Monday, May 18, 2015

Designing Costumes with Azya' Michelle

I'm excited that a new guest blogger is sharing her expertise with us! This month we have Michelle, an up and coming Seattle based dancer and costume designer, sharing her tips to approaching and executing the costume design process to create costumes that are beautiful and flattering. To share Michelle's background, she has a BA in studio arts specializing in fibers and drawing, and has been sewing and collecting archaic fiber skills (knitting, crochet, weaving, embroidery etc) since age five. For Michelle, designing costumes combines her college major with the skills she has been collecting since she was a child. You can see her costume line, Azya’ Michelle at:  and learn about her belly dancing at:

To start off, I’m going to tell you right away that this post is not about making dance costumes. There are lots of wonderful tutorials out there already. I highly recommend Shushanna's website  as she has clearly written tutorials with informative pictures and math formulas that are super helpful.  Rather than how to make a costume, this post is about providing an overview of design essentials.

There are several design topics I will cover in regards to dance costumes: the shape of the costume, creating your design- planned ahead or let the fabric guide you, and equally important, how to know when to stop.

Shape of the Costume
The shape of the costume should be determined by the body for which you are designing. No matter if you are designing for yourself or someone else, taking a hard look at the body is essential.  A well designed costume should enhance the dancers’ best features and aid the audience in seeing their dance not just their costume. This critical step of looking closely at the body for what it really is, flaws and assets, can be very hard to do. But, once you do, you will be able to make a costume that works with the body, not against it. If you are having trouble, I would suggest taking a picture of the dancer in tight clothing against a plain background so that you can focus on the outline instead of your mental image. If that doesn’t work, reach out to a trusted friend or teacher because sometimes it helps to hear information about body image from a trusted outside source to break free from the long-held mental image.

Once you know what you’re going to work with, you can start to make the costume shape work. Pick a body part that the dancer loves, and loves to use when they dance to feature. For example do they have long legs? Show them off. Does the dancer have graceful arm movements? Make the costume feature them. Is the dancer short or tall? Both of those heights can be an asset. You can also fool the eye by changing the shape of the costume. Take a look at the pictures below of myself in regular clothes, tight clothes and two different costumes.

One of the costumes is a retro 70’s circle skirt costume while the other is a modern Edwardian inspired mermaid skirt costume. Same person, same pose but you can see how I look different in each costume. By taking the time to learn the body, you can highlight different features for maximum effect and make the costume work for the dancer. If you need inspiration about what shape of costume will work, look at dancers with a similar shape to see what types of costumes work on them. There are dancers of all shapes and sizes out there, so you are likely to find ideas where ever you look!
Designing Your Design
Once you know the general shape your costume will take, you can begin designing! I always start with my base fabric which makes up the undecorated base of a costume.  

Here is a picture of my undecorated or base costume before I had started the design of my “Barbietastic”. After that, I either plan out the entire design of the costume, or let the fabric guide me.  Occasionally it is a little of both!  Whichever method you choose, you should definitely decide before you start if you are going with a symmetrical design or an asymmetrical one. Many people find symmetrical shapes more pleasing to the eye, so this is the easier route. If you chose asymmetry, you need to again consider the body shape to make sure the design is not too heavy in one area or too light in another causing the body to look out of proportion.

Planning out your design, I recommend this approach when you are using a fabric that is plain colored or has a small pattern.  As an example, see my “Barbietastic” costume here. I knew I wanted an all sequins costume with silver designs. Once I had the base done I took a picture of myself and started drawing out ideas on the computer.


I liked the asymmetrical designs, but really didn’t love any of them, so it was off to the interwebs for inspiration.  I followed the rabbit hole of Pintrest down a trail of patterns until I suddenly saw it, my inspiration, a motif from the Vienna Succession Building (small side note this building was never covered in any of my art history classes which is a shame because it is a wealth of inspiration!). So I grabbed the closest drawing materials at hand, a crayon and some paper, sketched the part of the motif I liked best, and then did a quick sketch of that design on the costume. Those sketches became the costume.  

With a planned design, I recommend creating a paper pattern first so that you can make sure all of your elements look good together.

Letting the Fabric Guide You
This usually happens when the fabric has a large design that begs to be used as the main design feature of the costume. For example, I had a simple sari which I had cut up a section from to turn into a two panel skirt. Not great from a design stand point,  but it was a nice color and did the job. A couple of years later, I found inspiration for the skirt of a Princess Jasmine style costume, and since I had the main part of the sari left I was able to use that section as decoration. I cut out the decorative elements from the sari and turned them into appliques.  I chose a symmetrical design when applying these appliques (for the most part, the sides of the belt have some small differences due to what materials were left). To see detailed pictures of the final transformation of the sari skirt to the Princess jasmine costume check out my album here.

Often times, I do a little of both.  For my recent Edwardian inspiration costume, I knew the shape of the skirt I wanted to make, but the design elements were determined by how much of the decorative fabric  had, but the belt was a pre-planned design.

How to Know When to Stop
One of the hardest things an artist must learn is when to stop. Yes, there is always room for just one more brush stroke (or in terms of costumes one more bead or crystal), but if you don’t let yourself stop, it will never be done. Art is of the moment. It expresses the artist at that period of time, costumes are the same. Remember you need to stop! Don’t worry about your skill level; your next one will be better. So here are some tricks that artists use to help them know when to stop. First, step back, look at your costume from the distance where the audience will see it (if you don’t have a dress form, or a way to prop up the costume, take a picture of yourself in the costume and make it smaller, or print it out and walk away). Look at the overall shape and design. Are your eyes being drawn to the points you want? Is there balance in your design so that your eye doesn’t get stuck in one location for too long? Squint, or take off your glasses (if you have them) while looking at your costume. This will allow you to just see the overall shape of the costume and design elements. Does it still work? If it passes this test, move on to the next step. If not, change the design as needed by adding or removing elements (yes removing.  Sometimes you need to take away). Step two, put the costume out of your sight for a few days or even a month if you have the time. When you are ready come back and repeat step one, but this time you will have “fresh eyes” because you haven’t been focusing on the tiny details for some time. If your costume passes test one after the break, great!  It is time to stop. Line your costume and call it done (Please line your costume; you need to protect all of your work from sweat and general wear and tear). Time to celebrate, you have a new costume!

