Kim Pelliccia has seen her share of costume-related emergencies during her time working for the recital costume company Dansco. “We've had studios flood, trains derail, Lucy's costume doesn't fit on Wednesday and the show is on Saturday," she says. As a studio owner, you're no stranger to the special set of potential problems that competitions and recitals bring. That's why we spoke to several savvy owners and costume companies for their surprisingly simple advice on handling five common costume complications.


1. A student loses her costume—two weeks before the recital.

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The explanation is usually bizarre: “The costume went home with Grandma, and it never came back. Or she was at her dad's this weekend, and the dog ate it," says Pelliccia. But the fix is easy: “Contact us right away to see if a replacement is available within the time frame you need it," she says. “Because we make our own costumes here, we have expedited shipping options. We could put them in the construction queue a little quicker, and overnight it or do a two-day air ship."

Costume Gallery has a new special section on its website called “Available Now," which features costumes in stock and ready to ship within three business days. “We update the style availability daily," says Elizabeth Balash, marketing and sales director. “It has current and past season styles." Your dancer's missing costume or a similar style could be available online and in your hands within days.

Don't forget to network, either. It's possible a nearby studio ordered the same style and has one in the size you need for you to borrow.

Pro tip: Go the extra (accessory) mile. Phyllis Balagna, owner of Steppin' Out—The Studio in Lee's Summit, Missouri, rarely has students lose entire costumes, but accessories are a different story. “We do, on occasion, have missing belts, trunks, buttons and bows," she says. “I always order at least one extra of each accessory and keep it in our company suitcase. I also keep various colored trunks, black fishnets, hairpieces and jewelry in the suitcase." But Balagna has a hard-and-fast rule about costumes that go missing the day of: “If a child loses a costume and we don't know about it until the day of performance, the child does not dance in that particular routine."

2. A costume doesn't fit.

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Should you exchange it for a different size, or have it altered? If it's slightly too big or small on the top but not the bottom (or vice versa), says Pelliccia, it's better to do a custom alteration. “You're always going to have that problem, even if you go up or down a size," she says.

If a size exchange is required, call the costume company immediately and place a replacement size order (a service which many companies provide free of charge). Balagna arranges to receive all costumes at least three weeks before the dancers have to wear them onstage. “This gives us enough time for alterations or reordering from a company," she says. “They'll work with you to get the correct size to you in time."

Bottom line? The earlier you order, the better. Place your costume order by January (for a May or June recital) to give companies the leeway to correct any issues that come up—plus, many offer a bulk discount rate if you take advantage of early ordering. “That way," says Pelliccia, “there's time to fix human error, or kids growing."

Pro tip: Get it in writing. Pelliccia recommends protecting yourself with an agreement signed by parents during the costume ordering stage, stating they agree to the size they authorize you to purchase.

3. A parent has an issue with a costume.

When Balagna's daughter, Jen—who directs the competition team and prides herself on keeping up with contemporary costume trends—chose leotards as costumes for most of the team's teen and senior contemporary pieces, parents were vocal about how these costumes didn't seem competition-worthy. “Parents have their own opinions of what a dancer should wear in a particular routine, and some aren't afraid to voice it," says Balagna. “The only thing you can really say is, 'Trust me—I've been doing this a long time, and I've yet to put a dancer onstage who was inappropriately costumed.'"

Pro tip: Tap into your studio owner Zen. If you stand by your decision and remain patient, your parents will eventually come around. When Balagna's students and parents arrived at Nationals, they soon saw that leotards were in vogue for nearly all of the teen and senior dancers. “They finally got it," she says, “and apologized for second-guessing our decisions. It also helped that two of our senior pieces won."

4. The custom-made costumes for your minis trio arrive in the wrong color and baggy in all the wrong places.

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Successful custom costumes are all about good communication. “If you're doing handmade costumes, it's important to have a good relationship with your seamstress," says Balagna. “By staying very connected to the building process of the costume, it's easier to manage the outcome of the final product." She advises asking how many costumes the seamstress is taking on besides your own order, to see if the date you need your costumes finished is feasible. To avoid an ill-fitting costume, Balagna recommends having several fittings before a dancer wears the costume.

Pro tip: Ready the rhinestone brigade. If, despite the best of intentions, a custom-made costume turns out poorly, Balagna has a couple of studio parents who are prepared to transform easy-to-find costume staples into something fabulous as a substitute. “They can take trunks and a fabric-covered bra top and make them look like a million dollars," she says.

