Monday, June 15, 2009


I'm off to Cairo in exactly a week, for the Ahlan Wa Sahlan festival, and that means I'm about to begin the labor-intensive process of packing appropriately, so I thought that the following article would be a timely blog entry.

Though I'm terrible at living room is constantly an obstacle course full of halfway un-packed gig bags from local shows and out-of-town workshops, I am great at packing for trips...cause I take them so often!

Here’s what happens when a workshop sponsor meets me at an airport: we exchange greetings, load my carry-on bag into her vehicle, and inevitably she asks,
“Is that all the luggage you have?”
I’ve spent the better part of the past decade jetting all over the world to teach and perform. Because of that, I’ve learned to pack extremely well. Many of my sponsors have joked that I should teach a workshop on packing skills!
I used to drag “just in case” things along that never got used: extra costumes, glamorous dresses, blow-dryers, full-sized toiletries … until I wised up and realized that it wasn’t the dancing that was sending me to the chiropractor’s office, it was my heavy, unmanageable luggage!

Even if you don’t take trips at the rate that I do, packing lightly makes sense. If you are going by plane, and have your bag with you, there is zero chance of the airline losing it, and believe me, that happens more than you would think! If your luggage disappears and your costume(s) and music are inside the lost bag, then you are up the creek without a paddle.
The key to a “great pack” is to determine what is absolutely necessary costume-wise, prop-wise, comfort-wise.
Sometimes, it’s impossible to fit everything into a carry-on bag. If you have multiple costume changes, are traveling with props, workshop essentials like notebooks, flyers, business cards or carrying any amount of merch or promo you probably WON’T fit it all into one suitcase.

In this case, make sure your essentials are in the carry-on itself- at least one costume, and music, so even if everything else gets lost you can still perform. You may want to look into using door-to-door luggage services to ship an extra suitcase. These services tend to be more reliable than airlines, and guarantee delivery. They aren’t cheap, but it saves a lot of hassle and most airlines are now charging for checked bags anyway.
You could also look into Fed-Exing or Priority Mailing a box of merch to yourself care of the front desk at the hotel where you will be staying. The concierge or manager at most hotel chains regularly deals with this sort of thing for their business clients.

The first law of packing is that costumes and props take precedence over street clothes and class-wear. We all know how insanely bulky costumes are, whether it’s a fully fringed cabaret extravaganza or a metal-encrusted, tribal bra and belt with a zillion-yard circle skirt. Take a look at your favorite costumes and decide which ones are most portable… a few may not make the cut for use as “out of towners”.

Ideally, your travel costumes will look absolutely stunning onstage, but don’t need too much attention when pulled out of a suitcase. The newer style Egyptian and Turkish cabaret costumes perfect: they’re feather- weight, many have no belts making them less heavy, and they’re usually made of synthetics, which are wrinkle-resistant. Many costumes appropriate for fusion are also highly packable: of bras and belts that are highly embellished, and simple pants or a flowing skirt. Tribal costumes will be more of a challenge, with the heavy jewelry and yardage involved. For traveling with these, you may want to use only your most amazing costume pieces and accessories, and concentrate on strong stage make-up and a great color palette as opposed to piling on mounds of gorgeous- but ridiculously heavy -’s your call!

Pack your costumes cleverly then fill in around them. Roll skirts up small and tight and call or email ahead to make sure the place you’re staying has an iron. Ditto for a blow dryer. These amenities are now standard everywhere you go.
Headpieces or hair-flowers can be packed in Tupperware or utility boxes, cushioned by bra pads, a folded or rolled veil. Wigs or falls can go in a flat disposable casserole tray; pack earrings bracelets or necklaces in plastic bags and lay them on the bottom, before you put you hairpiece in. Encase dance or street shoes in recycled grocery bags; tuck them into the corners of your bag.

I pack my costume, all it’s accessories, my performance CD, veil and zills in a two-gallon zip-lock plastic freezer bag. At my destination, I know all essential parts are together, not stuck into some compartment of my suitcase. Plastic bags also protect your costume. As long as your costume is clean and dry before it goes into the bag, it’ll be fine. Once I had a suitcase sit on the tarmac at London’s Heathrow Airport for 45 minutes in a raging rainstorm. By the time it got into the terminal, the whole bag was soaked through. Boy, was I glad my costumes and regular clothes were encased in plastic bags- they were fine. As for the suitcase, it took almost two days of sitting in front of an English radiator to dry out!

If you are flying with swords, know that there’s no way in hell they’ll make it into the passenger cabin. No amount of begging (“ But it’s only a stage-prop!”) will help get it on board with you. I arrange to borrow swords for my appearances in foreign countries, it just makes things easier. Domestically, you will want to protect your sword by putting it in a well-padded container with “FRAGILE” marked all over the outside. I use a hard guitar-case with a padded interior for sword transport; some use rifle cases. I include business cards, a bio, and photocopies of myself using the sword onstage, just in case an over-zealous TSA agent who thinks it’s actual weapons opens the case!
Though shamadans can be disassembled or collapsed (always keep a screw driver and wrench with you!) they will probably still be too large to bring on board and will have to be checked. Pack it in a well-padded box, labeled “fragile”, and if it has chains with crystals attached, wrap those in bubble wrap individually before packing the rest of the candelabrum.

