Smart talk about costumes, hair, makeup, and more
When a dancer steps onstage, he or she experiences an indescribable feeling. The warmth from the stage lights hits his skin; the energy from the audience fills her soul. All of the hard work behind the scenes—the sweat, tears, and fears—leads to this magical moment.
As dance educators it is our job to fully prepare dancers for that magical moment. We have rehearsed the technique and given the pep talks, but did we take the time to think about how the dancers will feel in their costumes?
Costuming is a head-to-toe process. Every detail matters. Is the fit correct? Is the shape flattering? Does each dancer feel proud to step onstage? The answer to each of these questions should be a resounding yes.
To help you, the studio owner, feel more confident in each step of costuming, let’s talk about it from the top down: hairstyles, makeup, costumes, tights, and shoes.
I previously wrote an article called Appearances in Dance: The Importance of Inclusive Hairstyles. In it, I talked about shifting away from the mindset of typical Eurocentric hairstyle expectations (i.e. slicked-back bun or flowing ponytail) and instead embracing any hairstyles that keep the dancer’s hair away from her face and neck. Many forms of braids, extensions, and weaves can be pulled back into a bun or ponytail, and there are natural and protective styles that may not require much change at all. Always consider different hair lengths, textures, and styling needs. If you have any doubts, ask your students’ parents. Involving them in hairstyle choices is both welcoming and helpful.
Remember, hair is part of costuming too. No matter what, hairstyles that are feasible and manageable for all members of your performance group are going to help everyone feel more confident in giving their best effort onstage. (Sometimes this might mean altering your creative vision, and that’s OK. We are dancers; we learned how to pivot when we were 5 years old—we’re built for this!)
Sometimes I scroll through the many dance teacher groups on social media and see questions like “What shade of lipstick looks good on all dancers?” or “What brand of makeup do you require your dancers to purchase?”
My answer is always this: there is no one-size-fits-all makeup. There is no one shade or brand of anything that will “look good” on all dancers, especially considering different skin tones and sensitivities. I learned this early on in my studio owner career. As a dancer of color, I was fine wearing red blush. When I sent out a makeup sheet requiring red blush, a mom of a Caucasion dancer told me that her daughter would “look like a clown” if I forced her onstage in red blush. (What? I had no idea!) We shared a good laugh about it and it made me reconsider my makeup requirements.
Now, my requirements simply state “skin-matching foundation, earth-tone eyeshadow, blush, eyeliner, lashes (or heavy mascara), and red lipstick.” This allows parents and dancers to pick shades that make them feel confident and brands that work best for their skin. If you are worried about your dancers matching perfectly, I assure you, no one will watch your beautiful choreographic creation and ask, “Is that dancer on stage right wearing Flamenco Red lipstick while the one on stage left is wearing Rich Rosewood?”
Costume choices can be tricky to get right, but it’s worth your thought and attention. Some costume companies have not caught up with the emerging inclusive culture of dance: from “nude” straps to pale peach mesh, many designs have a long way to go.
By now, I think we all have learned the hack of putting your dancer’s skin-matching foundation on the costume’s straps. This is the best way to ensure the right color—at least until we see more costume companies offering an array of colors for straps. All you have to do is use the dancer’s foundation to cover the costume straps; this blends seamlessly.
Mesh is more challenging. A seamstress might be able to remove and replace the mesh with a different color but this can become costly and is, of course, unfair to dance families that are themselves different shades. Covering the mesh with makeup is an option, but I find it often looks blotchy. I tend to avoid costumes with mesh for these reasons. It’s simply not worth it to have dancers uncomfortable onstage—and if the mesh doesn’t match the skin its purpose is defeated anyway!
One last piece of advice here: always read the costume description to see if it has a lining. Too often linings are thin or nonexistent. A costume that either provides proper support or allows for proper support is a necessity for many teen dancers. Remember that some costumes may seem flattering in the catalog but might not be the right choice for your students; think about necklines and clasps too. Moving with ease and comfort is a priority!
I grew up wearing “tan tights and tan shoes” and for a number of years, that’s what I required of my dancers too. (If a dancer of color wanted skin-matching tights, we had to dye them in tea or coffee.) Now with brands like Blendz Apparel, Tagless Tights, Weissman, Revolution, and others manufacturing tights in a plethora of shades, I think the notion of all dancers in tan tights and tan shoes is outdated.
Of course, I do still appreciate the concept of matching tights and shoes so the dancer’s line is clean and not cut off. I strive for this when possible, but I don’t live by it. At my studio, all non-competitive students receive a pair of skin-matching tights with their costume(s). Parents are extremely grateful that we go the extra mile to make their child feel seen and confident with tights that match their skin.
For competitive students, I think it’s important to consider the context of the choreography as well as the costume itself. Ask yourself, are the dancers supposed to look exactly the same? Is it OK if two dancers have skin-matching tights while the rest are in traditional tan? I don’t have the perfect answer, but my advice is to be thoughtful. I often select costumes that look best with black tights, since this is an easier, cohesive solution. Ultimately, as with hairstyles, if you’re not sure what to do, ask! Ask your dancers and their parents what would make them feel most comfortable and confident and go with that.
Some dance shoe manufacturers are now distributing different shades of jazz, ballet, and pointe shoes, but I believe we are still years away from having a broad enough range of skin-matching (and tights-matching) dance shoes. We need more manufacturers to be willing to offer matching tights and shoes in an array of colors for the ordering process to become simpler and inclusive. In the meantime, using skin-shade makeup is still the best way to go if you want to match shoes to skin color and/or tights color.
If your dancers wear half-sole shoes, look for skin-matching colors in the store or online. Discount Dance, for example, carries a variety of shades that blend well with many skin tones. Half-soles are increasingly common, and mismatched shades do distract from a dancer’s performance. For tap, we stick with traditional black shoes for all dancers.
At the end of the day, whether we know it or not, our words and actions around costuming matter. The moments we lead with thoughtfulness and care are just as noticed as when we don’t. Our students come in many beautiful shades and all deserve to feel confident in their dancing bodies.
From hairstyle options to costume styles, our dancers will be affected by our choices for years, if not a lifetime. Will they remember feeling proud and confident in themselves? You can assure they will by spending just a bit of time to think inclusively about all your costuming choices.