Dance costume

Dance costume

The purpose of a dance costume is to enhance the dancer’s body and the concept of the choreographer (Dance Catalog 219). “Costumes are clothes and they are art. They make the invisible ideas visible” (Nadel 241). Dance costume has evolved throughout time and involves many different factors to create a costume that will engage the audience.

Professional dancers at the Tropicana Club, Havana, Cuba, in 2008



“Clothing worn in dance training generally reflects period, culture, and performance traditions” (Penrod 12). Throughout history, clothing has become more simplified as dance becomes more physically demanding and free. In the past, dancers would dance in gardens and halls in elaborate and expensive costumes. However, in the eighteenth century they began to dance in theaters and to “discard cumbersome garments” (Penrod 13) by training in daily clothing. The ballerina Marie Tagolioni, in the nineteenth century discarded weighty costumes and began wearing what the standard ballet uniform is today, a lightweight skirt. This change allowed the image of increased physical prowess (Penrod 13). Marie Tagolioni also inspired the first tutu. As dance increased in athleticism more of the body was revealed. The hemline of the tutu grew shorter until the leg was revealed and the pelvic area was framed in a tiny skirt (Art of Production 57).

Marie Camargo made a great impact on dance costume today. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries she “throws off the corset, bares her limbs, and dances barefoot” (Penrod 13). Duncan began a new look, inspired by the Greeks, of tunics and scarves. This simple costume inspired a new form of dance costume and new ways of moving (Penrod 13). This imitation of the Greek clothing freed the naturally beautiful lines of the human body and movement. This change in costume extended the dancer’s space, and caused the costume to be made to conform to the curves and shapes of the body as much as possible (Art of Production 57).


Dance costume must harmonize with the dance. The costume should never hinder the movements of the dancer or attract too much attention. A costume needs to be simple and expressive (Joiner 3). Dancing in ordinary clothing restricts movements. Through dancing in a standard or elaborate costume a dancer is placed in the correct frame of mind and mood to dance. Teachers vary on what they require for dancing outfits. However, the focus should be placed on the movement and not the body shapes (Cooper 49). A costume is required to be formfitting to emphasize the visual art of architectural designs that the dancer’s body creates (Penrod 11). It is an extension of the dancer’s movement and should never be just put on. The body is the choreographer’s medium; the choreographer and costumer work together to create the right theme (Art of Production 56). Also, formfitting costumes allow teachers to see the placement of the dancer’s body, and to make sure that the movement is right. If a dancer makes a faulty placement it can weaken or injure them.

The dancer’s tights and accessories should be worn so that the line of the dancer’s body can be seen clearly. Shorts shouldn’t be worn, because they don’t protect the dancer’s legs when doing floor work, and they don’t keep the body’s heat centered in the legs. Centering body heat to the legs helps keep the dancer’s muscles warm (Art of Production 74). Also, the costume needs to accommodate quick changes (Cooper 65).


Light-up costume for performance and dance by the artist Beo Beyond

The most successful costumes portray or relate to some characteristic or mood of the dance (Joiner 3). When designing dance costumes it is required to analyze the costume’s function in relation to the purpose. The main people involved with the designing of the costume are the choreographer, designer, costume maker (seamstress), and dancer. The costume should be designed according to the movements of the dancer, the budget, and to the comfort of dancer. A costume should not be just worn, the dancer needs to take advantage of its restrictions and use them to enhance the visual designs or ideas. Dance costume makes it possible to extend the potentials of the body design in space and to add new elements of stage interest (Cooper 49).

Dance costume needs to be designed with the understanding that the dancer has to move in the costume. A dance costume’s purpose is to support the concept of the dance. It should not dominate or overwhelm movement or the dancers in color, pattern, or mass. It shouldn’t look like the costume is “wearing the dancer” (Cooper 50). The costume should be designed to the theme of the dance. A dance costume needs to flatter the dancers, but can either harmonize or provide contrast to the dance (Cooper 48). The sets and costumes need to work together and work with the movements. They should allow movements to happen comfortably; so that the dancer does not have to worry about ripping their costume or losing a shoe. If a dancer is being lifted in the dance number then the costume shouldn't have bulky fabric around the dancer’s waist or accessories that the lifter can get their fingers caught on. Dance costume should fit like second skin so that the costume moves with the body of the dancer. The costume needs to be quick and easy to fasten, this can be made possible through Velcro or hooks allow (Cooper 65). The following will discuss costumes’ design according to color, texture and pattern, material, lining, women and men, accessories, hair, and make-up.


Color is the area of greatest exploration (Art of Production 58). It has a direct appeal to the audience’s emotions. Colors can either absorb or reflect light waves. Strong and intense colors tire the eyes (Guide to Dance Production 17). The designer should choose the colors of a costume while considering the amount of light it absorbs or reflects (Art of Production 58). Colors similar to violet give off a cold feeling and ones similar to red evoke a warm feeling (Guide to Dance Production 17).

