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Dance Costumes are worn for a collection of reasons, including:

  • to differentiate the performers from the audience - denote that they are special
  • to heighten the sense of excitement the audience feels at watching - done through spectacular or extreme costumes
  • to show that the dancer represents a character or role
  • to unify a group of dancers, show that they belong together
  • to emphasise the theme or point of the dance
  • to increase the attractiveness of the dancer
  • to emphasise the movement qualities of the performance (eg., ballet dancers wear short tutus to show their legs, ballroom dancers wear long full skirts to emphasise their turns and movement across the floor, jazz dancers often wear slim or tight costumes to emphasise the sharp lines of the movement)
  • to complement the set, music and/or venue
  • to underline the culture or origins of the dance form (eg. line dancing or square dancing outfits often display their country/western roots, Javanese or Flamenco dancers wear the dress of their culture, Morris dancers wear distinctive outfits rooted in English folklore)

Often costume can help an observer interpret the meaning or message of the dance, by taking into consideration the points outlined above. Costumes are part of the theatrical language spoken in a dance context, which also includes: set, lighting, sound, props, and movement. By piecing together the clues from these elements, an observer gains understanding about what he/she is watching, especially in dance where there is often no spoken script or narrator to explain the action.

In the early phases of the development of classical ballet, as well as in many forms of tribal dance, often the costumes are very elaborate and cumbersome, covering all or most of the body and restricting movement considerably. In these circumstances the costume 'does the speaking' as it were, for that dancer, rather than the dance movement. The costume communicates what is necessary for the audience to understand of that dancer's role and the movement takes second priority.

On the other end of the spectrum, there was a phase of postmodern dance in the 1960s and 70s where costume itself was totally shunned, as were lights, set, concept, training, narrative and all external agents, so that all focus was set purely upon the movement with nothing detracting or distracting from it at all. This era is still felt resounding through the contemporary and modern dance culture where often costumes are very simple, plain or minimal. While this is sometimes an artistic consideration, unfortunately these days it is more often a budgetary one.

For some choreographers, costuming is integral to their vision of the dance piece they are creating and they know from the word "go" what they want. There are others who have some vague idea, who know what they don't want, but who are not too sure how to hit on the thing that works. Then there are those who are primarily kinetic or intuitive creatures, and for whom what to dress their dancers in is a puzzle which they need someone else to solve.

When one approaches the production of costumes for a dance piece, whether the choreographer or the person-in-charge-of-costumes, there are three major areas to consider. They are:

  1. Physical Context. Who are you performing for? Where are you performing? Are there stage lights, or is the venue outside? Is the piece an act of worship, art, or entertainment?
  2. Practicality. Do you have a sewer to help you? Do the costumes flatter the dancers? Are they of an appropriate level of modesty considering Physical Context? Are the costumes designed well? Are they made to last do they need to be? What is your budget do your ideas fit within it?
  3. Design and Effectiveness. What are you trying to say through your choreography? Do the costumes enhance your message (it is easy for them to be a distraction, or worse, detract from the performance)? Have you considered the symbolism of colour, cut, fashion references, historical references? Most importantly, do the costumes increase the audience's understanding of what you are presenting?
 

Physical Context

It's very different when you're performing in a show, on a stage, with lights, to when you are dancing in a church, perhaps on carpet, at close quarters to the people watching you. The closer you are to your audience the more you need to be careful about details, finishing touches, modesty, and underwear.

On a stage you can get away with not hemming things, using pins, or having slightly mismatched garments which under lights will blend together. But in a small venue where the closest observer may be only a metre away, these things will show glaringly, and what's more, you will therefore be detracting from the aim of the piece.

There is also the element of where your presentation fits within the audience's perception of reality: by that I mean, if you are onstage, you are probably portraying a role, in a realm that may not necessarily represent the present, and in a context which possibly invites the audience to fit their own interpretation on what they see. You become, in effect, material for their imagination, something less real.

Just for an example, an evening dress with a low neckline and sparkling jewellery may provide just the right sort of magical effect on a stage. If you were to take this dance into a church, however, the lack of distance and stage artifice would suddenly bring you into a proximity to your audience which would necessitate some changes to this costume. The low neckline may make close viewers uncomfortable, the jewellery may look tacky in daylight, you would need to wear less make-up. (Of course it's entirely questionable whether such a piece *should* be taken off the stage at all, but I'm drawing the comparison as an example.)

