Your Studio

6 Strategies for Costuming Success That May Surprise You

Photo by Jim Lafferty for Pointe

No matter how many competition seasons or recitals you've got under your belt, drama inevitably arises over costumes. We spoke to costume companies, a designer and a competition judge for their indispensable advice on costume selection, ordering, trend spotting and customization. Let their wisdom inspire you to dress your dancers to look their best.

1. Be wary of following trends. Although simply cut leotards and pants without shirts (for men) are popular costume choices these days, JUMP Dance Convention teacher and judge Katy Spreadbury warns that such a minimalist approach isn't enough to elevate a piece to its full potential. Studio owners, she says, shouldn't focus solely on what makes the dancers' bodies look pretty but rather choose costumes that are relevant to the dance. "Costuming should give a visual representation of the world the dancer and audience members are experiencing," says Spreadbury. "When costuming is done in a way that creates that world, our experience as an audience is heightened."

2. Accentuate the positive; eliminate the negative. "When you choose a costume for your dancers, you have the opportunity to highlight their strengths and minimize their flaws," says Spreadbury. "If your dancers struggle to hold their centers, a two-piece will accentuate the area of the body they're having trouble with. If they have limited length in their neck, putting a lot of fabric there will only draw attention to the problem." Ill-fitting costumes can overexpose your dancers and make the audience feel uncomfortable.

3. Choose durable fabrics. "Good-quality fabrics will make all the difference in alterations," says Deborah Nelson, head designer at Satin Stitches, a custom dance-costume manufacturer. "Fabrics that are poor quality can be fragile, snag and tear when manipulated with extensive sewing and resewing." Nelson recommends spandex mesh, thick plain spandex, stretch spandex velvet, woven polyester chiffon and stretchy lace fabrics. Note that regardless of which fabric you use, it's much easier to take costumes in than to let them out—always overshoot slightly on sizing when you order.

4. Attend a costume preview show. Wouldn't you like to see exactly what you're ordering? There's nothing like the ability to touch and look closely at how costumes are made—and to avoid discrepancies between what you think you're ordering and what actually comes in the mail. "If you can make it to a United Dance Merchants of America show [held in the fall in Massachusetts, Georgia, Illinois and New Jersey—see] or if your costume company produces their own show, it can be very beneficial to understanding exactly what you're buying," says Ashley Zimmerman, director of business development for Curtain Call. Can't make it to a costume show? You can ask for samples to be sent to your studio.

5. Bring a sketch or photographs to your custom designer. Use visuals that have elements you'd like to pull from when planning with a custom designer. Explain the style of dance, too, and describe the music so your designer gets a sense of the piece's mood. Then, describe the age and size range of the dancers who are performing. "Communicate their ages as well as modesty expectations," Nelson says. "Explain the variety of body types so your designer can create something that is the most flattering for them." Be as specific and detailed as possible.

6. Avoid this number-one reason for shipping delays. Double-check the shipment date on your invoice. Costume A may have an early ship date, while costume B has a later one. If this is the case, your entire shipment will roll to match the later ship date. "This ordering mix-up is often the reason for confusing and delayed costume arrivals," says Zimmerman.

PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

The Boy Factor doesn't just have to do with competition scores: It's how we treat boys throughout their dance education. "We idolize the boys," says Ashley Harnish, a teacher at a competition studio. "We build entire dances around one boy, and we teach them that we need them more than we need the girls."

On the surface, The Boy Factor is flagrant sexism. But what's really behind the phenomenon? "So often, young male dancers are bullied because our culture says that dance is for girls," says a second national competition adjudicator. "This stigma pushes some judges to reward boys by scoring them higher than their female competitors." The Boy Factor also stems from a simple fact: There are far more girls than boys in the dance world.

"Judges see boys as valuable commodities," says Marissa Jean, a staff member at Broadway Dance Center's new building for children and teens and a teacher at several competition studios. "To encourage their career in dance, judges will throw a little extra their way. It could be placing them in the top ten or giving them a special award. They nurture them a bit more than the girls."

But by trying to retain more male talent, are we suggesting to girls that they are less valuable to the dance world than boys? "There's so much about this getting into these kids' psyches," says Childress. "Like, 'Oh the boy will beat me no matter what.' How do we teach self-worth knowing that you're going up against a boy, so what's the point?"

The Boy Factor is a product of and a contributor to the culture that sends the few men in dance up the glass escalator: "Many boys growing up in the dance world are not told the word 'no' often, so they tend to climb the professional ranks more quickly than the women," says Jean. We often bemoan the absence of female leadership in dance, but the damage is already done if we've taught young women that their gender determines their value to our community.

So what can be done about The Boy Factor? First, we could change how we encourage boys to continue dancing. Instead of empowering young men by devaluing young women, we could work as a community to dispel the culture of toxic masculinity that discourages boys from pursuing dance in the first place.

But it also falls in the hands of judges and teachers. "We need to increase awareness," says the second adjudicator. "A lot of us judges don't realize what we are promoting and the messages we send through our scoring and awards. If enough of us band together, I think we can make a difference so that this part of our field is less toxic."


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