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COVER STORY: Eszter-Maura & the Art of Packing Light

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

What does a cycle trip of several months and a dance festival abroad have in common?

Lots of physical activity.

Seeing new places, meeting new people, connecting to different cultures.

Unexpectedly emotional moments.

And of course, freaking out over how to pack all you need into a bag that’s too small but ends up being way too heavy.

Last June, I set out from Brussels to cycle around Europe: an 8000 km trip that would take me a full year, counting the months I’m spending in Cádiz (Spain) to avoid cycling in Winter. This meant I had to pack my whole entire life into five bike bags/panniers and a small backpack.

My bike, fully loaded, somewhere on the Northern coast of France

This setup might look like a lot of stuff, and it’s definitely more than I’ve seen some cyclists travel with, but, as I said, it has all I need for a full year. It fits all the camping gear: tent, sleeping gear, a full travel kitchen, as well as bike repair tools, clothing for biking (including rainwear) and for other activities, toiletries, meds, electronics, everything.

And since I wasn’t going to NOT dance for a whole year, it also has a dance costume, my sagats, and a makeup kit I can do my full stage makeup with.

I doubt you want to cycle to festivals, dance retreats or gigs (if you do, please send me a message, I’d love to chat!). However, the lessons learnt from packing my whole life up onto a bike are just as valuable if you want to pack four different costumes, plus training wear, street clothes, makeup and accessories into a carry-on suitcase and a small bag (aka “personal item”) for your next festival destination.

In fact, I did exactly what I just described a few years ago when I went to Danish Open Festival, messing up the zipper of my little carry-on suitcase in the process, something I could have avoided if I’d known all the tricks I know now.

So if you are one of those who desperately wish that an undetectable extension charm existed in real life every time you have to pack your bags, read on for some tips on packing small and light without leaving any necessities at home.

On your choice of luggage

If you’re travelling by bus, train or plane and are going to cities, a rolling suitcase and a small-ish backpack will serve you better than a big hiking backpack, if only because it's a lot easier to keep some sort of order in a suitcase. A rolling suitcase is also more comfortable, so long as you only walk paved roads with it. Whatever its size, be sure you can lift it overhead when full.

With this setup, you’ll probably have the space to pack a small (small!) purse, so that you don’t have to carry a backpack to the shows. I personally prefer to use my leather backpack for the road: while it wasn’t designed to hold all that needs to go into it, it looks good enough for evening activities when it isn’t completely over-stuffed.

Volume vs Weight

Unless you’re carrying very heavy items, your main concern will be volume, not weight. If you can close that suitcase without it exploding from the pressure inside, it will likely stay within the weight limit – though it’s always best to check it before leaving home, of course.

First of all, you should probably wear your bulkiest pieces – boots, jeans, jacket and so on – to travel. Change at the airport, if needed, they tend to be air-conditioned to freezing temperatures anyway.

The bulkiest items you aren’t wearing are your costumes and your shoes, if any (more on that later). These should go into your bag first, with smaller items around them. Stuff your shoes with socks and/or other small items to keep their shape and use all the space available; pack smaller items in your costume bras. Shoes are also perfect for protecting fragile items like bottles and jars, if needed.

As a general rule, pack larger items first, then smaller ones, and stuff the smallest things in the corners. Wrap anything fragile in layers of clothing, and position it in the centre of your luggage.

I usually roll up my clothes instead of folding them, to keep the mess to the minimum – nothing keepy neatly folded in any bag of mine. It’s also a good idea to make bundles of clothing you want to wear together, like a set of a pair of underwear, a bra and a top, and roll them up together. Your clothes will stay a lot more organised like that.

Plan your outfits

If you want to pack small, you need to plan all your outfits in advance – this goes for both dancewear and non-dance outfits. Make sure all your clothes go well together: choose neutral colours, or ones that match if neutrals aren’t your cup of tea.

Separates are your friends: one skirt or pair of trousers with three tops for three nights take up a lot less space than three dresses. The same goes for practice wear: those cute practice jumpsuits look amazing, but if you have little space, you’re better off with yoga pants/leggings and tops.

Think in layers – and no, I don’t mean shimmies over hip circles here. A big, cozy sweater, however comfortable, takes up more space and is a lot less variable than several smaller, lighter pieces that you can wear and combine according to the weather. I usually wear sleeveless tops, then add a light shrug, a long-sleeve top, and if needed, a cardigan on top – the latter two of which will be the same for class and for the evening activities, too (and of course, I’ll wear them on my plane or train ride).

