By Etang Inyang
Since I hit puberty, I have shopped at the “fat lady” clothing stores. It was impressed upon me from an early age that I had limited options. In cramped dressing rooms with a pool of clothing at my feet, I was pressed by my impatient aunt, “Hurry up and decide between that pink flowery dress and that orange n’ green striped dress.” What a choice! It didn’t matter that I hated the dresses from their top stitch to their bottom hem. I hated the prints of the dresses, hated the shape of the dresses, hated the length of the dresses, hated the fabric of the dresses, and hated the cut of the dresses. Just hate.
It didn’t matter because the dresses more or less fit my hard-to-fit body. With my broad shoulders, full back, luscious breasts and narrower hips, my body is not proportioned like fashion industry standards, even on a plus-size scale. I was encouraged to be grateful for finding something that sort of worked. Personal style was not on my radar. This was the beginning of my understanding of scarcity realness when it comes to plus-size clothing. I learned to buy clothing, and even hoard clothing because when you find something that fits, you need it in every color of your size.
Fast forward to ten years ago when I was a baby dancer. I remember walking in circles around the Rakkasah West Festival at the Richmond Auditorium. It was my first Rakkasah, and I was in a sensory-overload daze. I had my stack of fat girl dollars in my purse, and I was ready to spend, spend, spend. I must have walked miles at Rakkasah, back and forth, that year. I looked and looked for some sparkly, beaded explosion of a dress for myself. I resigned myself to purchasing the dancer’s accessories–veils, hip scarves, zills, a sword, and too much jewelry. I found a few clothing options, some bellbottom pants here and a skirt with an elastic waist there, but nothing that was stage-worthy.
Five years later, Tammy and I danced together at Rakkasah West for the first time as Raks Africa. We were on a mission, determined to find proper professional bellydance costumes that we could make work for us, when we stumbled upon the Dahlalbooth. With tables filled with jeweled bedlahs in every color of the rainbow, we stopped in our tracks. They had saidi dresses sized “XXL.” We went into the makeshift dressing rooms with silk veils for walls. Taking a deep breath, I looked the gown up and down and psyched myself up to try it on. Was I really going to find something off-the-rack at Rakkasah, of all places? Before I could get my gown over my head, I heard Tammy’s burst of giggles and delight from the dressing room next to me—“It fits!” What? Tammy’s excitement only made me wiggle the dress down my body faster. We both stepped out of the dressing rooms at the same time. We twirled for each other, admiring the fit, so happy that they worked. We ended up buying four dresses from Dahlal that year.
Since that time we have had opportunities to have items custom-made to our measurements. The first time was in 2010, when we decided we wanted to do a melaya leff choreography. There was no one we could find making plus-size melaya dresses. We started a search for seamstresses and costumers. We found a local seamstress, Louise Austrie, who specializes in bridal gowns. With lots of faith, a few photographs of our vision for the dresses, and a fair amount of our fat girl dollars, we went through the custom dress-making process with Louise. She took careful measurements and was very precise about alterations. From start to finish, we met with her six times. Each time, she closely tailored the dresses to the shape and curve of our bodies. We thought we found dresses that fit us before. No. We now know what an exact fit feels like. And we like it.
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Raks Africa challenges what bellydancers are supposed to look like and is proud to be a part of a dance tradition that embraces the grace and beauty of everyone, no matter size, gender or ability.
Their mission is to introduce bellydance to audiences who have limited exposure to the art. They engage, educate and invite audiences to take part in the proud tradition of embracing femininity, culture and power through Raqs Sharki, better known as bellydance!
Cross-posted with permission; Originally posted on Your Body Raks: Belly Dance, Body Justice, Joy