For most dancers, the day they receive their costumes is one of the most exciting times of the year. Some students start asking about costumes as soon as classes begin, anticipating recital season from day one. But for other students, costumes create stressors. These are the dancers who stand in front of the mirror in judgment of themselves. I know, because I was one of them.
In high school, I developed body dysmorphic tendencies. For me, being measured for costumes was extremely stressful. I remember standing there, waiting to see what those numbers were going to be, and worrying. By society’s standards I was thin, but that’s not what I saw in the mirror.
Many kids are self-conscious; it is a common side effect of adolescence. But some suffer in silence, not speaking up. They may have issues with their size, weight, and certain parts of their body. In fact, because of influences from social media and the internet, kids are becoming even more body-conscious at a younger age. It is crucial that, as dance educators, we have an awareness and sensitivity of this when choosing and measuring for costumes.
At my studios, “costume measuring week” is always the first week of November. We let students know in advance and put it on our studio calendar. This allows our dancers to get excited about the upcoming recital season, and lets them know they are that much closer to seeing what their costumes look like. We show them their costume pictures the week before winter break. This puts them in the mindset that after the break, we start recital choreography.
When measuring younger kids, I explain why and how we are measuring them. If there is a child in the class from the prior year or an assistant, I ask them to demonstrate the measuring process with me. Prior to taking measurements, I always ask children “Can I measure you?” or “Are you ready for your turn?” This allows them to be in control of their body and eases their nerves. If a young child is uncomfortable with being measured, I offer guidance to the parent and ask the parent to take measurements for me.
When measuring pre-teens and teens, I always place them facing away from other people in the room. We try to measure all preteens and teens individually—without being surrounded by their peers—so they don’t feel self-conscious.
No matter the age of the dancer, remember never to make comments about their body. If a child asks “Am I bigger than last year?” I will never say yes (or no). I might say something like, “Oh my goodness, you’re getting so much stronger and taller! That’s fantastic.” Additionally, I don’t let students see the measurement numbers when I’m typing or writing them down.
When choosing costumes, I take time to pick styles and colors that will flatter every body type in the group. When a dancer feels confident, they will dance with confidence: that is our ultimate goal. When the costume, choreography, music, and concept come together, the dancers make the magic happen!
Once costumes arrive at my studio, the dancers try them on. I am careful not to use phrases like “too big” or “too small” if I notice a costume doesn’t fit well, as those words can trigger negative feelings. For example, if I see that a student has a costume that is too tight or too small, I might say “You know what? This costume needs to be a little longer on you. Let’s get something that is more comfortable.”
I also make a point to ask each dancer, “How does the costume feel?” I run a quick rehearsal so we can make sure that the costume fits properly (not riding up or falling down) while the group is dancing. During this time, I am observing their body language and asking myself these questions: Are there dancers who are wrapping their hands around their waist because they’re self-conscious? Do their shoulders roll forward instead of standing up with pride? Are they not dancing to their fullest ability since putting in the costume?
These are the small behaviors kids sometimes do instead of saying that they are uncomfortable—and these are the moments that are opportunities for further questions. Ask: “Is this costume comfortable? How does it make you feel?” Simple gestures like this will prompt a child to give an honest answer. How they respond might mean exchanging a size, swapping out more securely-fastened straps, or adding an extra piece of fabric. But it’s our job as educators to help our students feel happy, confident, healthy, and safe.
Keep this in mind too: a size can make or break a dancer’s psyche. Wholesale costumes are not made to fit every type of body perfectly. Depending on the manufacturer, sizes will vary from style to style as well. Handing a dancer a costume that is a larger size than what they wear in regular clothes can take them to a negative emotional space. To help with this, I have small stickers to place over the size on the costume’s garment bag, and on each sticker, I write the dancer’s name. Yes, the size is still listed on the tag—but it is not the first thing a student sees.
Today’s kids are inundated with images in the media, and they are constantly comparing themselves to other people, trying to fit a certain mold. It’s important for them to experience a culture of care and sensitivity at the studio, taught by educators who celebrate their beauty, inside and out. Each student deserves to feel confident in their costume.