot of cases, especially for student troupes or groups with a variety of styles represented, like the bellydance superstars video below. Color is a very strong thing in the minds and eyes of the audience, and the group will look more unified, it might even cover up some differences in timing or the size of each dancer's movements in the audience's eyes. This option also allows for individuals to choose cuts that flatter them, because skirt options, arm coverings, and other accessories can be varied. Same color, different costumes can even include full coverage dresses mixed with modern Egyptian skirts and classic Am-Cab looks. This gives an additional advantage if members have greatly different levels of comfort with their bodies on stage or if the piece will feature dancers with varying styles; no one wants to ask the vintage American soloist to leave her fringe home because the other dancers are really into lycra this season!
This is also a great pick if you have a mix of genders in your group, if you're bringing together dancers from different groups to do a piece together but won't be performing as a troupe often enough to invest in a troupe costumes, or if you just want to let aspiring professionals begin to build their own wardrobes. You can go with one color and a metallic accent, or a two color theme (such as red and green for a holiday show) where dancers are free to mix and match which color will be their main and which will be their accent so long as everyone has some of both and the choreography can balance the colors.
Depending on how well the shades go together this can range from semi unified to very. If some dancers are wearing lime green, some are in in teal, and others in forest green then the look will be less unified than if everyone has the same shade of emerald on (but will still be much more unified than a random sample of colors). You can get perfect shade matches by either being very specific with the dancers before letting them shop, all using the same vendor, or by buying the fabric in bulk and making costumes in together. If you're shopping for pre-made costumes from different makers you might be limited on how close a match the shades of color you can get. In that case, it's best to specify what the acceptable range is. For example "green, but no lime or army drab", AND to specify one metallic color that is acceptable. The example below shows a range of blues, but no baby blue or teal, all with silver. These are all the shades and tints of the same hue (that is, the blues may be lighter or darker, but none are greener or purpler than the others) so it looks quite unified. The reds provide another example of similar, but varying hues with red, burgundy, and maroon being included. The similar cuts of the outfits help add more unity.
If you want to control for the shade and the way the light effects the costumes (think: shiny Lycra vs light absolving velvet, vs sheer chiffon) then you'll want to use all the same fabric. This gives you the opportunity to bond over making your costumes and still allows dancers to pick styles that suit their bodies and tastes. If several looks require different fabrics, try to incorporate a little of each fabric into each costume. For example, a Soheir Zeki type of skirt needs chiffon and an Egyptian dress needs lycra, but you could trim the skirt with the lycra, or create arm, head, and ankle accessories with it; while adding chiffon gores, drapes, or sleeves to the dress. If you're using the same fabrics, you can chose a couple colors and create a few looks and still end up with a unified group.
There are shops that sell separates/base costume elements, if you prefer not to sew yourselves. Ordering designs all from the same costumer usually means the same fabric will be used, if they need the same sort of material. This could also take the form of a uniform costume piece (like the skirts in the picture below) with more freedom for each dancer to pick other elements, within a range. If you're putting in two colors, picking one fabric for everyone is a good idea, at the very least to define the shade of each color well.
You can also mix and match these suggestions. The bellydance superstars have a few numbers where the ensemble all has the same costume and the soloists have something in the same color but with their own personality. This is another example of where you'll want to consider the skill levels of your troupe and the needs of the choreographies. Also consider who will own the costumes.
The most unified is, of course, for everyone to have the same costume in the same color. This can look great, if the costume is reasonably flattering for everyone in the troupe, and it creates a very professional look. Use this if your troupe rehearses often and is really together in their choreographies. If everyone has the same costume and one dancer just can't get her shimmy to show up while another is causing earthquakes, it will be very obvious. In that scenario you'd be better off letting the dancer who is still developing her shimmy wear something with lots of sparkle and fringe and the other dancer in something with a bit less movement. Again, depending on how accommodating the design is, and how similarly built your dancers are, you can run into fitting issues with this choice.
If your group shows up in perfectly matched good quality costumes people will expect a high quality performance. The plus side of this is that if you're pretty good the audience might project this expectation onto your performance and form an even higher opinion than they otherwise would have. The down side is that if your group isn't as well rehearsed as you'd like, the delivery will fall short of the expectations, making the audience that much more disappointed, so be prepared to meet their expectations!
In a mixed level number, costumes can serve almost like karate belts, to show the audience how much to expect from each dancer. I feel this helps prevent beginners from being judged too harshly against their more experienced classmates, and helps spread out the cost of getting a costume for progressing students. In my troupe, beginners are invited to join in for the short finale, and asked to wear dance pants that will also serve them for class or workshops, a hip wrap in the right color so they might use for their next level, and can wear a troupe t-shirt or a top in the troupe color. Intermediate dancers can wear the same hip wrap and a top of their own choosing, again in the troupe color, along with a professional quality skirt. Advanced dancers can replace the wrap and top with a bedlah, already owning the skirt. The idea is that each year they only have to buy one or two things and can slowly build up to an outfit befitting a soloist.
First pic: An intermediate costume, beginner, two advanced outfits, and another beginner
Second: Student choice on tops and hip accents, same skirts for everyone to unify. And the troupe mascot!