Davina: DIY Belly Dance Costume Queen Dawn Devine – 071


Author of 22+ belly dance costuming books, Dawn Devine talks about current belly dance fashion trends in Egypt and Turkey, how to make assuit fabric feel good on your skin, and how to get more out of your belly dance costumes.

Alicia Free: I just don’t know where to begin with Dawn Devine aka Davina! She has created so many costume-creating resources for our dance community and influenced many of our costumes. I remember borrowing the book “From Turban to Toe Ring” from my first belly dance teacher, June Seaney of Ithaca. It came out in 2000, which was the year I started dancing and started making my own belly dance costumes. That book is still precious to me.

Dawn started belly dancing in the 80s as a teen. 22+ books later, it is an honor to have Dawn on A Little Lighter! On your website Davina.us, you wrote “My mission in life is to help people make beautiful, well designed, perfectly fitting costumes.” 

You are a Do-it-yourself queen! You have taught so many of us how to make our own costumes with your books, articles, videos, and Instagram posts. 

We love hearing about Danceable Rituals in this podcast. I heard you say in the interview on Belly Dance Geek Clubhouse that you go from Dawn to Devina when you put your false eyelashes on. Tell us more about your whole process of putting a costume on.

How Makeup Helps us Transform into Glamorous Belly Dancers

For me, the ritual starts with the makeup way before the hair, the costume, the jewelry, and all of the other layers in that five layer system. I always think of layer #2, the makeup, as being the real important transformative moment.

Putting makeup on is the real transformative moment.

Makeup Inspiration and Information

Once my makeup is on then I’m not slouching as much, and I’m getting into the mindset.

I’m listening to my set for the night or if it’s live music, something similar in vibe, or maybe a recording by the band that I’m dancing to, even if it’s not the specific piece. So there’s that make-up moment.

That is where I enter as Dawn and I exit as Davina.

It’s that, moment of music and paint and looking at myself in the mirror and, you know, making love to my eyes as I brush on the different layers of warpaint. I’m such a drag queen. And of course I don’t wear my costume to events. Usually I usually get there and change in the back of my car, you know, out of my trunk, digging around like a fiend. Not glamorous at all, but totally keeping it real!

Find Your Dance Mom

So I started off in fashion school and this was an associates degree in a, fashion program in San Diego, California. And I wanted to make every outfit in my classes belly dance costumes. And they were like, no. Dawn, this is a fashion program. You can’t just make belly dance costumes. Well, it came to the attention of my faculty advisor that I was a problem child. And she sent me to a new faculty advisor whose name was Margie.

When I walked into Margie’s office, she had a wall devoted to belly dance. And she’s like, you’re here because you’re a belly dancer. And I’m a belly dance instructor when I’m not here being an academic advisor. Let’s get you out of here and to, UCSB, which is where I got my BA.

And of course I started taking belly dance classes with her. So she became my dance mom. I was able to channel my love of belly dance costumes into a new facet, a new age of my belly dance career. And I was able to focus on the curriculum.

So I think that, that was my most memorable moment when I was still 17. I met my dance mom, and I started dancing professionally in San Diego. Again, not the best dancing on the planet, but everyone’s got to start somewhere. So that was it, finding my dance mom in fashion school.

Go Out Clubbing and Find Your Belly Dance Students

In San Diego, during the heyday of my professional belly dance career, going out dancing and nightclubs earned me a lot of dance students.

I started teaching after I got to UCSD and I founded a belly dance club on campus. And we would go to a nightclub, we were 21, and we would dance and then I would get students. My number one way of acquiring students was dancing informally in nightclubs, not at restaurants. At restaurants, I was the low girl on the totem pole, but at the nightclub, I was the hottest thing.

The Ouzo Dance

Because I primarily danced at Greek restaurants, I got to do the ouzo dance on a regular basis. I’ve never seen it anywhere else other than in five restaurants in San Diego in the nineties.

