Costume Ordering Made Easy

Secrets to fitting, fees and alterations

Students from Rita Ogden's Ovations Dance Studio

For more than 20 years, Denise Hawkins of Denise’s Dance Academy in Overland Park, Kansas, has allowed her studio parents to choose the costumes for spring recitals. “It sounds crazy, but parents feel they have a hand in the costumes they’re paying for,” she says. But Hawkins, who orders about 1,500 costumes each season, does manage the process. For instance, she never lets parents see the catalogs. Instead, teachers of each class select a few options, and then the parents pick their favorite from photographs.

While this system works for Hawkins, costume ordering isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. Between selecting the look and ensuring that garments are on time, paid for and accurately fit, it’s a daunting task. The key to successful ordering is staying organized, calm and ahead of schedule.

Choosing a Style

- Regardless of who makes the selection, reserve final approval. Chris Collins of Chris Collins Dance Studio in Alexandria, Virginia, asks his teachers to choose costumes. He gives the final OK after making sure every costume is age- and body-style-appropriate.

- Measure each dancer, and use each manufacturer’s size charts for consistency. In the past, Collins—who has 450 students—left the measuring task to his teachers, but that left room for error. “I now have all measurements done by the same person,” he says. “As a result, we had only a handful of exchanges in the last few years.”

Rita Ogden of Ovations Dance Studio in Oaklyn, New Jersey, holds a special week for measuring. She announces the dates in her registration handbook, and all of her 250 students must attend. A good rule of thumb is to have all measuring completed two weeks before the ordering deadline, in case there are stragglers. “Missing a deadline because you don’t have all the measurements means losing money,” she says. If costumes don’t fit properly, it costs extra to make an exchange.

Ordering

- Order early for quicker shipping, and take advantage of discounts. Many manufacturers offer discounts on orders placed ahead of schedule, and with large orders, money saved means more for your recital budget, studio repairs or even teachers’ wages.

“If I’m close to qualifying for a discount, sometimes I get basic hairpieces, canes, hats, even if I don’t need them,” says Ogden, who typically orders about 1,000 costumes per season. “If I’m $100 short, and they have beautiful rhinestone chokers or barrettes, I order enough to use as gifts for graduates. I may spend $200 more, but I’ll save $1,000 in the long run.” She saves the invoices that include the unused merchandise in her storage closet, so she knows the full price to charge when used in the future.

- When the shipment arrives, carefully inventory the contents. Hawkins once received an incorrect shipment in which adult and child sizes were completely flipped, and another with an entire class receiving the wrong style. She now carefully inventories costumes upon arrival and immediately calls the companies to resolve any errors. Garments do not leave their studios until paid in full; there are no exchanges once students take costumes home.

Fees

- Consider the time of year for collecting fees. After getting complaints from parents about paying for costumes near Christmas, Hawkins’ studio parents now pay half at enrollment and the remaining cost by October 15. If students join in January, they’re charged an extra $10 per costume for shipping. Students who drop out receive a refund if they leave before costumes are ordered or if new students replace them. (Otherwise, they’re responsible for payment.)

- Establish and communicate your markup policy. “I state in my parent handbook that the costume fees include shipping, taxes, exchange fees, alterations and other costs associated with costumes,” says Hawkins, whose set costume fee covers two costumes and a pair of tights for $110. Her studio parents understand that she marks up costumes 20 percent from the retail value. (Costume fees account for as much as 10 percent of her yearly revenue.)

At Collins’ studio, all students pay an equal deposit by October 30 and are billed in the winter for the balance. Balances often range between $20 and $50 per student, depending on age and level and costume style, and parents receive an itemized balance statement. Collins makes a small profit from every costume (he orders approximately 3,500 per season), which goes back into the studio or toward production costs. With 37 years in the business, he’s learned that parents will pay a little extra, knowing that he takes the time to measure and fit the students well enough so they won’t have to pay a larger fee for alterations or exchanges.

Alterations

- Take control. Don’t assume dance moms can handle minor sizing alterations. After a few years of straps being sewn on wrong (over the shoulder instead of crisscrossed, for example), Hawkins began hiring one or two parents as seamstresses who barter their work for discounted tuition. They keep track of the alterations, and the totals typically amount to roughly three months’ tuition. “It has worked out so much better, and the other parents are happy to have costumes that do not need any additional work at home,” she says.

