We Are What We Wear: A Dancer's Perspective

Classic Arts Features   We Are What We Wear: A Dancer's Perspective
Julie Diana, a journalist and principal dancer for Pennsylvania Ballet, discusses how costumes shape a dancer's body, movement and attitude.


Imagine you're wearing a giant, floppy Frisbee around your hips. As you walk, it adds weight and bounce to your step. Try to turn quickly and the saucer skirt lags behind, like it has a stubborn will of its own. This is how it feels to move in the tutu from William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. The costume might have space-age style and flair, but to dance in it requires a very grounded sense of strength and coordination.

The clothes we wear onstage do more than help create a visual aesthetic. They function as an extension of our own bodies, or like a trusted partner. We have to feel comfortable with added layers of fabric against our skin and confident that they'll present us in the best way possible. Costumes also transform us into the roles we dance like an elaborate game of "dress up": We are regal in bejeweled tutus and tiaras and then animalistic in flesh colored leotards with our hair down. During a performance, we are what we wear. Our costumes shape our bodies, affect the way we move, and influence the way we feel about ourselves.

When most people think of ballet, they picture perky, classical tutus. These costumes are a typical part of our wardrobe, yet they have been tweaked or replaced altogether for neoclassical and contemporary pieces. Take the Vertiginous tutu, one of the most whimsical costumes I've ever worn. The skirt and leotard bodice are made of neon green velvet that is both stretchy and breathable, while the back and neckline look naked to the eye but are actually covered with a thin, nude mesh. There is no elaborate beading, embellishment, or stiff tulle. Instead, designer Stephen Galloway chose an eye-popping color and a sexy, geometric shape to reflect Forsythe's playful and extreme choreography. It is classicism with a twist. Even the men are dressed in purple velvet shorts and leotards with flesh-colored backs. And everyone has bare legs.

In contemporary works, it is common for dancers to perform without tights. Muscles tend to look more defined; visible flesh evokes a kind of informal physicality. Yet I always feel naked - cold, even. There is something about a thin layer of nylon from waist to toe that makes me feel dressed, warm, and prepared to dance. Maybe I'm conditioned to feel this way after years of putting on tights like a daily meditative practice. But not all dancers are so attached. "I don't mind the feel of bare legs," says Principal Dancer Martha Chamberlain. "It takes a little while to warm up and feel comfortable, but I think it looks interesting from a distance. As far as doing close ups, I'm so scarred on my legs [from being a tomboy] that I need a base tan to make it look okay."

Pink tights can hide a dancer's skin imperfections, but they are also very revealing when it comes to line and technique. It's easy to see when our legs are not fully extended, properly crossed, or moving with articulation. Everything is exposed, particularly in a ballet like Christopher Wheeldon's Polyphonia. It is a stark, neoclassical piece whose costuming is reminiscent of George Balanchine's Agon and The Four Temperaments.The men are dressed in simple unitards while the women wear leotards and pink tights - no jackets, skirts, or coverage of any kind. "Every little step you take needs to be the best is can possibly be," says Soloist Gabriella Yudenich. "The costume shows everything." It inspires us to get back to basics, to really lengthen our lines and focus on proper alignment. Its simplicity also showcases the intricacies of Wheeldon's choreography and contrasts the complexities of Gy‹rgy Ligeti's score.

Now, cue the red pointe shoes, slouchy clothes, and sneakers. Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room takes a dramatic turn with costumes by fashion designer Norma Kamali. The clothes look pedestrian; everyone starts dancing in a variety of slouchy shirts, skirts, and pants. Not often do dancers get to perform in clothes that feel as comfortable as pajamas. "The costume really helps with Twyla's movement," says Yudenich. "Some moments have to be soft, especially in your upper body. The loose-fitting top makes it flow a little bit." On bottom, she wears a combination of nude nylons, red socks, and red pointe shoes. "It cuts my leg line, since we're all red from the ankle down," she says. "I have to point my feet as hard as I can because they really stick out." While the leotards in Polyphonia expose the dancers' bodies in a uniform and academic way, the Upper Room costumes focus more on style and functionality.

The Stompers in Upper Room, for example, do not have to point their feet at all. In fact they're encouraged to fling themselves around and not worry about form. The Stompers wear white leather Reebok sneakers with thin pieces of suede glued to the soles, which enable the dancers to slide across the marley. "You don't have to warm your feet up," says Soloist Francis Veyette. "It's great because there's a lot of support and you can really grip the floor. It only gets problematic late in the show when you end up sweating a lot in the shoes." The piece is so demanding that the dancers' perspiration makes the sneakers feel squishy, like they've stepped in a puddle. The women Stompers have a gluey mess in their shoes because they rosin their nylons and socks to avoid slipping in the sneaker. Ballet dancers aren't used to working in thick rubber soles. Pointe shoes are easy to manipulate because they mold to our feet. Sneakers, however, have a bulky ledge to fall over, and it's easy to sprain a foot or an ankle. If a dancer is about to fall, it's safer to just go with it.

That seems to be the theme for dancers in Tharp's ballet - just go with it. They reach the point of exhaustion, are ready to collapse, and then dance some more. The vocals layered over Phillip Glass' music in the final section are like angel voices, reflecting the dancers' state of euphoria. Even the costuming suggests fatigue: The color red appears more and more throughout the ballet as dancers slowly shed layers of clothing. It's as if their cores are so overheated that they can't bear the weight and warmth of extra fabrics. The female Stompers, like everyone in the ballet, finish wearing much less than when they started. They bow in jazzy red leotards, nude nylons, red socks, and sneakers. Flash back to the 1980's, and the Stompers look like they've been through a marathon aerobics class. "That's the worst part," says Chamberlain, "when the lights come up and you remember what you're wearing. But when you're dancing and moving, you don't even care."

Chamberlain's experience is ideal: To lose yourself in a role and dance without inhibition. What we wear during a performance helps us do this. And although we prepare for each piece wearing things like practice tutus in the studio, pink tights for rehearsal, and socks over our gym shoes, nothing compares to putting on the real costume with full hair and make-up. When we walk out onstage under the lights, we are momentarily transformed.


Julie Diana is a Principal Dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet, holds a B.A. in English from the University of Pennsylvania, and has written for various dance publications.

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