So the ouzo dance involved, dancing around the restaurant with a waiter behind me selling glasses of ouzo. I had a glass of ouzo on my head, so then we’d get to the middle of this tiny dance floor. We’d put our ouzo glasses on the ground and we would literally lay on the ground like a harbor seal and take the glass between our teeth and shoot it. I had a real glass, but their glasses were like the medicine cups that come on cough syrup. You get your teeth on in and you’d shoot it.  And so that was like the halftime entertainment that we would do in the middle of the dance show.

There was a lot of dance at Greek restaurants before. Now there’s more hookah bar dancing and more Persian and middle Eastern dancing in San Diego.

Current Belly Dance Fashion Trends

Alicia: What are the fashion trends you are seeing in our worldwide belly dance community these days? 

In Egypt right now, what the current elite dancers are wearing falls into two categories: a native Egyptian style with bike shorts with thinner, straighter skirts, much higher waisted, in that sort of 1950s movie style, and the Russian influenced style with lace.

Current Native Egyptian Style Belly Dance Costumes: Bike Shorts and Thigh Decor

For the native Egyptian style, in addition to bike shorts, you see a lot of strappy things on your legs like garters or head dresses that are being worn on the upper thigh. You see a lot of attention being drawn with jewelry or rhinestones, to the upper thigh area.

And of course the Dina bra, which isn’t actually a supportive garment, so it’s kind of teaser, right? Dina can wear them because it basically pops onto her synthetic breasts. The bra itself isn’t really a viable bra for women who have more naturalistic, not gravity-defying breasts.

Things I wish someone told me before I bought my first Dina Bra

I think the Dina bra trend is going to turn because it’s becoming clear that these Dina bras style costumes are only good for people below a certain age, whether their bust tissue is nice and firm or people have enhancements.

If your costume fits well and is in good repair, your bra won’t come open on accident. That is part of why I have written costuming books! I don’t want that to happen.

Russian Influenced Lace in Belly Dance Costumes in Egypt Now

The other style that’s happening in Egypt is this Russian influenced the style using lots of lace, using lots of stretchy materials and lots of rhinestones that basically enhance the figural quality of the lace.

And that really comes from this Russian Ukrainian, Eastern European design aesthetic. And because we have a lot of dancers from that area currently operating professionally in Egypt.

Ruffle Full Skirt with Horse Hair Braid

And then I think another sub trend is that real, ruffly skirt with horse hair braid in it. That’s an influence that comes  the south American dancers who are dancing in Egypt. Some dancers are bringing the flavor of flamenco and Spanish dancing, and that is a trend as well. So you’ve got these Russian styles, and you’ve got this giant voluminous, skirt style.

Current Belly Dance Fashion in Turkey: Didem and Nude Illusions

Didem from Turkey is also an enhanced dancer. Her bras tend to be very small, non-supportive so basically a covering rather than a supportive. In Turkey, Didem is really leading the Turkish dance scene, and consequently the styles.

And she’s really doing the reflective bra and belts paired with nude color skirts and nude color costume accessories. When performing in a dark environment, it looks very naked. She’s doing it by using those nude illusion fabrics and soft gold Champaign colors paired with metallic or rhinestone brown belt sets.

Faux Assuit: Adding a Layer of Comfort

I’m always hoping for a resurgence in assuit. I want to see more assuit costumes because I’m obsessed. We want what we want.

Alicia: And I love assuit. The real assuit. I love 1920s. That stuff is so gorgeous, but I think they’re doing a really good job with a lot of the different a suit prints, when you’re at a distance, oh, it’s gorgeous.

And they’re comfortable to wear. I have a Melodia faux assuit top and skirt. And let me tell you, it feels like you’re wearing pajamas when you’re wearing it.

