March-April 2017 | Costumes Count

Michelle Cunningham advises instructors at her New Jersey school, Premiere Dance Hillsborough, to choose costumes that look good on all students.
Photos courtesy Michelle Cunningham

Costumes Count: How four teachers find the best fit for their dancers

by Tiffany R. Jansen

Inspiration for contemporary dance can come from almost anywhere: a piece of music, a moment in time, a life experience, even a state of mind. Whatever the source, when that inspiration comes, the choreographer’s job is to bring it to life through movement.

But movement alone is not enough to draw the audience into the world of the piece. All other elements—costuming, music, props, etc.—must coordinate with the choreography and concept in a way that makes sense to the audience. “Everything you do needs to come together to make the story complete,” says Michelle Cunningham, studio director at Premiere Dance Hillsborough in New Jersey. “One element may stand out more than the others at certain times, but they all work hand-in-hand.”

Costumes are often the first thing audiences notice about a piece, even before movement begins. Martha Chamberlain, a ballet teacher at Philadelphia Dance Theatre and a senior lecturer who heads the dance department costume shop at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia’s Center City, designs and creates costumes for BalletX, a contemporary-leaning professional company. Much of contemporary costuming reflects what Chamberlain calls the human quality of this genre of choreography. “It’s having the costume evoke the mood that the dancer could be any person,” she says. “Many times, dancers are in a costume that a person might walk down the street in.”

Her biggest challenge in contemporary costuming, Chamberlain says, is trying to create something for a choreographer who has made an abstract piece and doesn’t have a clear vision of what kind of costume would work best. Without a guiding idea “like ‘You’re a bird,’ there are so many directions you can go,” she says. “If there are no parameters, then it’s about what’s best for the group or the solo dancer.”

The choreographers who work with Chamberlain and costume designers like her are lucky to have a professional’s guidance. Quite often, “costumer” is one of the many hats that studio teachers must wear. We asked several teachers/directors how they approach costuming their contemporary dance competition students and performing companies.

Toeing the through-line

When Cherilyn Marrocco, artistic director of dance studio MAD Dance in North Miami, Florida, creates a piece, she starts with a storyline. A recent piece she choreographed for her competition team dancers begins with a girl whose father left her. This dancer is then joined by four other dancers who each tell their own stories of abandonment. By the end of the piece, the girls realize that they are not alone in their experiences. To complete her vision, Marrocco selected a flowing baby doll dress in a gentle rose hue to signify the dancers’ youth and innocence. “The costume was the last puzzle piece of my story,” she says.

Cunningham and Marrocco prefer to choose costumes late in the process. Lisa Burton, assistant director of Dynamics Dance Company at Premiere Dance Hillsborough, concurs. “Sometimes it takes a while to investigate what makes sense for the piece,” says Burton. When you investigate costume choices, ask yourself the following: will all the dancers wear the same costume or will each wear something different? What type of silhouette best suits the piece? What color scheme fits the concept or theme? Should the dancers look like dancers or everyday people or something more abstract?

For a piece about a family dealing with Alzheimer’s disease, Burton went with different dress styles to differentiate the various cast members: one style for the mother, one for the daughter, and a third for the additional dancers helping to tell the story. The costumes shared a palette, showing a connection among the roles, but varied in shade: dark pink for the mother, a slightly lighter shade for the daughter, and light pink for the ensemble.

Some contemporary dances are costume-driven. For one dancer’s solo, for example, Chamberlain created a costume with a gigantic tulle skirt that dictated the piece’s movement. Because the costume was such an integral part of the dance, Chamberlain made sure she created a prototype for the dancer to use during rehearsals.

“Don’t pick a costume because it’s pretty; pick it because you believe it goes with the choreography,” Cunningham says.

Performance company dancers at Cherilyn Marrocco’s MAD Dance in North Miami, Florida, model costumes from pieces they have danced.
Photo by Cherilyn Marrocco

The basics and beyond

Often the look of contemporary is stripped down, lean, basic. Just as George Balanchine famously dismissed elaborate ballet livery in favor of rehearsal clothing as costumes, contemporary choreographers tend to favor solid-color biketards or leotards, bare feet and legs, and subdued (if any) hair accessories. Yet there is still room in this look for innovation.

Chamberlain recalls a piece at her studio that made use of a simple leotard with over-tunic—both pieces had solid white fronts and solid black backs—which, when combined with the movement of the group piece, created a stunning visual effect.

For another studio piece, Chamberlain found inspiration in a photograph of a sunset the choreographer gave her. Picturing the dancers “flying into the sunset,” Chamberlain created simple leotards in a range of colors—pink, orange, purple—that evoked the sky’s hue as day turns to night.