Don’t distract yourself with “what-if” thoughts. Check the weather forecast for your destination, and pack accordingly. If you’ve planned your outfits, taken the weather into account and have everything, especially your bottoms and outer layers match everything else, you’ll be stylish (and warm enough) no matter what.

Not only do you need to plan your outfits, but if you travel for longer than three days, you should plan to wear everything at least twice. If you can’t imagine yourself repeating outfits, pack scarves, jewellery or other small but fun accessories to spice them up.

Most of us are so used to washing machines – and some even to dryers – that washing clothes in the sink or under the shower might seem very strange. It gives you full autonomy, however, to pack exactly what you need and no more. Most clothing, especially lighter pieces like underwear, bras, tops or leggings, will dry in 48 hours if hung out indoors, less if hung outside in good weather. Depending on the facilities, you can wash anything you’ve just taken off under the shower, or in the sink if it has a plug. Roll your clean clothes up in your towel before hanging out everything, towel included, to dry.

Pack three of everything and keep washing them, always having one you’re wearing, one clean and one that’s drying – and hang whatever you don’t wash to air.

By the way: soap is soap – don’t worry about washing clothes with your body wash.

The issue with shoes

Full disclosure: I hate heels with a fiery passion, so packing shoes has never been an issue for me. Wear your walking shoes or boots (no one said they have to be ugly, either) while travelling, and all you need to put in your suitcase is a pair of flip-flops and/or of dance shoes, if you wear them to class.

If you really want to have a second pair, pack a pair of ballerinas instead of heels, and put on some leg warmers that you can take off when you arrive at the venue, if it’s cold outside. In summer, wear the shoes and put your sandals in the bag.

If you insist on heels and also wear them on stage, consider wearing the same pair once you're in the audience, too.

Go for multifunctional

Anything that serves more than a single purpose will save you space. This is why I insist on comfy shoes: if you’ll only wear the heels for a couple of hours during the gala, they don’t deserve the space they take up in your bag. This is also why layering and making sure that all your clothes match is important.

The number one multifuncional item I never go anywhere without is my pareo scarf. In fact, I usually have two of them to travel. They are large enough to be used in a variety of ways, they’re light, pack really small, dry amazingly quick, and they add a much-needed splash of colour to my all too black wardrobe.

They usually come in cotton or rayon, but you can also find them in real or synthetic silk if you prefer a more elegant look.

Some ways of wearing a pareo scarf.
Some ways of wearing a pareo scarf.

Use yours as a scarf, a hip scarf, a fancy shrug, a skirt, a beach dress or a cover-up; drape it over your shoulders to protect yourself from the sun without getting boiled, or for modesty if you visit places that require it. The internet is full of amazing tutorials on how to convert this simple rectangle of fabric into even more sophisticated garments. It can also serve as a blanket to protect you from draft and warm your feet or shoulders just a little bit, a picnic blanket to sit on in the park or at the beach, or even as a towel if needed.

The elephant in the suitcase

How big a bag you need and whether you can carry it on a plane (if taking one) or have to check it in will largely depend on what you carry for your performances. Some costumes take up a lot of space, and depending on the fabric, you may or may not be able to roll and squeeze it tiny without creating un-ironable wrinkles.

Packing the ever so popular hard-shell bras can be a pain: they are big, inflexible and need to be handled with care so they don’t get deformed or lose their decorations. Some of them have flexible material in between the cups, permitting you to fold them in half; but these are the exception, not the rule, and you probably need to ask your costumer specifically to build your bra like that. Whether you can fold them or not, however, you should use the space in that half-spherical shape.

Not only will you have the extra space, stuffing hardshell bras means they are less likely to deform in your bag.

Stuff them full with whatever small items you have: think socks and underwear, but also your folded-up veil (you’ll need to iron it anyway, or scrunch it deliberately), or your little pouch of sagats. Some chiffon skirts are so light you can fold or twist them small enough to put them away into your bra cup.

If you carry several costume bras, you might want to stack them one on top of the other to save space – this also works with pre-formed or push-up lingerie bras you may have with you.

As a rule of thumb, if your costumes occupy no more than half, maybe two-thirds of your carry-on suitcase, you’re probably good to go. As mentioned, put your costumes / performance gear in first, shoes second, and pad your other clothing around them – the corners always have more space than you’d think!

A word on props: I’ve transported canes on planes, in my hand, in the Schengen zone several times without any problem, but I heard varying accounts from other dancers, especially if flying to or in the States.

