The costumes created by Barbara Karinska (1886–1983) go hand in hand with the history of 20th-century ballet. Starting with her work for the Ballets Russes companies, through her longtime affiliation with George Balanchine and New York City Ballet, Karinska was the authority on outfitting dancers.

Born Varvara Andryevna Zmoudsky on October 3, 1886, in the city of Kharkov, Ukraine, Karinska was the eldest of 10 children. Her father was a successful textile merchant, while her mother stayed home to care for the family. They led a life of upper-class privilege, with European governesses, elegant dinners and instruction in the art of embroidery, a skill that would become vitally important to Karinska’s future.

In her teens, Karinska studied law at the University of Kharkov and volunteered at a local women’s prison. At age 20, she married Alexander Moïssenko, a newspaper editor with whom she had one daughter, Irene. When her husband died of typhus after only four years of marriage, Karinska took over his position at the newspaper—an unheard of move for a woman at the time.

But as the political situation leading to the Russian Revolution began to heat up, she closed the newspaper and moved to Moscow. There, she set up a shop selling embroidery and linens, and married her second husband, Nicholas Karinsky, a government official in St. Petersburg. This marriage also ended prematurely—as the Bolsheviks took power, her husband fled the country, leaving Karinska and her daughter behind. (Karinsky actually drove a taxi in New York City for 20 years until his death, but his wife did not know, thinking him dead years earlier.)

Karinska got her chance to escape a few years later. After running a variety of shops for several years, she was offered a government post as the Commissar of Museums. She requested that she be sent to Germany to educate herself more for the position, but instead fled to Brussels with an orphaned nephew and her daughter, in whose clothing Karinska stitched the remaining family jewels.

She soon moved to Paris, where she struggled to make a living by crocheting shawls and flowers, and making traditional Russian headdresses. Slowly, she began to receive costuming commissions from cabarets and operettas. Her most important commission came in 1931 from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, for Balanchine’s ballet Cotillon.

In 1939, she set sail for the United States, escaping Europe before the onslaught of World War II. Once settled, her first commission was for a serpent for the New York World’s Fair. The serpent was so long that it required two taxis—Karinska held the head in one, and her assistants brought the tail in the other, as the two cars drove side by side to the exhibition hall. She continued to create costumes for the Ballets Russes companies and added the burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee to her roster.

A few years later, in 1942, Karinska created the costumes for Agnes de Mille’s ballet Rodeo. In what would become her modus operandi, her seamstresses carried the still unfinished pieces in a fleet of taxis, arriving at the theater moments before the curtain rose. Dancers were sewn into their costumes in the theatre’s wings. Of this anxiety-producing process, de Mille remarked, “Why does anyone hire her a second time? Simply, she is without a peer in her field.”

Karinska drew the notice of Hollywood in the 1940s, and was hired to work on many films, creating costumes for such actors as Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Judy Garland and Ginger Rogers. For the 1948 film Joan of Arc, Karinska won an Academy Award for Costume Design, but left movie costuming behind soon afterward, turning her attention back to New York—to opera, theater and ballet, with the occasional commission from Ice Capades or Ice Follies.

Of all the companies and productions that Karinska costumed, it was Balanchine and his NYCB to which she said she “gave her heart.” In fact, de Mille once declared that she and others always suspected that Karinska charged them exorbitant fees so that she could hold costs down for Balanchine.

In 1949, Balanchine asked Karinska to design the costumes for Bourrée Fantasque. Up until this time, her ballet costumes had been made from other people’s designs, but designing and constructing gave Karinska a wealth of freedom to create signature costumes for such Balanchine ballets as Symphony in C (which premiered in 1947, but was re-costumed by Karinska in 1950) and The Nutcracker (1954).

Her stunning and technically inventive creations allowed dancers to move easily and even inspired movement. Ballet bodices of the time were normally modeled on a corset and often restricted mobility, but Karinska cut the side panels on the bias (the diagonal), which created an elasticity that allowed room for the rib cage to expand and the dancer to breathe more freely. She added small touches that only a dancer would see, such as a rose on the underskirt, as well as elaborate details on the visible elements, all of which made dancers feel special. As current NYCB principal Sterling Hyltin once said of wearing Karinska’s Dewdrop costume, “You just feel beautiful.”