- Consider function as well as fit. Ogden has added strips of coordinating fabric to conceal bra straps and applied grip tape to the palms of acrobatic long-sleeve costumes to prevent dancers from slipping. She agrees that skilled seamstresses should make the alterations, not individual moms. “There are always parents who think a costume should be tighter, shorter, longer than I prefer. Then there is the parent who will accidentally use 1,000 rhinestones instead of the requested 100,” says Ogden. “If you want a uniform look, have it done yourself. It’s that simple.” DT

USING AN ORDERING SERVICE

For the past three years, Shannon Wilson of Westwoods Center of Performing Arts has used a costume ordering service, CostumeManager.com. “I used to place all orders during the break in December,” says Wilson. “So it wasn’t a break for me.” Now, she says, when the costumes come in, they’re bundled by class and dancer, labeled and ready to hand out. “My staff and I save hours of sorting through mixed batches of garments.”

The studio selects the costumes and accessories that parents must order. Wilson recommends the sizes for each student, based on the manufacturers’ size charts. “Parents are free to order whatever size they want, but we let them know that if they don’t order the recommended size, it’s not going to fit,” she says.

There is no charge to the studio: The service collects the costume fees, plus handling charges, directly from the parents, who can choose when to order and pay. Wilson receives reports showing which families have ordered and paid for costumes so she can remind stragglers as deadlines approach.

Though she maintains a hand in the process, Wilson acknowledges that relinquishing any control to parents is not easy for many studio owners. Trusting that they will order all the necessary pieces on time can be nerve-racking, and in some cases when an order isn’t correct, parents blame the studio. “We are the face the parents see. If something is wrong, they come to us,” says Wilson. “But this has saved my studio time and money.”

 

Courtney Rae Kasper is a former Dance Teacher editor. Photo courtesy of Rita Ogden

Higher Ed
Getty Images

As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?


The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."


Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

News
Clockwise from top left: Courtesy Ford Foundation; Christian Peacock; Nathan James, Courtesy Gibson; David Gonsier, courtesy Marshall; Bill Zemanek, courtesy King; Josefina Santos, courtesy Brown; Jayme Thornton; Ian Douglas, courtesy American Realness

Since 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards have celebrated the living legends of our field—from Martha Graham to Misty Copeland to Alvin Ailey to Gene Kelly.

This year is no different. But for the first time ever, the Dance Magazine Awards will be presented virtually—which is good news for aspiring dancers (and their teachers!) everywhere. (Plus, there's a special student rate of $25.)

The Dance Magazine Awards aren't just a celebration of the people who shape the dance field—they're a unique educational opportunity and a chance for dancers to see their idols up close.


Here's why your dancers (and you!) should tune in:

They'll see dance history in the making.

Carlos Acosta. Debbie Allen. Camille A. Brown. Laurieann Gibson. Alonzo King.

If you haven't already taught your students about these esteemed awardees, odds are you'll be adding them to your curriculum before long.

Not only will your students get to hear from each of them at a pivotal moment in their careers (and Dance Magazine Awards acceptance speeches are famously chock-full of inspiration), they'll also hear from presenters like William Forsythe and Theresa Ruth Howard.

This year, all the Dance Magazine Awards are going to Black artists, as a step towards repairing the history of honoring primarily white artists.

And meet tomorrow's dance legends.

Dance Magazine's Harkness Promise Awards, this year going to Kyle Marshall and Marjani Forté-Saunders, offer funding, rehearsal space and mentorship to innovative young choreographers in their first decade of presenting work—a powerful reminder to your students that major success in the dance world doesn't happen overnight.

They'll get a glimpse of what happens behind the scenes.

Solely teaching your students how to be a great dancer doesn't give them the full picture. A complete dance education produces artists who are savvy about what happens behind the scenes, too.

In 2018, Dance Media launched the Chairman's Award to honor those behind-the-scenes leaders who keep our field moving. Each year's recipient is chosen by our CEO, Frederic M. Seegal. This year's award goes to Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, who is using philanthropy to make the performing arts—and the world at large—more just.

And, of course, see dozens of great dance works.

Where else could your students see selections from Alonzo King's contemporary ballet classics next to Camille A. Brown's boundary-pushing dance theater works? Or see both Carlos Acosta and Laurieann Gibson in action in the same evening? Excerpts from the awardees' works will show your students what it is exactly that makes these artists so special.

So gather your class (virtually!) and join us next Monday, December 7, at 6 pm. To receive the special student rate, please email dmawards@dancemedia.com.

See you there!

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.