A few other tips- more sparkle does not equal a better costume, or “a bucket load of rhinestones does not make up for bad design.” Dancers tend to love sparkle, but if you ignore the shape of the design in relation to the body, you are likely to end up with a sparkly mess; beautiful up close but strangely misshapen from far away. Ask yourself “does this enhance my design?” If so, great! Add the sparkle. If not, save your time and money. The sparkle will be put to better use somewhere else.

Allow a costume idea to train wreck and jump to another track. Sometimes even if you have a fantastic idea or design, it may not work with the materials you have at hand, the time limit you have given yourself, or even the shape of costume you want to make. Let that train wreck happen. Give yourself a break that is as long as you need, and come back, change tracks, and keep on going. My Edwardian costume pictured before is actually an example of this. The costume idea started with the skirt, and I had given myself a very short time frame to finish. I spent two hours one night drawing out a fantastic bra and belt based on Galadriel’s crown from the Hobbit. But since I had given myself such a short time frame, and was limiting myself to using a bra base I already owned, I realized as I was covering the bra that the beautiful design I had drawn would just not work. So I stopped, let that train jump off the track it was on, and headed towards a new one by starting the skirt (which was still the one piece of the costume that I knew how I wanted it to look in the end).  I let the skirt guide the design of the bra and belt. The full process took several rounds of stopping, looking, taking a break for new inspiration, and returning with “fresh eyes”, and in the end I made a costume that I was happy with.


The final sketch, this basically became the costume but there were some changes due to the materials used.

Costume in use! Finished just in time for the La Danse Oriental Competition.
Finally, look for inspiration everywhere! Inspiration can come from anywhere. It can come from other costumes, nature, fabric, buildings, art, history, jewelry, you name it! We live in a world of inspiration, you just need to let yourself see it!

Monday, May 4, 2015


My year of epic belly dance study continues! First, it was a weekend of workshops with Sadie. Then it was completing Sahra C. Kent's Journey Through Egypt Level 1 program. Most recently, it was a weekend of workshops with the brilliant Bozenka!

In case you aren't familiar with Bozenka, let me provide her with a brief introduction.  Bozenka won the title of "Miss America of Bellydance" in 2000, only a short two years after she took up the art form. Her career and fame skyrocketed from there. She was one of the early inductees into the international touring troupe, the Bellydance Superstars, and she's performed for celebrities like Sean Connery, Madonna, and Enrique Iglesias. She also spent time working as Shakira's choreographer. In the belly dance community, she's pretty much a legend. If you want to see the star in action, here are a couple of my favorite performance clips of hers.

The three workshops that I attended consisted of a shimmy technique class, Egyptian technique class, and an extended masters performance class. The workshops were held down in Eugene, Oregon. With traffic, it turned out to be a six-hour drive from Seattle, but the time spent in transit was completely worth it. From the moment we started the warm-up, I could tell that this was going to be special.

From the outset of class, as we started gracefully dancing our way through the warm-up, Bozenka asked for precision and attention to detail. Her teaching style was relaxed and calm, but at the same time highly focused and professional. In turn, her demeanor required that students meet her on this elevated level of professionalism; on more than one occasion politely, but firmly, asking for no talking during class and that students return to carefully watching her alignment and movement.

That's not to say however that she wasn't friendly or personable. Early on the first day, as I was standing in line for the one shared bathroom, Bozenka struck up an easy conversation with me, asking me where I was from and inquiring about my background. Before the weekend workshops, I expected that someone who was so talented, famous, accomplished, and beautiful, would surely have an ego of a matching size. But this was far from the case. She was pleasant and engaging to converse with.

It would be too lengthy to fully sum up and recount the hours spent studying with Bozenka, but I'll summarize with a few of my top takeaways:
  • Think of turning the elbows out, rather than letting them point down at the floor. Simple advice, but oh what a difference it makes in the elegance and carriage of the dancer!
  • Use the movement of the hands and wrists to echo movement in other parts of the body. Let the hands undulate with the breath. Really think of inhaling and exhaling right through the palms. Let the wrists reflect the movement in the hips.
  • An exercise to try with a partner: One dancer (carefully) dances with her eyes completely closed while the second dancer with eyes open follows her. Then switch. Again simple, but very profound results, especially in the aspects of learning to tune into the music and letting the music be the guide, rather than being swayed by any visual cues or audience distraction.
  • Before each performance take a moment to center and ground yourself. Consider dedicating your performance to someone or something else. This will make the performance less about you, your ego, and your nerves, and instead refocus the performance as something larger than yourself.
  • When doing solo work, work with a skeleton choreography, rather than choreographing out every beat. When you don't do your choreography perfectly, there's an inherent feeling that it's somehow a "failure" on your part and the whole performance is now "flawed". But the audience has no idea! Just avoid putting yourself in this position to begin with and stick with an outline rather than regimented steps. 
Overall, it was a powerful and inspiring weekend. Bozenka teaches two annual week-long belly dance workshops on the island of Crete, where she lives. As soon as the timing works out, yours truly will most certainly be attending, anxious and eager to continue studying with this master teacher.

Top Photo Credit: Bozenka,
Bottom Photo Credit. Alessandra with Bozenka