The Costume Connundrum

Dancing in class in leotards and ballet skirts give dancers great freedom of movement. You’ve rehearsed the steps, are ready to go, but then…. there’s the costume fitting.


Romantic Tutu – Ballet

Suddenly, the dance that was learned so meticulously in class for the performance seems like a totally different set of steps. What happened?

            It’s the costume!

We all want to wear the tutu, the romantic skirt, character regalia, but it takes some getting used to. Whether you are a dancer, singer, or actor, the costume can enhance your performance, or detract from it.

For example, when I was in repertory at The Light Opera of Manhattan in New York City, I had to wear period costumes as I sang or danced.  Costumes as diverse as Victorian dresses (operetta), Japanese kimono’s (The Mikado); Marie Antoinette 1700’s era dresses with large side panniers (operetta) were “de riguer.” In other shows, period costumes, such as Shakespearean garb, southern belle hoop skirts, as well as traditional ballet tutus, both short and romantic, all presented their own set of problems.

Let’s start with ballet.  

No matter how beautiful that white Swan Lake, or green Emerald tulle is, it still scratches. As you dance, your arm or leg can brush against it, causing irritation. In the case of a longer skirt, the longer it is, the easier it is to trip, no matter how well hemmed. The motion caused by dancing makes the fabric swing, swish, and twirl, making pockets of air resistance. This air resistance actually makes it harder to move quickly. That pique turn which usually is so crisp and light, now seems slower and duller.  We must get used to that costume and regain our alacrity.

This is most noticeable in character parts where heavier materials may be used for dancers such as parents, animals and villains with dresses of heavy brocade, extensions, such as wings, or large, swinging capes. Outside of ballet, costumes for theater and opera generally tend toward the heavier fabrics, due to historical accuracy in period pieces.


Victorian dress example

If you’ve ever wondered why those historical people in other centuries were so formal, you might look to their clothes. Clothing was much more restrictive with floor-length dresses, bustles, pull corsets, hoop skirts, layers of petticoats and high collars. It really was more difficult to move, sit down, get up, walk across the street without tripping on a hem, as fabric swished, pulled, and restricted everyday movement.

Back in the Gone with the Wind ante bellum days, it was quite a feat for a girl with a hoop skirt to sit down gracefully without the hoop flying up to hit her in the face, while exposing all of her petticoats! Gentlemen helped ladies, as they rose, walked, and promenaded, not just because of chivalry, but for reasons of practical deportment.

As a dancer or actor, you must learn how to move in these period piece costumes, along with the manners and gestures of the period, including bow and curtsy.

Today, we are so used to casual wear, such as jeans, tee shirts, short, easy fitting dresses, that we don’t give more than a second of thought to proper posture, either sitting or standing.  However, when we step onto that stage, we also step into the footsteps of the past, as well as that of fantasy.  How do we move?   More importantly,  How do we dance?

But back to ballet and theater…

Some of the costumes I mentioned above did present a challenge. Moving in a Japanese kimono, or dress from another culture, presented its own set of priorities. How did you move? Was it the costume, which restricted, or was it a cultural custom that drove the movement?   A Victorian dress is lovely with a full skirt, but the fabric swings and sometimes gets caught on your legs as you move. You must lift the hem to climb a set of stairs on stage, or to dance carefully in a scene, such as adults do in Act One of The Nutcracker.

One of the most difficult costumes I ever had was the Marie Antoinette era large dress with side panniers (bustles) that made the dress so wide that it was hard to enter or exit from the wings. One had to step sideways through the inner curtains of the wings to get onstage, or else accidently take some of the sets, lights, prop table items, and possibly curtains with you!  It was a challenge, but a solution was found.

The point is that whatever your costume – short tutu or romantic, it changes the dynamics. What you wear affects how you move. Sometimes, as in beauty, art must suffer. While you may have to endure the scratch of the tulle, you will also look beautiful!



Photo: Ballet – Romantic Tutus

GerardM from nl [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Victorian Dress

By Πελοποννησιακό Λαογραφικό Ίδρυμα (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

November 25, 2015

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