Studio Owners

What Costume Will Look Good on All My Dancers? And Other Nagging Costuming Questions Answered


Costumes are one of the most important parts of your annual recital and competition routines, yet the process of choosing what your dancers will wear, measuring them accurately and ordering your selections can be fraught with second-guessing. We compiled your questions and asked the experts—the costume companies, that is—for their frank advice and guidance.

Q: I've got a class of 10-year-olds with a wide range of shapes and sizes. What's the most universally flattering costume shape?

"Something that has the focal point on the upper bodice, to highlight the dancer's face. Asymmetrical design lines are so much better than horizontal lines. But fit is the most important. Any costume is more flattering if it fits properly—not too tight, and not baggy or boxy."

—Deborah Nelson, Satin Stitches

"The tunic. It hides all bumps and lumps. It can be worn alone, or it can be worn with shorts or pants. It's a universal silhouette."

—Trudy Christ, Body Wrappers

"If you're dancing lyrical, you can't lose with an empire waist. It hides a midsection that isn't perfect, and the skirt lengthens the leg when you're moving. Overall, diagonal lines on a body—that either form a V or work their way diagonally down a body—lengthen a person. Think about the iconic wrap dress: It's been around for years. The neckline, the way it wraps—it looks flattering on everyone."

—Betsy Skaroff, A Wish Come True

"Anything that has a tank block neckline is flattering to all kids—maybe even a sweetheart neckline that has a mesh overlay that goes into a tank. That neckline gives coverage across the board, and it's not too risky for any age range. A skirt of some sort is good, too: circle, party, traditional, high-low."

—Ashley Zimmerman, Curtain Call

"A skirt that sits at the natural waist with a little flare is the most figure-flattering. My best advice is: Don't hide the curves—instead, draw attention to the waist and have fun with a skirt." —Jenilee Houghton, Revolution Dancewear

Q: What's the best way to measure for costumes?

"Remember that there is no universal size measurement. Each costume company develops their own. Always follow what that particular manufacturer recommends for their costumes."

—Nelson, Satin Stitches

"The student should be measured in a leotard. The girth is the most important measurement, because so many costumes are based on a unitard or a leotard or a shortall. Our costumes really do fit true to size. We don't tell people to size up if they're at the end of a size. Most of our fabrics have four-way stretch."

—Renee Stojek, A Wish Come True"

We have sizing sets that you can borrow for up to two weeks, for free. It's a leotard that students can try on, so you can see 'How does a child medium fit?' Studio owners know their kids best: If you know your kid has had a huge growth spurt, keep that in mind. Girth is definitely important. I think the bust is another important measurement. Ask yourself, 'Is it easy for me to alter this if it's going to be too big in the bust?' Or you can figure, 'The girth is going to stretch more in this costume, so I should go for the smaller size.'"

—Zimmerman, Curtain Call

Q: If my recital is in June, when should I place my costume order? What if my first competition is in February?

"Most studios place their recital costume orders in December and January and their competition orders in October and November. We know how important it is for studio owners to be able to add a student to a class later in the season or have their costumes ordered on short notice. Since we always have a wide variety of our styles in stock when you need them, it takes some of the pressure off. We ship those out same-day, out of our warehouse in the Chicago area, so most studios receive the shipment within two business days."

—Niki Arias, Revolution Dancewear

"Across the board, for any company, I would order before the early-bird discount expires. But order in advance of that date—don't let your order be one of many that day."

—Zimmerman, Curtain Call

Q: I only have one or, at most, two boys in any class at my studio, but I don't want their costumes to feel like an afterthought. How should I costume them?

"Match the girls by color. If the girls have a pink dress, maybe the boys wear a pink shirt. We have dance slacks designed by Robbie Fairchild that look like regular pants—they have a belt loop and a faux zipper."

—Christ, Body Wrappers

"If the girls are in a sequined diamond print, say, give him a vest in the same print. If she's in a pink sequined tutu, maybe a pink shirt that has a foil but isn't covered in sequins."

—Skaroff, A Wish Come True

"If your studio is very budget-aware, have one pair of pants and one white shirt, and just change out the cummerbund for each dance. That makes the parents happy. I try to find one really cool, trendy item that will make the boys feel just as special as the girls: a jacket, a sequin bow tie, a sequin cummerbund, the standard sequin vest. I encourage studio owners to find a complimentary fabric. The boys deserve something trendy, too!"

—Zimmerman, Curtain Call

Q: What are this year's recital costume trends?

"Digital prints are a new thing. Plus a return to sequins—more bling than last year. Also, back skirts [a skirt that's attached at the back] for lyrical and novelty leggings as bottoms, replacing hip-hop pants."

—Skaroff, A Wish Come True

"The cold shoulder is still super-popular. Digital prints and ombrés, too. With the little ones, definitely big hair pieces—headbands, flowers, bows."

—Zimmerman, Curtain Call

"More lace and sheers, lots of appliqués, beading and rhinestones. Fewer boy shorts and more of a retro leg—it's more flattering and allows the look of a longer leg." —Nelson, Satin Stitches

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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