Ballroom Costumes: Having the Total Package

by Renata Shvarts

“You never get a second chance to make a first expression.”

“You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it.”

“Dress how you want to be addressed.”  

These are just a few of the many popular sayings about the importance of dressing and looking right for an occasion, whatever that occasion may be. In our society, people are judged by their appearances. If a suit sits well, you are more likely to get favorable outcome from an interview.

The world of Dancesport is no different, and in fact our industry is more judgmental than most because of its competitive aspect.

The Highs and Lows of Judging

Young and less experienced dancers often don’t understand how crucial it is to have the right costume, hair, and makeup for a competition.  They think that dancing well is enough to get them into the next round, into the final, and into the top place, and yet that is not always the case. I remember myself making similar assumptions as an amateur dancer. It used to bother me when a female judge would comment on the shade of my lipstick by saying that it should be lighter and in pink hues. I could not understand what the color of my lipstick had to do with my ability to dance.

Once there was an article in DanceBeat about a professional final that I had danced in with my partner, and a very famous judge who was critiquing all the finalists. His comment about us was that, “This couple would have been placed higher if the boy would groom himself better.” The judge didn’t like facial hair on my husband’s face.  

I once swore that if I ever became a judge, I would never base my opinion on how the couple looked, only on how they danced. Fast forward 10 years, to when I began judging my first international competition in Israel, taking my job very seriously, especially while judging top amateur events.

In amateur latin, I saw a very good couple in the semifinal, but the boy’s number was ripped. All I kept thinking about was how much it bothered me that this clearly experienced couple did not laminate their number to make sure that it didn’t rip, and how his ripped number was flipping unattractively on his back. Because the judges couldn’t see his number the MC was constantly announcing the number of this couple, and this is what bothered me the worst, since I found this to be an unfair advantage for the couple.

To make a long story short, I didn’t put them in the final, even though based solely on their dancing they deserved to be there. I became the exact judge I swore I would never become; I became judgmental of the appearance of the couple and of their behavior on the floor. To me as a judge, it became just as important as their dance ability.

The Importance of Presentation

I have witnessed this many times: if a couple has the right costume, a great looking tan, perfect hair and makeup, and good presentation on the floor, they will place much higher than their actual dance ability. Why is that? Dancesport is first and foremost a sport of perception. Judges see the couple’s look before they see the couple dance and they start forming their opinion as the couples walk onto the floor, not when the couples begin dancing.

An experienced judge utilizes every possible second while judging, because there isn’t a lot of time to make a decision. For example, a judge has to select 6 couples out of 12 that are dancing in one heat. Each heat is 90 seconds. That means that, at best, each judge has 7.5 seconds to look at each couple, compare them with the other couples on the floor, and then actually write their number down if they believe that the couple deserves to make the final.  

Large competitions that have 100 or more couples dancing are even tougher to judge in first rounds, because often there can be as many as 20 couples on the floor, from which you have to cut half. This is why good couples often don’t make the next round, because they simply are not seen on the floor. Meanwhile, mediocre couples who put time and money into their look do make the next round, for the simple fact that they got noticed by enough judges. Keep in mind that this happens at big titled events as much as it does at collegiate events, each where there are a lot of couples in each round.   

The Total Package

Things may get easier in the semifinals, which run in 2 heats, and in the finals, where you usually have 6 couples dancing. However, the right look still gets you bonus points. For example, there are two great couples fighting for the first place and they are equally good (something that happens more often than one might think). A judge still has to place one couple higher than the other. This is when a more favorable look wins every time. We call it the “total package” and each judge will put his or her favorite “total package” couple first.  

What is the “total package”? It is when a couple has an excellent, well thought out look and perfect presentation on the floor. A “look” must include matching costumes that can relate to one another. This doesn’t mean that the costumes have to be matchy-matchy, but the costumes need to look as if they were made to complement each other, and not as if the gentleman made his costume without having the faintest clue of what his partner is wearing. This phenomenon often occurs in junior and youth couples, where parents have a hard time communicating, as well as in collegiate couples where budgets are limited and students borrow or rent costumes from other students.

Aside from costumes, couples have to be groomed well. This means a nice hairstyle and attractive, age appropriate makeup. (See Martina Lee’s article on the different styles of ballroom and latin hair for ladies). It also means a nice, even tan that doesn’t rub off on the dancer’s costume and, if it does, it means having another costume to change into in the next round. Often white shirts are the worst victims of tan and smart dancers will have multiple shirts to change into throughout the competition. It really looks quite bad when a male dancer comes out on the floor in a white shirt that has brown tan stains all over it.  

At this point, I would like to spend some time discussing what it means to have a nice, even tan. Each dancer must find the right brand of tan to use. The tan must have a balanced, golden tone: not green, not grey, not dark brown. Tan must be applied evenly on all exposed areas except for face, and the face should be tanned by waterproof makeup that can be blended well with the rest of the body.  When I say applied evenly to all exposed areas, I do mean ALL exposed areas — that includes underarms, buttcheeks, and toes. Hair should stay in place, especially for female dancers. I can’t tell you how bad it looks to judges when the bun fall aparts in the middle of the dance.

The Key to Costumes

Now for the main, core discussion of the article: what an actual costume should look like. For the male dancer, the costume should first and foremost sit well. It has to fit him right, not too small where shirt stretches too much and pants cut into the stomach creating a bump in the midsection. Not too loose, as if it hangs on his body like a hanger. Not too short, as if he is waiting for the flood.

When creating a costume, female dancers should take into consideration their body type, size, and other parameters. A costume should skillfully embellish the best attributes of the dancer’s body while hiding problem areas. The costume should move well with the dancer. It should be comfortable and light on the body. It should be tastefully decorated with stones, fringe, and beading. It should be sexy, yet not expose any private areas or appear vulgar in any way. We refer to this type of costume as “in good taste,” because believe it or not judges do get offended by some costumes, and they don’t mark those couples well.  

Competition shoes should look new, not like beat up practice shoes with scratches and scuffs all over. This means that all competitors should have separate pairs of practice shoes and competition shoes, not one pair for all occasions.

The Main Idea

Dancesport is an expensive addiction, however there are ways of making it more affordable. It’s better to spend money on one good costume that will last for years and can be resold later on. All dancers who are on the budget should know how to decorate a costume themselves to save money. Dancers should also know how to create simple hairstyles and makeup applications. There are many tutorials online that go step by step on how to create a certain look. At the end of the day, there is no excuse not to look good on the floor.

It may take years for a couple to master the art of the “total package,” but with the help of coaches, experienced dress makers, and hair and makeup artists, all dancers can look like champions on the floor.   

Renata Shvarts is a certified WDSF World Class Adjudicator as well as a Chairman of Judges with USA Dance and with NDCA who has judged some of the largest and most prestigious dance competitions in our country and abroad. She is also the founder and co-owner of the Basic Ballroom dance studio chain, which includes Basic Ballroom New York, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. Her students have been competing in and winning major ballroom dance championships worldwide.

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