The colors need to be relevant to the dance. They can be symbolic. Some examples of color being symbolic are that green creates a feeling of envy and white evokes purity. Color can isolate one dancer and should contrast with the accessories or props used throughout the dance (Ellfeldt 87). Color gives line and form depending on how it is used. Certain types of dances may require certain colors (Joiner 21).

When designing a costume one should choose colors that flatter and compliment the dancer’s body. Darker colors make the dancer appear slimmer, and lighter colors look better on a slim body. For instance, the color black appears to make the body attractive and slim (Penrod 14). Pale colors enlarge the shape of the dancer (Cooper 71). Designers should beware of loud prints or bold color combinations for they can distort the dancer’s body line and make it difficult for an instructor to determine the correct alignment of the dancer (Penrod 12). However, the designer should beware of large expanses of solid color and be cautious with how the colors are combined. Sharp contrasts of colors will chop the dancer’s body visually in two sections, not flattering the dancer. Shading the contrasting colors creates a unified appearance with the top and bottom colors of the costume. To make the light colors stand out and the dark colors recede, the colors should be shaded from light to dark. Dyeing is the most creative way to achieve color and effects. By mixing dyes one can produce a wide range of colors (Cooper 71).

If colored tights are being used they should be subdued tones. When using bright and garish colors for tights, they tend to make the dancer look larger. The top and bottom of the dancer’s costume need to blend harmoniously (Penrod 15).

Texture and Pattern

Texture and patterns emphasize or minimize parts of the dancer’s body. Some ways to create texture and pattern are through shading, patching, and tie-dying. Another way to add texture and pattern is through appliqué. Appliqué includes drawing or painting on the fabric, spraying the fabric, or stitching on to the fabric. Fabric pens are used to draw with and stencils are used for spraying on to the fabric. The stencil helps create pattern and texture, shading, and blending. When drawing on stretchy material, the dancer needs to be inside of the costume so that the design will not be distorted. When applying cut outs to the costume, the same material as the costume should be added on. For example, stretch on stretch. These cut out appliqués are either glued or stitched on to the costume (Cooper 75-77) Also, an effective addition to the dancer’s costume is layers of colors, which will be revealed when the dancer moves (Art of Production 59).


When designing a costume one needs to determine the type of material that will flatter and add to the dancer’s movements. The material should illustrate the quality of the movements and the idea of the dance (Joiner 18). The Designer should also consider the amount of light the material absorbs and reflects. Dance is about movement, so the way the fabric moves is very important. The Designer should consider the way a fabric hangs or moves on the dancer when creating the costume (Guide to Dance Production 19). Light weight material moves faster and easier. Through weighting the bottom of the fabric, the costume will move in a stately fashion (Ellfeldt 85). Natural fabrics tend to breathe and move more freely with the dancer. Silk, a natural fabric made by silk worms, flows around the body like water (Art of Production 60). Skirts, soft trousers, dresses and tops are frequently made out of stretchy fabric, because it has few movement restrictions. Some good examples of soft stretchy material are jersey, silk, chiffon, Georgette, and Lycra. If the costume is going to be dyed then cotton or silk should be used. Natural materials take the dye better. If using stiff fabric the designer should consider the possible boxy, square, and immobile look created through this type of material (Cooper 65).


Lining and shape can place a costume in its specific era or ethnic group (Guide to Dance Production 15). The lining of a costume gives form, provides qualities of movement and direction, brings out points of interest, and determines the pattern and style of the costume (Joiner 6). Vertical lines lengthen and fine down the dancer’s body, and horizontal lines shorten and widen it (Cooper 51). When designing for a group of dancers it is more effective to use simple lines (Joiner 5).

Women and Men

Designing a costume differs when creating for either a male or female dancer. Female dancer’s standard costume includes tights that cover the legs and hips and a leotard that covers the hips and trunk (Penrod 13). Leotards are an important basic garment in which most dance costumes are based from (Harrison 8). If the tights have a seam it is worn on the back of the legs. Women can wear underwear under their tights; however, if they do wear underwear, it must never be seen. By showing the line of their underwear on the leotard the long look of the leg is destroyed. Most dancers go without underwear, but if they are uncomfortable with this then they wear a thong or bikini underwear. Dancers also require a well fitting bra. Their bra should have no metal clips or hooks that could cause damage to the dancer or a partner. If their bra doesn’t provide enough support then the breast tissue can be torn away from the underlying musculature. Sports or dance bras provide enough support and allows the dancer to move with ease (Penrod 13).

Male dancer’s standard costume includes tights and a tunic worn on the upper body. Men’s tights should be pulled up firmly in the crotch to avoid a baggy appearance. Their tights are a heavier less sheer material then women’s tights, but they also wear their tights’ seams in the back. Men wear a dance belt thong under their tights for support and to keep the body aligned. Men also wear a regular belt or suspenders to hold up their tights. Suspenders give a better line and eliminate the bulky belt line. Their tunic, tight-fitting waist- length t-shirt, is either tucked into their tights or worn out. If it is worn out then it should just cover the pelvic area (Penrod 14). This tunic is fitted to allow more freedom for the male dancer’s strong movements. By adding elastics to the side seams, it provides a more fitted look (Harrison 115).