Assuit is having a moment. I feel partially responsible for that because my last book and because of my flooding, the web with assuit, but I really love that more spandex costumes add a layer of comfort to both our performance attire and our semi on duty belly dance wardrobes. Like what we’re wearing to festivals, what we’re wearing to go watch a show.

I think we’re in a moment where we can be comfortable and glamorous at the same time.

Alicia: I didn’t realize that those were headpieces that people were taping or their thighs

DIY Bridal Appliques in Belly Dance Costume Accessories

Type in bridal appliques or bridal appliques with rhinestone. They’re usually white or champagne color because those are actually designed and made for the bridal industry.

All you have to do is put a piece of elastic on it sized for your head or thigh. Those aren’t actually designed to be head dresses. Those are just bridal applications that are being used as is, or are being more heavily embellished with glue on rhinestones.

Look for something that’s eight to 12 inches, depending on the size and shape of your head and how far forward or back you like to wear it. Or use your thigh measurement. Buy bridal appliques and just add elastic. It’s a really affordable accessory piece to hand-make.

You can even sew it by hand. You don’t even need a sewing machine. There’s your costume tip for the day. If you go for AB crystals, wear an AB necklace and it’ll tie in your ensemble and viewers will go, wow, she’s really got it.

Put an application on a clip and clip it to your shoe. And then you can take it from head to toe.

Belly Dance Move: Undulation Trio

I really love body undulations. I wear a lot of assuit robes, because my stomach region is not ready for prime time. If you know what I mean.

So in a full length assuit robe with those metal stitches, going down the front, an undulation of the body very much shows under stage lights. And you don’t have to do a lot. It’s a very mellow move, a body undulation.

I like to start at the bottom. I like to start in a seated position and then push everything up and forward.

So hips up and forward, stomach up and forward, chest up and forward. And then a head flick.

I like to start as deep as I can go that night in seated position, which makes the move look so much more dramatic. And it looks great on stage. If you do it as a trio one to the right one to the left, come to the center, lift up with a double chest bump, boom, boom at the top.

And if I can pop my chest, hard enough to make my jewelry fling off my body. that’s my ultimate goal. So deep body wave up, chest pop with jewelry flinging force vector. Let the jewelry fly.

Get More Out of Your Belly Dance Costumes

I want people to be able to up-cycle recycle, save money, extend the length of time that their costume is viable to be able to buy second hand and fit it, upgrade. I want people have that power. Knowledge is power is my key mandate. So my goal is to share all of these skills that I feel every dancer should know, but it’s hard to learn right now.

We’re in an age where people buy ready-made. They go to an event, or they buy online.

So many dancers are wearing ready-made costumes that don’t fit right.

And then we see that result in dancers wearing costumes that are not fitting as perfectly as they could fit.

And we have a resale market that’s flooded with dance costumes that didn’t work.

So I want to prevent that from happening. I want people to make good decisions as a buyer, and good decisions as a dancer. Good decisions as a maker. The design is the process of making an infinite number of tiny decisions. Is it going to be red or blue? Is it going to be fusion or is it going to be ethnographic? Is it going to be glam? You know, all these little tiny myriad decisions.

My goal is to help people make those effectively for their needs and to help them build the skills. to make it happen.

And we have a lot of flexibility here. I think that comes from the polyglot nature of belly dance in the United States.

Since the earliest days of belly dance in the United States, it was a mixture of cultures. So you might have a Turkish drummer and an Armenian oud player and a Lebanese singer and an Egyptian tabla player.

So by its very nature, the club world in New York city and Boston and Chicago and Los Angeles, those scenes were a composite of cultures. This meant that the costuming wound up being a composite of cultures, which then kind of got the name Amcab –  American cabaret. Costuming that is not intrinsically tied to one specific country, but rather reflecting the melting pot ideology of dance and dance spaces in the 1940s, fifties, sixties, and seventies.

And it’s with us today.