Veils, sagats and even fan veils are small enough not to pose great problems; a pair of Isis wings in its proper case should technically fit into a carry-on sized suitcase. Shamadans, swords and other larger items probably need a bigger bag that you’ll need to check in if flying – unless you have a trusted dance friend who can lend you what you need at your destination.

If you have to pack several costumes, consider using a bedlah (bra & belt set) with different skirts or over a tunic / galabeya for baladi. Since stage jewellery tends to take up space, you might want to colour-coordinate your costumes and use the same jewellery for all of them, though this will save you only a tiny amount of space.

Beauty is a beast

Your beauty kit & toiletries is the one category where you can save the most space by simplifying your routine. As dancers (and as women), we are held to high beauty standards that include buying and using ridiculous amounts of products. No matter your opinion on the beauty industry (I’ll let you guess mine), it’s more than understandable if you want or feel you have to conform to these ideas; and if you perform on stage, you of course need to curate your look to match your performance.

That said, you can probably do that with a lot less than you’ve been led to believe you need.

First of all, use solids. Your body wash, shampoo and conditioner are over 90% water, why would you want to carry all that water around? Quality soap bars and solid shampoo and conditioner bars have become quite widely available these last years. They’ll save you the trouble with carrying liquids on a carry-on if you're flying, and they’re also less likely, depending on your choice, to contain environmentally harmful chemicals or come in plastic packaging, so it’s a double win.

Aluminium soapboxes are cool, but if your soap and bars are too wet when packing, they might leak, so if you want to avoid having to dry them out, grab a small tupperware from your kitchen!

To go truly hardcore, you can even get solid toothpaste (tabs or powder) and deo, but these are much less widely available.

For the necessary liquid products, keep a couple of small plastic bottles and refill them before your trip. For most things, the 100 ml allowed on planes will be way too much for anything less than two weeks, so aim for 50-60 ml instead.

I can’t in good conscience recommend buying small bottles of products or using the toiletries from the hotels, given how wasteful it is to throw away a plastic bottle for every 30 ml of product you use. Refilling at home takes only a couple of minutes, you can keep using your favourite product instead of buying whatever’s available in “travel size”, not to mention how much more small bottles cost per quantity compared to larger ones.

Simplifying your skin and hair care, and using multi-functional products can significantly reduce the size of your beauty bag. For short-term travel, my whole skin and hair care consists of:

● a soap bar

I prefer a natural, unscented olive oil soap (Savon de Marseille), but there’s an incredible variety of natural soaps out there, for all skin types. Aside from washing myself, I also use it to wash my clothes.

● a solid shampoo bar

● a small bottle of aloe gel

I DIY it from powder and mix some hyaluronic acid and whey or silk protein. In fact, I carried the powder mix during my cycle trip and mixed a new batch of 100 ml every time I ran out. Unless you travel for months without being able to buy more, you won’t need to go to such extremes: any store-bought aloe gel will do, and you can always mix the other ingredients in if you want.

Aloe gel serves as a moisturizer for your skin (face and body), plus it’s amazing to treat sunburns. You can also use it as a moisturizing serum for your hair, and since it’s a gel, it will help your hair keep its curls – if you wear curls, that is.

● a small bottle of natural vegetal oil

I use a mix of almond or jojoba oil mixed with argan, hemp or rosehip, but again, this is what works for my skin and others might work for yours. You can use it for your body, face and hair: apply the aloe gel first for moisture, then the oil to seal the moisture in the skin or hair. You can also apply the oil directly on wet skin and let yourself dry.

The oil is also perfect for removing even waterproof makeup, so you don’t need to bring a separate makeup remover with you.

That’s it: all my skin and hair care products I use when travelling.

Talking about makeup, ditch the premade palettes: you know full well that you will never use all the dozen or more eyeshadow colours you have in them. Choose two, maybe three colours and learn a stage look that goes well with all your costumes. For the most efficient use of space, find a makeup brand that lets you make your own palettes, and that has products other than eyeshadows that fit in said palette. Imagine if you could put your concealer, powder, blush, bronzer and eyeshadows in a single flat box!

This is my full makeup kit – and the stage look I can create with it

When it comes to styling hair, you can create beautiful heatless curls using socks (yes!) or ribbons, or even just making braids or cords from your slightly damp hair, no other products or tools needed.