Dancers require certain accessories for their costumes. A dancer requires bobby pins and elastic bands for their hair, a towel to wipe away sweat, and sometimes they require knee pads. When using knee pads a thinner padding is easier to work with. A dancer should be prepared for any clothing emergency that may come (Penrod 16).

Usually a designer will apply accessories to a costume to help it relate more to the theme the dance. A designer may create false sleeves, collars, cuffs, wristbands, and shawls to emphasize the desired mood of the dance (Cooper 76). Sleeves should allow free movement at the armpit. To do this the armhole is cut very high. However, designers should avoid covering part of the neck. Covering parts of the neck disturbs alignment of the body and interrupts flow of movement. Also, they should avoid hiding the face. Any type of headdress should be placed on the back of the head so a shadow is not cast on the dancer’s face (Harrison 73).


Various types of dance require a certain type of shoe. A few examples of dance shoes are the Pointe shoe, bare feet, ballet slipper, and tap shoes. Each shoe should be chosen to harmonize with the costume and to the comfort of the dancer. Safety and avoiding injury is most important in all dance shoes. Footwear should not draw attention to the foot; it needs to blend with the outfit. If the dance includes a lot of turning the dancer should have a cover for the balls of their feet, enabling the dancer to turn with more ease (Guide to Dance Production 37).


A dancer’s head is the main focal point (Cooper 70). The designer should keep the dancer’s hair from becoming the focus (Art of Production 125). The dancer’s hairstyle should be something practical and attractive for the dance. Long hair should be secured in such a way that it won’t fall into the face or eyes of the dancer; if it is not secured it will distract the dancer and audience (Penrod 15). The dancer should be able to move their head. The head is the heaviest part of the body and should be able to move freely. This can be done through designing the dancer’s hair with the dance movements. The designer should also consider the type of dance. An example would be if it was a pair dance. This would require the female dancer’s hair to be securely fastened to the head, not a ponytail, so that it won’t distract the other dancer. A looser hairstyle is most effective if the dance includes swinging movements, allowing the dancer’s hair to stay off their face (Cooper 70).


The amount of make-up used on a dancer depends on the venue, lighting, and the distance of the audience. To enhance the dancer’s face and make it visible from a distance, the face’s bone structure should be emphasized, there should be a space between the eyebrows, and the eyes should stand out. The further away the audience is the bolder make-up required (Cooper 78).

The eyes are the most expressive part of the face. To enhance their features dancers should draw attention to and make their eyes appear larger. However, to maintain unity, the intensity of the eyes must be balanced with color and shape of the lips. The color of the lips needs to be complimentary to the skin color and costume (Art of Production 123). Women appear blusher, and have stronger eyes and lips (Cooper 78). Men apply a browner shade for their lips and have a stronger shadow for their jaw line. Dancers should also dust their faces with color and lightly add blush to their knuckles so it doesn't contrast with their face (Art of Production 125).


Costumes should be made with enough time to allow the dancers considerable time in the costume to make sure that the movements are right. Also, allowing time for rehearsals in the costume helps identify any problems or parts that restrict the dancer’s movements (Poor Dancer’s Almanac 25). A costume can be recycled if properly cared for. To save money, a designer can just add on accessories to the old costume (Ravelhofer 126). Costumes will last for years if they are properly cared for. They should be washed after each time they are worn. The costume should be washed in warm water alone with soap and water to prevent it from fading, rotting, and developing an odor. Hanging the costume up to dry will help keep it in good condition and in its original size. Costumes shouldn’t be stored in a locker when they are wet with perspiration (Penrod 15). They should be hung and arranged so they don’t wrinkle (Ellfeldt 174). Wrinkles can be prevented through using a hanger and plastic bag to keep your costume in (Harrison 127). If tights have runs they can be sewn, allowing the tights to have a longer life (Cooper 64).


  • A Guide to Dance Production "on with the show”. Reston Va.: National Dance Association of the American Alliance for Health Physical Education Recreation and Dance, 1981.
  • Cooper, Susan. Staging Dance. London: A&C Black, 1998.
  • Dance the Art of Production. 3rd ed. ed. Hightstown NJ: Princeton Book Co., 1998.
  • Ellfeldt, Lois. Dance Production Handbook, or, Later is Too Late. 1st ed. ed. Palo Alto Calif.: National Press Books, 1971.
  • Joiner, Betty. Costumes for the Dance. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1937.
  • Kent Harrison, Mary. How to Dress Dancers: Costuming Techniques for Dance. Princeton N.J.: Princeton Book Co., 1988.
  • Nadel, Myron Howard. The Dance Experience: Insights into History, Culture, and Creativity. All new 2nd ed. ed. Princeton N.J.: Princeton Book Co., 2003.
  • Penrod, James. The Dancer Prepares: Modern Dance for Beginners. 5th ed. ed. Boston Mass.: McGraw-Hill, 2004.
  • Poor Dancer's Almanac: Managing Life and Work in the Performing Arts. Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 1993.
  • Ravelhofer, B. The Early Stuart Masque: Dance, Costume, and Music. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • The Dance Catalog. New York: Harmony Books, 1979.

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