How to Make Assuit Feel Good on Your Skin

So number one is right now, today in Egypt, they are making assuit fabrics that are much softer than they did in the 2000s. So the assuit industry almost died in the eighties. There were very few women taking on this embroidery art form that was indigenous to upper Egypt. And they were down to just like a few really old aunties who still had this arcane knowledge.

The Age of the Assuit Makes a Difference

UNICEF went into upper Egypt and they discovered this art form and that women could make this culturally significant handicraft and sell it and support their children. They went back to the United Nations and UNESCO, the United Nations historical arm, and they set up a program utilizing people in Egypt, from the Egyptian cultural heritage center.

And it was funded by Italian investors to go in and do microloans for women to set up assuit studios, to train a generation. So they made workbooks with the explanations they sent in people to help with training. They built these studios, and now we have an assuit industry again. Well, when this was getting started, by the nineties, UNESCO had already come in, and was starting to fund this.

The suit tulle went from being stiff to being soft because that’s what people wanted to buy. But at the beginning it needed to be stiff in order to accommodate the new embroidery artists.

How to Remove the Wax Coating on Assuit Fabric

That stiffness is a wax coating. It isn’t intrinsically stiff. It is treated at the industrial level with a wax coating that you can actually remove through hard work and labor.

So, you can remove it with an industrial, surface stripper, which you can get from a dying company. So, I use a product called Milsoft that is available from Dharma Trading. Milsoft will industrially strip it and it will become soft. And then you can add fabric softener to it.

Now, if you don’t want to invest in that kind of product, you can soak it in super hot water and then wash it and soak it in super hot water. And over the course of washing, it will get softer on its own. Milsoft just sort of speeds up that process. And there’s a little more industrial. Okay. So modernist suit doesn’t need that treatment though.

It is soft today because that generation of embroidery artists is two generations down and they now have the facility to work with that softer, more pliable, mosquito netting. Let’s get real. It’s cotton mosquito netting. That’s what it is. So they’re doing an embroidery art on that now. That’s the fabric.

What Metal is Used in Assuit Textiles?

Let’s talk about the stitches. The metal is aluminum. Now back in the 1920s, it could be any sort of assorted metal alloy ranging from something that was a little more silver to something that was a little more copper or a little more brass.

Light weight Aluminum is Used in Assuit Now

You never know they used whatever metal they could find. Nowadays it’s uniformly made out of aluminum. So modernist suit as much lighter. And aluminum is aluminum. So you want to make sure you don’t get any acid on it. Like don’t spill lemon juice on your assuit because it will do weird things to the aluminum

Okay. So don’t clean a suit and vinegar. Vinegar is the enemy.

Use a Rolling Pin to flatten Puffy Assuit Stitches

So each individual artist is going to have a different capacity as they make it. So sometimes your stitches will be a little puffy and the breaks where they’ve snapped it off, you know, they make the stitch and then snap it.

if that little edge is long, it will be scratchy. Right. So what you can do is lay your assuit piece on a table and take a rolling pin and roll it out. That flattens and compresses the stitches and helps smooth out those edges. So that will also reduce it.

Try Wearing Your Assuit Inside Out

And if you love your assuit robe but it itches, try wearing it inside out. Now I know the seams are going to show, but see if it’s more comfortable for you inside out because those little edges are all on the inside. So if it’s more comfortable to wear and inside out, the audience won’t know if you finish off those stitches.

So you’re just going to like flat fell your seams, just go through folded under hand. So it goes down the side, instant reverse dress. Right? So if you find that it’s too scratchy, you can reverse it.

Wear Scratchy Assuit Over Mesh

The next thing you can do is wear it over a mesh dress. So make a base layer of mesh. That could be a mesh body stocking that fits your body tightly. And then your assuit would go over it. It could be made out of cotton. I frequently wear turtlenecks. Dark opaque fabrics make the silver or gold or brass, whatever color you choose makes the metal pop.