Canes, Isis Wings and feather fans can be brought into the cabin on a plane, but call ahead to check the dimensions for the over-head storage bins, and make sure your items fit…you definitely don’t want to check these fragile things at the last minute. Many feather fans, or fan-veils or Isis wings will fit into a carry-on bag. I slip all my foldable hand fans and even smaller Sally Rand fans into hard cardboard document tubes which can be purchased at an office supply store -this will keep them from getting their staves cracked or bent. When you get to your destination, open the wings or your fan veils and steam them in a bathroom with the shower running, to let wrinkles work their way out…. of course, this is not recommended for feather fans! Larger Sally Rand feather fans will fit nicely into a long mailer tube or office-store box- but again, it will need to be checked- pad it well! Smaller brass trays and pots or jugs for folkloric dance can fit easily into a suitcase, protect them with clothes and costume pieces.

Dress in layers because planes and airports are either too warm or too cold. I wear a tank with a light, long sleeved t-shirt over it, and a hoodie. Bring a large pashmina -type wrap , which can be worn as a scarf, evening cover-up, tied over sweats as a skirt, or used in lieu of a scuzzy airline blanket. I wear Ugg boots for travel because they are comfy and practical: they slip off easily for TSA security checks; they’re perfect for those mad dashes when you’re making a connection. I wear the same pants for travel as I do in classes- jeans are another item that probably won’t be worn all weekend long!
No one is going to notice or care if you wear the same pair of Melodia pants, and you can tuck in a spare pair of straight-legged, stretchy leggings, they can pinch-hit as pajama bottoms, and look great under dresses or skirts. Add in a couple of tanks or crop-tops, your least bulky hip-scarf, and you’ll be good to go for your workshops. If you need a veil and zills for your classes, use the same ones you’ll be using for your performance. A lightweight cover-up will get you to and from the stage when you are performing, and doubles as a robe in your hotel room. Bring a pair of flip-flops to use for street wear, bedroom slippers or protecting your feet backstage. Want to look pretty for evening? Think “little black dress” preferably in a jersey or synthetic knit. They roll up small and won’t wrinkle. Add earrings and heels, and it actually looks like you made an effort!

I have a gig checklist on my computer, with all my travel necessities, costumes and props listed on it. Make one for yourself, and refer to it, checking each item off as you pack it.

The night before a trip, I sort through my make-up bag, whittling it down to as few items as possible. I keep all my dry items like powder shadows and pencils, brushes, etc., in the make-up case and fill a snack-sized bag with lipsticks, gloss, eyeliner, eyelash glue mascara- any of the “no-no” TSA items. That smaller bag goes into my allotted quart baggie- along with travel-sized toothpaste, contact lense solution, moisturizer. Body glitter and a couple of sets of false eyelashes go into the bag holding my costumes.

Do a “dummy check” and make sure once again that you have everything essential for your trip, then edit mercilessly.
Pack a couple of snack-baggies full of raw nuts or trail mix- the stuff at airports is over-priced not to mention salty…can you say “bloated”?

Try to get as much sleep as possible a night or two before you travel, because you probably won’t get it at your event!
Make sure to fill a pocket of your bag with travel-sized trouble –shooters: make-up remover wipes, pain relief tables, band-aids safety pins, a small sewing kit, a set of bra pads and feminine protection.

Obey the “quart baggie” rule- it will get you through the TSA security lines much faster. On the plane, I put the items I placed into the quart baggie back into my cosmetic bag where they belong. Before entering the airport, remove any metal objects from your person- including sunglasses, belt-buckles, and jewelry or hair accessories with metal clips and put them in your carry-on. This will save you from walking through the metal detector more than once. Keep your ID and boarding pass out so you won’t have to dig for it.

Buy a couple of bottles of water after passing through security- one to drink while you’re in the air, one for when you land. Flying dehydrates you- this will keep you feeling refreshed and it’s good for you! Last but not least: fly with a clean, moisturized face, and before landing, freshen up and add a little bit of blush, mascara and lip gloss.

Check weather reports for your destination the night before and the morning you are leaving. Bring along appropriate articles, like coats, waterproof boots, bikini , bug spray or an umbrella.

If you are off to Egypt or any other Muslim country, bring modest clothes that pack well and cover you up- long cotton Indian wrap skirts are great, paper-thin long sleeved T-shirts to layer over tanks, and a lightweight, non-form-fitting jacket should serve you well. Bring sneakers or walking shoes. I bring beat up old ones and toss them before returning home. Know that in many North African and Middle Eastern countries, you may not easily find "amenities" like extra tampax, toilet paper, etc., so bring extras "just in case". Also, make sure to pack some Immodium, a tube of Neosporin, band-aids, etc. Check on what-if any-vaccines you will need; make sure to bring enough of whatever prescription medication(s) you may be taking.

When going to Cairo, or Istanbul or anywhere fabulous costumes can be purchased do what seasoned dancers do- check an empty or almost- empty suitcase to use for bringing back the costumes and souvenirs. On the way back, put as many of the costumes you bought as you can fit in your carry-on, and pack your street-clothes in the checked bag. That way, if something gets lost or stolen (this happens way more than anyone would like to think!) it will be your easily replaceable street clothes, not a custom-made stunner from Pharonics or Eman Zaki!

With efficient packing, you can look amazing wherever you go…both on-and off-stage!

Photo: Princess & Sphinx June 2008: Probably the most cliche tourist photo ever... yet still awesome!


  1. Great post! I could use some of this advice in packing for events that aren't nearly as far. I always worry about running out of clothes because I like to change if I am sweaty. I always end up with two much stuff. You are right about jeans, why bother?

  2. You have no idea how much I feared for my life schlepping my moderately-sized suitcase through Penn Station against human traffic yesterday! I should have packed lighter!