Marrocco believes that overloading costumes with frills and accessories can shift the focus to the costume and away from the movement. “We try to move the audience, not distract them,” she says.

It’s also wise to consider the number of dancers in the piece. “A dance that has 20 dancers wouldn’t necessarily lend itself to a loud costume,” says Burton, “because [the dancers] already fill the stage so much that a big costume could be overwhelming for the audience.”

When dealing with a larger group of dancers, Cunningham likes to go with a uniform base and an add-on, like a shirt, in a different style for each dancer. In addition to offering a stylistic choice, this tactic can also provide practical benefits: for example, Cunningham says that dressing all dancers exactly alike can make even slight mistakes in their synchronicity more obvious.

Shopping tips

Because contemporary costuming doesn’t require the flash of sequins and rhinestones, choreographers and costumers may find inspiration for a unique look by venturing outside their studios. Chamberlain will often stroll through popular stores in the mall, searching for interesting street clothing that will allow a dancer to leap, bend and twist, roll on the floor, or hang upside down, but “still have an everyday-person look.”

How do you know what will work? “Take a dancer with you to the store,” Chamberlain says. Beware that off-the-rack fashions might not fit every dancer—especially if the group has a mix of child-sized and adult-sized dancers. “What I notice a lot is studio owners utilizing parents who are interested in sewing and have good fashion sense,” Chamberlain says, adding that choreographers can also seek out local design schools or high schools with fashion design programs that might have students willing to lend a hand.

A photo of a sunset inspired the costumes Martha Chamberlain designed for these Philadelphia Dance Theatre students, performing here at the Philadelphia Youth Dance Fest. (See “FYI: Educator-Founded Festivals Focus on Community, Artistry.”)
Photo by Julianne Harris

Costuming for confidence

Freedom of movement is a staple of contemporary dance, so it’s important to avoid anything that might restrict dancers’ bodies. Think carefully before choosing costumes with long skirts or tight fits and pay special attention to the clothing’s fabric. Pants, especially, should be made from a stretch fabric, jackets can often inhibit movement unless the choreographer agrees that they can be worn unbuttoned, and heavy material can weigh dancers down.

“The more confident your dancers feel, the better they will perform for you,” says Cunningham. She advises her instructors to choose costumes that look good on everyone in the group. That includes taking dancers’ skin tones as well as body types into consideration. Long sleeves can be flattering on pretty much any body type, Burton has found.

As a woman of color, Marrocco says she always appreciated teachers who took her skin tone into consideration when selecting costumes. “When I used to perform, I was put in blues or purples and burgundy,” she says. “These colors complemented my tan skin very well.”

Cunningham also suggests avoiding costumes that show the midriff or excessive amounts of skin, particularly on younger dancers. A dancer’s discomfort with her costume can negatively impact her self-confidence and performance as well as the audience’s reaction.

For example, Marrocco recalls a dance competition her company attended. “The dance parents felt truly uncomfortable watching several soloists dance,” she says. On one dancer, the leotard was too small to properly cover her bottom and crotch. “We were all worried the costume was going to snap off with the next step.” The dancer’s obvious discomfort with what she was wearing made it impossible for the audience to focus on the choreography.

When costuming students in a simple leotard, Chamberlain insists that the dancers wear tights. She also makes sure that each dancer’s costume fits correctly, and that the costume is built around the physical requirements of the dance: for example, if the piece calls for knee slides, her design will use pants to protect the dancers’ knees.

“I take those things into consideration because I was a dancer and I hated it when I was fighting with the costume,” she says. “I try to be as understanding as possible of the needs of both the costume and the dancer.”

Meeting the challenge

Having created costumes for studios, higher ed, and professional companies, Chamberlain believes studio choreographers face a unique challenge because of the time restrictions on competition entries and recital pieces.

“At a competition you get three to five minutes to show your piece. You have to spell everything out for your audience” and the costume must make an instant impact, she says. “It’s not like you have a half hour to [offer more] nuance.”

But she also expressed frustration with choreographers in all these venues who are willing to settle for overused contemporary looks, such as a men’s white button-down shirt and black shorts. “If you’re doing the black booty shorts thing, you’ve given up,” she says with a laugh. “If you’re stuck on costuming, get someone with a good eye and get some ideas from them.”

Additional reporting by Karen White.

Tiffany R. Jansen, a former dance teacher and choreographer, lives in Alpharetta, Georgia. She has written for Pointe and online for Self and The Atlantic.

DSL associate editor Karen White, a former newspaper reporter and freelance writer, has taught dance in private studios and choreographed musicals since age 17 and has no plans to stop.