So against your skin with your skin showing through the mesh, the metal is not as distinctive, but when you wear something opaque underneath it, suddenly the metal pops. And so you can get just a dress off the rack LBD little black dress to wear under your suit.

If you have purple assuit, a little purple dress. So you buy something to wear underneath it or make something. But, if you can buy a dress for 40 bucks to wear under your assuit robe, you’re saving yourself time and if you’re making a dress, that’s going to cost you that much in fabric.

So I tend to suggest that dancers buy something to wear under their assuit. So there you go. Roll it, wash it. flatten it. If it’s still scratchy, try it on inside out. If it’s still scratchy, put something under it.

Delicious Vegan Whole Food: Popcorn

I make it on the stove with the shaky shaky and an old pan, old school, the way they’ve been doing it for centuries. I know how to make the perfect popcorn on the stove. He’s got the little wrist technique. You go right left, right left, really fast, and then you switch hands.

You go from your elbow so you don’t wear at your wrist. popcorn, it’s affordable, it’s nutritious. I know there’s a lot of people are anti corn right now because of GMOs and stuff. But depending upon where you buy it, you can get good popcorn these days.

And it is a good, way of eating in a volume metric way. So I can have, one cup of corn turns into a giant bowl of popcorn, which you can eat and enjoy for more than just three scoops. So I really like having that volume.

Davina’s Great Performance Trinity: Costume + Music + Moves

Alicia: You’ve talked about a performance trinity of: Style of costume + Style of music + repertoire of moves. How the sound, visual and movement go together.

Pick your style. Glam? Ethnographic? Fusion? What time period?

Now pick a costume, music and moves that all fit together in that style. If you want to capture a space, time and location, do your research.

The way you combine these elements and unify the trinity shows your research skills. It proves your chops.

If you dance in a restaurant, catch the vibe of the restaurant so you are giving your audience the music and costume that matches the restaurant.

Kinds of Audiences we Belly Dance For

  1. Belly dance “Life stylers” are dancers who took 3+ years of dance classes and still dance at home and do research on belly dance. They know about the trinity. People who spend time loving dance. They embrace dance as a lifestyle.

2. People native to the Levant also understand the trinity

3. People who know little about belly dance.

What are the Best Coins for Belly Dance Costumes?

Saroyan coins are made of musical grade brass and german silver, so that when the coins touch they ring like zills. Ethnographic coins are pretty, but the sound and musical tone of saroyan coins surpasses the sound of ethnographic coins. They don’t make the coins anymore. They do make Saroyan finger cymbals now.

If we love the sound, we love the hip wrap. We might not consciously realize that, but we are drawn to costume pieces that make a nice tone more than clank.

Celebrating 50 years – Saroyan Coin Earrings


Dance Move: Shimmy Your Hip Scarf Off Intentionally for Fun

It’s like a reveal! Pin and secure a hip scarf on the bottom layer and hand tie a coin scarf on top so that it can be shimmied right off seemingly on accident.

How Belly Dance Superstars was Started

Miles Copeland put Belly Dance Superstars together for Jane’s Addiction’s

Future Belly Dance Costuming Books and Belly Dance History Books

Bralapalooza will become Belly Dance Costuming in Detail. It’s a DIY Instructional book. It will be filled with costuming and wardrobing. Wardrobing is what we wear as off-duty belly dancers going to events as spectators. From high glam, through fusion and ethnographic.

I’m writing a book on Salome and the Salome Phenomenon in Europe from 1850-1950 and Belly Dance at Worlds Fairs. I’m publishing my vast knowledge of Belly Dance History in America over the next 5 years.

Mad About Maud

A book can last beyond a video. We don’t know when Youtube, Vimeo, and Instagram will be gone. My books are in the Library of Congress. They will exist beyond me.

If you are a belly dance historian, write your book. Get it in print. The knowledge of the dancers of the 70s and 80s is going to pass with them, and I don’t want that to happen. Publish a book! Email me! I help people finish the book and publish.