Live Love Dance: Age Appropriate Costuming and Dress Code

“Children are like cement.  Whatever falls on them makes an impression.”  ~ Dr. Haim Ginnot

I remember when the show Dance Moms first aired on TV.  As I watched it several emotions flooded over me:  sadness, disgust and disbelief to name a few.  In so many ways the show portrayed an ‘evil’ dance teacher that belittled dancers, pushed young students to unhealthy levels physically and costumed them to look like ‘mini-sexy-adults’.  I still hope that this show was either scripted or overdramatized for entertainment.  The show put the dance world into a tailspin and not in a good way.  As a young teacher I witnessed a shift in the dance scene after the show aired.  Parents either were looking to join in on the Dance Moms craze.  Or, were hesitant to allow their child to join a dance class in fear that Abby Lee was lurking around the corner.  After watching this shift occur, I vowed that age appropriate choreography, education and costuming would always be at the forefront of my dance pedagogy methods.  I promised myself that I would never give into the ‘hype’ and would always be true to my core values.  Today I will discuss why age appropriate costuming and dress code are an integral part of our mission here at Exhale.  (Age appropriate syllabi and choreography are a topic for another day…)   

I had just finished hanging costumes to prepare for an upcoming performance.  A parent came in to take a tour of the studio.  Her eyes lit up immediately and I thought she was in awe of how they sparkled and shined.  Instead she looked at me with pure joy in her eyes and said, “It is so refreshing to see WHOLE costumes hanging there!”  What did she mean by that?  A WHOLE costume?  She meant just what she said!  Hanging up were tutus, dresses and costumes with full coverage…. No crop tops and booty shorts at Exhale.  She smiled and said, “This is the studio for us.”  I often get asked by parents, “Is this studio like Dance Moms?”  One of my personal goals is to debunk this myth that all successful dance studios have a competitive environment filled with dancers dressed in crop tops and booty shorts.  This simply is not true! 

*Side note:  I want to be clear that I am not judging dance studios that do not follow a full coverage dress code.  I am hoping that this blog will start an educational conversation and not a disagreement.  In the following paragraphs I will discuss the reasons why we believe so strongly in our full coverage dress code.  These are my beliefs and values that I have adopted over the years based on my personal experiences.  Everyone’s experiences and values are different.  I don’t believe one is better than the other, they are simply different.  🙂  There are many reasons we created our dress code.  These reasons include:  body love, uniformity and development.*  

Dance education should assist in creating body love and not body shame.  I have noticed over my years of teaching that young children spend so much of their time comparing themselves to others.  This child is a better reader, this child is a better runner, this child is a better singer, etc.  I don’t want there to be a clear reason for students to compare in Exhale’s classrooms.  If everyone is in the same outfit there is less reason to compare.  How do you think a child feels when some students are showing their midriffs, but they are one of (or worse the only one!) that is placed in a full coverage costume.  I know it would make me feel awful!  I cannot see how this practice would  build confidence or body love.  We have dancers of all shapes, sizes and colors that dance with us.  I would not want to deter them from dancing with us because crop tops are plastered all over our social media.  It would be so easy for a student to think, “I’ll never be able to wear that, so I won’t even bother.”  At Exhale the education and want to succeed supersedes costuming, performances and trophies.  Our goal is to make sure everyone feels comfortable, confident and beautiful.  🙂  

This idea of uniformity not only helps alleviate body comparison but also the dancers need to keep up with trends.  Recently new lines of super trendy leotards and dancewear can be found all over social media.  These clothing lines are often expensive and skimpy.  Allowing the dancers to wear an outfit they chose can create more anxiety around keeping up with the current trends and ‘hypes’.  I tell my dancers to leave their worries at the door and dance away the stressors of the day/week in class.  It’s hard for a dancer to do so while noticing they are the only one not wearing that trendy, new $100+ leotard.    

Arriving to class in the proper dress code also assists with the students technical development and feeling comfortable to perform the athletic movements.  I have always found it difficult to correct alignment if a student is wearing a baggy t-shirt or sweatshirt.  Dressing in a leotard and tights allows the instructor to view and correct any alignment problems to defray injuries and build proper technique while still allowing the dancers to be covered. One way to correct technique issues is physical manipulation.  A teacher may need to manipulate the leg, back, hips, etc into the correct position.  Doing this type of manipulation when a student is not covered by clothing in certain areas can be awkward for both the teacher and the student.   For example, if a student is not engaging their core muscles correctly a teacher may choose not to manipulate the trunk of the body if the student is wearing a crop top instead of a leotard.  This also tends to happen with students that are not wearing tights, as well.  A teacher may stray away from manipulating the hip flexors or knee joint if the dancer is not wearing tights.  Wearing proper dance tights also gives the students extra support for their developing muscles.  The elastic material compresses the muscles and keeps them warm, similar to a pair of athletic leggings.  Finally, I have noticed over the years that tights give extra coverage when young students have to perform large grande battements or leaps.  It keeps the leotard in place to ensure private areas are not seen and dancers are comfortable.  😉    

I have seen full coverage attire aid a dancer’s physical development, but can it also affect their emotional and mental development as well?  I think it can. I personally have made a decision not to place a student under the age of eighteen in a costume that is baring too much skin.  I do not want to make that personal decision for them.  Cognitively, their brains are not developed enough to make these types of choices when it comes to performance attire.  A personal choice to show off your belly button in public seems different than a mandatory or recommended spotlight on the stage.  I am sure we have all seen the episode of Dance Moms where the young stars of the show are asked to dress in a blue outfit that has a similar feel to lingerie.  Characters on the show described the outfit and choreography as ‘scandalous’ and ‘sexy’.  Are those really words we want to use to describe a young dance student?  Are you ready to define these words for your young, growing students?  

I know this is a hot topic in the dance industry.  These are simply my personal beliefs and decisions when it comes to costuming and dress code.  I also want to ask a simple question, do you feel a dance piece will be less successful, entertaining or meaningful if the dancer wore a full coverage costume?  Would the gymnasts at the Olympics not be able to perform their final revolution in the air if they were covered a little more?  I don’t think so… Maybe we have to start asking WHY?!?!  Why are young dancers asked to wear clothes that are skin-baring on stage and in the studio?  Does it have an educational or developmental value?  We have to ask these important questions, after all as Dr. Haim Ginnot said, “Children are like cement.  Whatever falls on them makes an impression.”  ~ 

Live, Love, Dance!
Mrs. Jen     

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