If you don’t want to air dry your hair, call your accommodation to check if they have a hairdryer, so you don’t have to pack yours. I have lots of hair and hotel hair dryers are a pain in the neck for being really low performance, but they are a lot better than having to bring my own. (Call your accommodations about clothes irons too, by the way: lots of accommodations have them or make them available for rent.)

If you’re travelling with friends, team up with them, so that each of you brings only one of these bulky tools: the hair dryer, the flat or curling (or clothes) iron etc., for the whole team.

Three Underrated Travel Essentials

Having talked about all the things you need less of or none at all, let me mention three things you should always have with you.

● I’ve already mentioned the pareo scarf, aka the most versatile textile item you’ll ever own. I never travel without at least one, probably two of them.

● a swimsuit. It’s small, light, and you’ll be a lot more annoyed if you don’t have it when needed than if you carry it for nothing. Have one with you no matter where you go, what the weather forecast says (maybe there’s a sauna in your hotel?) or how short your trip might be.

● a water bottle. In most of Europe and North America, tap water is more strictly controlled and often better quality than bottled water (and we all know just how enormous the plastic waste problem is), not to mention how expensive bottled water can get, especially in touristic areas. If you have doubts about the quality of local tap water, look it up online (the travel community is always very helpful), and always listen to the locals. Get a reusable water bottle, and drink enough water!

The Packing List

Now that we’ve gone through the main principles of packing, let me finish by giving you a real-life example: my personal packing list for any event at least three days long.

  1. Clothing

- 2 pareo scarves

- Clothing for dance class:

- 3 sets of training wear (underwear, bra, top)

- 1 pair of yoga trousers

- (optional: an extra pair of leggings for training)

- light shrug or long-sleeve in cold weather (if it’s warm, I might just drape my scarf around my shoulders instead)

- flip-flops and/or training shoes

- Clothing for non-dance activities:

- 3 sets of non-dance clothes (underwear, bra, top and socks)

- 1 dress (+ tights in colder weather) for the gala night

- light long-sleeve top

- small box with fancier earrings for the evenings

- cardigan or blazer to layer over (only in cold weather)

- a pair of jeans or trousers

- 1 pair of comfortable but nice-looking, weather-appropriate shoes

- (optional: extra pair of ballerinas or sandals, as appropriate)

- jacket or coat, if needed

I’ll wear my trousers, cardigan/blazer, bigger pair of shoes and jacket for travelling, so these don’t go into my suitcase.

- swimsuit + small towel

  1. Performance gear

- costume

- props

- cover-up

- jewellery

  1. Toiletries / beauty bag

- soap & shampoo bars

- small bottle of aloe gel

- small bottle of body / hair oil

- toothbrush + toothpaste

- deodorant

- wooden comb

- makeup kit

  1. Other

- medications

- phone + charger

- e-reader

- notebook + pen

- water bottle

- optional: arnica cream and massage ball

- optional: sunglasses

During a dance event, you partake in a great variety of activities: you dance, you attend – often very fancy – shows, you perform on stage, and you may also visit the city, go for a run or hike, or book a spa day. Of course you’ll need more luggage space than for a simple city trip!

However, by following the principles listed in this article, you’ll be able to put everything into a carry-on-sized suitcase and a small backpack, and travel comfortably to and from your event without carrying unnecessary items or compromising on things you truly need.

May you travel far and light.

Hi, I’m Eszter-Maura, dancer, writer and part-time nomad from Hungary/Belgium.

I have a passion for performing on stage, and for helping Western belly dancers become more expressive performers by deepening their understanding of, and connection to, their music.

I have over 20 years of experience in Egyptian raqs sharqi / belly dance, solid foundations in a variety of other dance styles from Salsa through European folk dances to Flamenco, as well as more than 15 years of musical education. I use my understanding of various musical and dance traditions to enable foreign belly dancers to connect to Egyptian music and dance through their own cultural experience, draw on the music to express their emotions in performance, and establish an authentic connection to their audience.

At the moment, I’m staying in Cádiz, Spain, having travelled here by bicycle from Brussels last year; I’ll take the road in May again to cycle to Genoa, Italy, before moving back to Brussels in Autumn.

To see more of my work and adventures, sign up to my newsletter or follow me on Instagram.

If you live on the Spanish or French Mediterranean coast and are interested in collaborating with me, drop me a line!

Want to study with me? I currently offer short, guided online practice sessions every Wednesday and Thursday, and have a hybrid (in-person & online) Baladi workshop (in Spanish) coming up on March 25.

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