5. A dancer now has a cast on her arm—how should you camouflage it? Sarah Garceau, of the Rachel Park Dance Center in Middleborough, Massachusetts, had a 10-year-old dancer who ended up in a cast up to her elbow (with her arm at a 90-degree angle) three weeks before a competition. To camouflage the bright blue cast, she wrapped it in an ACE Bandage to match the dancer's skin color. Other solutions? Cut a pair of nude tights to cover the cast or wrap it in flesh-colored CoFlex (a self-adhesive, thin foam bandage).

Pro tip: Make it fit like a glove. When Kristine Oberst had the same issue with a student at her school in Dallas, Pennsylvania, Back Mountain Dance Studio, the dancer's mom made a sleeve from sequin fabric to match each costume. “She was a huge hit at competition," says Oberst. “Everyone couldn't wait to see how she would match her next outfit."

The Conversation
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The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

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Vanessa Zahorian. Photo by Erik Larson, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet Academy

At the LINES Ballet Dance Center in San Francisco, faculty member Erik Wagner leads his class through an adagio combination in center. He encourages dancers to root their standing legs, using imagery of a seed germinating, so that they feel more grounded. "Our studios are on the fifth floor, so I'll often tell them to push down to Market Street," says Wagner. "They know that they should push their energy down to the street level." By using this oppositional force, he says, dancers can lengthen their bodies to create any desired shape.

A slow and fluid adagio can captivate an audience. When done well, it demonstrates tremendous strength and control, while allowing dancers quiet and subtle moments of expression. But adagio work can be challenging and nerve-racking even for the most seasoned professionals. Using imagery like Wagner's idea of the root system and other simple techniques will give students the tools they need to achieve freedom in their adagio. They might even grow to love it.

Hold With Placement

To create and sustain adagio movements, dancers need proper alignment and a strong core. At the Pennsylvania Ballet Academy in Camp Hill, co-artistic director Vanessa Zahorian starts young beginner dancers with an eight-count développé in each direction first facing the barre at 45 degrees, and then with one hand. "With the lower levels, you need to go slowly so they hold each position and see what it feels like," she says. "The longer they hold it, the easier it gets. Then they can start to move through the positions and add more complicated steps."

Zahorian emphasizes the need for good placement and talks to students about the importance of using their inner thighs and backs of the legs, mentioning the associated benefits of Gyrotonic. "They need to lengthen their extension from the hip socket and keep very square hips, so that everything rotates with turnout and spirals outward. The energy never stops."

At Ballet West, academy director Peter LeBreton Merz might give a 64-count adagio—sometimes 128 counts—to give dancers ample time to use their muscles. "I like a long adagio," he says. "People try to power too much and not use enough technique. When dancers are a little more tired, they are forced to think more technically and support the movements better."

Find Balance

The key to a solid adagio? "It's all about the balance," says Merz. "In ballet, the secret ingredient is to improve balance, because it affects so many things." Jumps are higher when the force is focused up in one direction. Turning, of course, is also easier when dancers are "on their leg." "Adagio helps you focus on those aspects and maintains balance through big, unsupported movements. We use it to prepare for everything else in center," he says. Merz encourages teachers to be very specific about port de bras and épaulement, since a slight difference in head and shoulder placement can affect a dancer's sense of balance as well.

Standing steadily on one foot can be especially difficult for dancers in pointe shoes. The shank may feel like a short and narrow platform that undermines a dancer's ability to establish contact with the floor. Merz tells dancers to imagine that their first and fifth metatarsals are reaching away from each other, reaching around the shank and onto the marley. For all dancers, he recommends not resting on the toes or heels, but making sure that the tailbone is centered over the ball of the foot. "Make the leg as long as possible and pull the pelvis up off the femur," he says. "It's not static or gripping, but a dynamic action."

Use Expression

Whether dancing alone or with a partner, an adagio provides the luxury of time—an organic opportunity for students to express themselves. "I like to talk about subtlety and mystery," says Wagner. "Dancers can create allure that will inspire an observer to lean in. I tell students not to 'give it away' in the preparation." In an effort to be more expansive, students might want to initiate a step with the head or shoulders. But Wagner warns against it. "There shouldn't be a movement before the movement. It's about using artistic volume control so it's not all on one level. Less is more!"

When students are tense, their adagio will be less successful. Zahorian recommends that these dancers remember to breathe through each movement. "They shouldn't inhale as they piqué, but exhale and release the energy," she says. If they are struggling to get their legs up, ask them to go back to tendu on the floor and revisit the idea of lifting to hip height with length. Or have them stand at the barre and try again there. "Most important, I like to emphasize the rhythm so that their movement isn't static. Dancing an adagio to the music can take them to another place."

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