To turn that situation on its head, a dance you may do as part of worship, may be done in some kind of simple garment that covers your body in such a way as to not offend or distract, with a minimum of make-up and accessories in order that the focus be not on you but on God. But to put this on the stage, more removed from the viewers, it would seem lifeless and drab. Put up in the realm where the viewer expects to be transported somewhere, you would need to think of ways to emphasise the message of the dance through the costume or props.

So it is clear that we need to consider the venue carefully. Practicalities weight heavily here a performance outdoors on grass cannot realistically be done in pointe shoes. If the outdoor venue is windy, you need to put extra thought into costumes that may be wispy or require extra closures to prevent them slipping out of place in embarrassing or distracting ways. In all scenarios, rehearse on location, in costume, at least once, in case serious changes need to be made to the costume.

Underwear is also important, especially where more than one dancer wears the same costume. Having the right foundation garments will determine whether a costume 'sits
properly, and having dancers in uniform foundation garments is important to ensure the group has a look that is collectively tidy, professional and not distracting. If underwear is too tight, it may cause unsightly creases under costumes. If it is the wrong colour, it may show through the costume or peep out from under the edge of a garment. Different bra straps showing underneath dresses can be especially distracting. It is very important to plan the underwear at the same time as planning the costume; it should not be left to the last minute, nor left to the discretion of performers.

Lastly you also need to consider your audience and what their expectations may be, as well as what will communicate to them. If you are dressing dancers to appear at an all-day, outdoor youth concert, your desired look should be very different to an occasion where your audience may be cultured adults coming to see an evening presentation at an art gallery. We'll discuss this more in the section about Design and Effectiveness.

Practicality

Do you have a sewer to help you? Do the costumes flatter the dancers? Are they of an appropriate level of modesty considering Physical Context? Are the costumes designed well? Are they made to last do they need to be? What is your budget do your ideas fit within it?

The practical considerations are very much interwoven with the questions of Design and Effectiveness. This is largely because it is your creative vision which determines what you are aiming for, but it is constantly being curtailed by practicalities. This can be very discouraging but at least if you know what you're up against from the word go, it might save you some stress.

Usually the three areas you must find a balance between are: cost, time constraints, and creativity.

Let's examine a practical example. You may have a vision of dressing your dancers in very distressed looking outfits, so raggy it's hard to tell what the garments originally were, and with inexplicable pieces of refuse and garbage sticking to them at odd places. Cost-wise, this may appear to be a cheap option because you can use old clothes and so on that already belongs to the dancers. However all that distressing, dirtying and painting etc., will cost money, and craft supplies usually add up to more than you think. Also, getting this type of effect right will take time, and someone who has an eye for detail and visual balance. So you see, it isn't as simple as it seems. In fact, an elaborate dress and jewellery may end up being a simpler option because you can pick up such things fairly cheaply from op-shops and garage sales, or borrow them.

Thinking through your resources will probably entail some help from your assistants. Talk through your ideas with your sewers and your visual people. Subtle and simple can be a great direction to go with your costumes, but often this will require some expertise on the part of a sewer helping you. It may not be elaborate, or fiddly to design or sew, but the trick to this kind of look is in the careful fitting, and if it isn't done right it will end up looking clumsy and shapeless. Find out what is possible by asking your sewer how confident they feel with your ideas.

Your sewing person is a key asset because one of the traps we can fall into when trying to cut costs, is to use fabric we already have and ask someone we know to sew it into our design idea.

Also, make sure you get an opinion from someone who is familiar with looking at presentations in front of an audience. It is important to bear in mind how the end result will be change by the visual effects of lighting and distance from the audience. For instance, you may love the idea of pastel colours to promote a feeling of peace, but from a few rows back and under bright white light, these colours will fade away to look very insipid. Equally, on a stage with theatrical lighting they will lose all their colour and take on entirely the colour of the lights shining onto them. So get an opinion from someone who can give you this kind of insight.

The most annoying constraint we usually have is budget.

Design and Effectiveness

What are you trying to say through your choreography? Do the costumes enhance your message (it is easy for them to be a distraction, or worse, detract from the performance)? Have you considered the symbolism of colour, cut, fashion references, historical references? Most importantly, do the costumes increase the audience's understanding of what you are presenting?


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The above article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dancewear). Modified by Apparel Search 8/8/05

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