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In 1982 the aesthetic of competitive ballroom dancing was suddenly and drastically transformed by a handful of the best dancers in the world who boldly showed up to the prestigious British Open Ballroom Competition in flowing “Ginger Rogers style” dresses. At the time strict requirements for nearly all competitions demanded ballroom dresses with short skirts with multiple layers of netting similar to a tutu. This rebellion changed the standard of ballroom ladies wear for decades to come so that today you can choose short and flirty or long and fluid and may avoid tutus entirely if you prefer. Although competition standards can be very specific, the colors, styles, and embellishments from which you may choose from give you more than enough to work with to make a gown your own.
Today the style of dress conforms to the movements and thematic element of each dance type.
Gowns for Smooth or Standard dances are generally long with flowing sleeves or scarves which emphasize the graceful turns the gliding movement of the dancers. Tango dresses are form-fitting in the body, leg, and sleeve, and with either a flowing skirt or a form-fitting skirt with a leg-length slit. Tango dresses almost always have a sash that trails from the dancers hand to the back of the dress at the waist.
Rhythm or Latin dresses tend to be shorter and with some sort of fringe on the skirt that accentuates hip movements. They are also sexier than Smooth gowns, with styles that feature a bare midriff or even a “bra” and skirt combination.
Some people opt to compete in regular evening clothes because they are unsure if they will continue to compete and don’t want to spend the money to purchase formal ballroom dancing attire. While it seems logical, it’s actually a mistake. Although you can successfully dance at a wedding or formal engagement in clothes from your local department store, competitive ballroom dancing gowns are made to accommodate the rigorous postures and movements of each style of dance. Even the finest evening dress will cling to your legs, confine you in places where you need range of motion, and draw attention to weaknesses in your dancing.
Ballroom dresses are made of highly-flexible fabrics and are designed to look their best in the specific posture and motions of each dance. For example, in International competitions the dancers retain a “closed hold” for the entire dance. A proper gown for this competition would be designed to look its best with the woman’s arms raised and bent with her elbows parallel to the floor. Although many teachers will tell you otherwise, most dancers agree that competitions can be somewhat subjective and in addition to the way you move, the way you appear does matter.
Many dancers also feel that proper costuming is important for your confidence and frame of mind while you dance.
Luckily, there options for those who are not yet ready to significantly invest in competition dancewear.
First of all, you don’t have to buy your gown. Renting is a common practice for new dancers. While a new ballroom dancing gown can cost several hundred to several thousand dollars, a rental generally runs about $150 - $250. The internet provides some of the cheapest rentals, however it’s to your advantage to find someone that you can visit in person to ensure proper fit. Most ballroom dress designers will also have a selection for rent.
Pre-Owned Ballroom Dancewear
Purchasing pre-owned competitive dance attire lets you wear a truly stunning designer ballroom gown at a fraction of what you would otherwise pay. A high-quality, designer sponsored gown will typically be under $1,000. Other dresses (from “homemade” to professional) will cost a lot less. Some sellers will even let you buy the dress if you decide you don’t want to give it back! When selecting a pre-owned gown, be sure to consider how many times a gown has been worn. Most pre-owned gowns for sale have been worn 2-6 times and are in excellent conditions. While it’s always best to try competition dresses on to see how it fits your particular body and how you feel in it, with pre-owned ballroom dresses you have the advantage of tailoring your purchase for a perfect fit. However, make sure you only work with a seller who allows for returns if the gown isn’t in the condition promised.
A basic, well-fitting dancing gown can be relatively inexpensive. Once you own the gown, you can spice it up with sequins, bits of mirror, sashes, or other adornments that can be purchased cheaply at a crafts or fabric store. Not only do you save money, but you’re dress is truly one-of-a-kind!
Choosing the right dress for an upcoming competition is both a personal and practical matter. If this is your first competition, it might seem like a daunting task. Let’s examine some of the main concerns for choosing a ballroom dancing gown that is right for you.
Fit is extremely important. Just because something feels good while you standing in front of a mirror doesn’t mean it’s going to stay in place once you’re on the dance floor. Be sure to move around in any prospective dance attire. Raise your hands above your head, kick and twirl. Perform motions that mimic what you’ll be doing in competition. Watch the movement of the sleeves and skirt. Will anything impede you or your partner during your routine? For Latin dresses, make sure that the top doesn’t shift out of place as you move.
The right ballroom gown will actually help conceal any weaknesses you may have in technique or body shape. For instance, if you have weak hip movements, a short skirt with a ruffle or fringe will help them appear stronger. Similarly, if you have trouble keeping a straight back in Standard dances, a few scarves draped from your neck or shoulders can help mask the shape of your spine. Examine your strengths and weaknesses as a dancer and then ask the seller if they have anything that might compensate for it.
Every competition has a specific set up of requirements. Be sure you know what they are. Lengths, fabrics, colors, and adornments are all specified. Simply having feathers on your gown when feathers are not allowed, will prevent you from so much as stepping on the dance floor.