Another one of Karinska’s innovations was the so-called “powder-puff” tutu. Instead of using wire in the skirts to hold a classical tutu straight out at a 90-degree angle, she used layer upon layer of tulle to create the same effect, but with a softer quality. This eliminated situations in which two tutus would flip straight up because they were too close together.

The designer was also known for her choice of unusual color palettes and was very astute about the effects of stage lights. Instead of using one color of tulle in the layers of a costume, she used several colors to create depth and fullness. She preferred natural fibers to synthetics and employed sumptuous details, drawing on her years of fine embroidery work for glorious results. The New York Times critic John Martin described her costumes as “visual music,” underscoring the integral nature of her designs to the ballets for which they were created, and the way they enhanced and intensified the overall effect of the productions.

She received the Capezio Dance Award in 1962, with the commendation that “‘Costumes by Karinska’ has long since become a promise of complete visual beauty for the spectator and complete delight for the dancer, be it Prima Ballerina, Premier Danseur or as a member of the Corps de Ballet.”

In 1963, the Ford Foundation gave NYCB a multimillion-dollar grant, and with a portion of it Balanchine was able to ask Karinska, at the age of 77, to create costumes exclusively for NYCB in the company’s own costume shop. She designed the intricately detailed costumes for Jewels (1967) and Vienna Waltzes (1977), and executed the designs for many other ballets.

Shortly before the première of Vienna Waltzes, Karinska suffered a massive stroke. For the next six years, she clung to life, but without ever regaining speech or memory. On October 18, 1983, she passed away.

Karinska’s lasting influence on the world of costuming is immense. It is no coincidence that many ballet masterpieces of the 20th century have costumes designed or executed by her. Not only are her designs stunningly beautiful, but they were made with an astute understanding of what is required of dancers. Her creations live on as the ballets she costumed continue to be performed by NYCB and other companies around the world. DT

Elizabeth McPherson is an assistant professor in dance education at Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ.

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo via Claudia Dean World on YouTube

Most parents start off pretty clueless when it comes to doing their dancer's hair. If you don't want your students coming in with elastic-wrapped bird's nests on their heads, you may want to give them some guidance. But who has time to teach each individual parent how to do their child's hair? Not you! So, we have a solution: YouTube hair tutorials.

These three classical hairdo vids are exactly what your dancers need to look fabulous and ready to work every time they step in your studio.

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Via @madisongoodman_ on Instagram

Nationals season is behind us, but we just aren't quite over it yet. We've been thinking a lot about the freakishly talented winners of these competitions, and want to know a bit more about the people who got them to where they are. So, we asked three current national title holders to tell us the most powerful piece of advice their dance teacher ever gave them. What they have to say will melt your heart.

Way to go, dance teachers! Your'e doing amazing things for the rising generation!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Enrollment is an issue that plagues brand-new and veteran studio owners alike. Without a steady stream of revenue from new students coming through your doors, your studio won't survive—no matter how crisp your dancers' technique is or how well-produced your recitals are.

Enrollment—in biz speak, customer acquisition and retention—depends on your business' investment in marketing. How effectively you get the word out about your studio will directly influence the number of people who register. Successful businesses typically use certain tried-and-true marketing strategies to recruit and retain clients or customers. These four studio owners' tricks for kicking enrollment into high gear are modeled after classic marketing techniques.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Dance teachers are just as apt to fall into the trap of perfectionism and self-criticism as the students they teach. The high-pressure environment that is the dance world today makes it difficult to endure while keeping a healthy perspective on who we truly are.

To help you quiet your inner critic, and by extension set an example of self-love for your students, we caught up with sports psychologist Caroline Silby. Here she shares strategies for managing what she calls "neurotic perfectionism." "Self-attacking puts teachers and athletes in a constant state of stress, often making them rigid, inflexible and ultimately fueling high anxiety rather than high levels of performance," Silby says. "Perfectionistic teachers, dancers and athletes can learn to set emotional boundaries. They can use doubt, frustration and worry about missing expectations as cues to take actions that align with what they do when teaching/performing well and feeling in-control. Being relentless about applying a solution-oriented approach can help the perfectionist move through intense emotional states more efficiently."

Check out those strategies below!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Since the dawn of time, performers have had to deal with annoying, constant blisters. As every dance teacher knows (and every student is sure to find out), blisters are a fact of life, and we all need to figure out a plan of action for how to deal with them.

Instead of bleeding through pointe shoes and begging you to let them sit out, your students should know these tricks for how to prevent/deal with their skin when it starts to sting.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox