Hello and What Should I Wear to Ballroom Dance Class?

Hint: Dancewear

Part 1

The Universal Question

Almost every future ballroom dance student wants to know about dancewear. She (or he) is usually a little hesitant about asking, so I tell her to wear something fabulous. And I mean it. Have you ever heard a judge on Dancing with the Stars critique a contestant for wearing too many rhinestones? The ballroom world would stop spinning. Is there such a thing as too much spray tan? Ha! And if you still think I’m kidding about the fabulous thing, your first week’s homework assignment WILL INCLUDE Liza Minnelli and/or Tina Sparkles (Strictly Ballroom should be an assignment anyway) and/or a Victoria’s Secret fashion show. If only to prepare you. Folks, chime in with your comments here if you can back me up on this.

Dancewear! What to wear to ballroom dance class? Tina Sparkles (far left) from Baz Luhrmann's <em>Strictly Ballroom</em>
Tina Sparkles (far left) from Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom

Honestly, I’ll probably be wearing all black when you arrive. I have fifteen or twenty pairs of the same black pants. To my girlfriend’s chagrin, I wear black sneakers with the pants even though they have cuffs. I was profoundly happy when I found my ideal black t-shirt, one that I could purchase in sufficient quantity to wear for three weeks on end without appearing to have had a change of clothes. This. Is. My. Uniform. [Ed. Girlfriend: I’ve tried. He once wore a beautiful, blue plaid shirt on vacation, but a sea of black has buried it somewhere. We’re currently working on not tucking t-shirts into jeans. This is harder than it sounds.]

Still, I stand by my assertion that you should wear something fabulous. Really. What to wear confuses us all, and I’ve defaulted to black, as many dance teachers do, for simplicity’s sake. If someone has ever told to wear what makes you feel comfortable to dance, fine, but it’s like an invitation prescribing “dressy casual” attire. If it leaves you, as it does me, scratching your head, read on, dear dancers. At this point my wardrobe may have permanently tattooed the armoire space an inky black, but it doesn’t have to be your fate.

Okay, So What the Heck is Dancewear?

At its simplest, dance marries artistry to sport. Posture, muscle isolations, expansive flexibility, endurance, precise footwork and dozens of other considerations constitute the physical, athletic aspect of dance. And like any other sport, dance has its gear. “Dancewear” may not be a word as far as spell checker is concerned, but I promise you Google has other thoughts on the matter, and you’ll find a wide variety of dancewear options online. Its primary requirements are that it’s breathable and offers a range of movement. Though dance attire isn’t standardized in the same way uniforms might be, it should all have these two things in common. Armed with this knowledge, you can shop your own closet, attack the mall with a mission, or haul off and buy some capital-D dancewear.

Most dancers find that jeans fall into the too-restrictive category, but there’s nothing inherently verboten about them. For both men and ladies, clothing that easily permits a full stride is necessary, as are shirts that allow us to raise our arms. Smooth (waltz, tango, foxtrot) and rhythm (swing, salsa, rumba, cha cha, samba) dances draw on different techniques that are reflected in the standard gear for those dances. Generally, it’s helpful for an instructor to see the bending and straightening of the legs when students are practicing rhythm. Long, full skirts—completely appropriate for smooth dances—are a hindrance in rhythm. Likewise, tight, pencil-like skirts inhibit the graceful, extended strides of smooth dances. Be aware of jewelry that could get tangled up, of baggy clothing that conceals the hard work of the body, and of anything that restricts movement.

Ballroom Dance Shoes…The First and Last Thing to Trip up a Dancer

Shoes are a whole other ball of wax, and their discussion could easily constitute another ten blog posts. (Dance cocktail party tip: If you can’t think of anything to say, ask someone about their shoes. Guaranteed conversation.) Suffice it to say, shoes with leather soles are preferable to ones with a rubber one, and, eventually, proper ballroom shoes are preferable to street shoes. Rubber soles lend themselves to twisted ankles and a host of other indignities. Good ballroom shoes fit securely on the feet, offer a suede sole for the right amount of grip, and bend easily enough for a dancer to articulate his or her feet. They range from painfully thin-soled, “feel the floor”-type heels for intrepid ladies to dance sneakers with orthopedic inserts for aching dance instructors. Finding the right shoes can be a decades-long, Sisyphean task. After you’ve found the right ones, they’ll probably be discontinued.


In Part 2, we’ll go into a little more detail about clothing and address the other part of the dance equation—artistry. For now, drop me a comment. What have you found that works and doesn’t work for dance? I may even tell you about my epic wardrobe fail from back in the disco days.

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