Dancing is more fun stoned. Here’s how to glue rhinestones on practically anything, Part One.

So! You have some perfectly good piece of clothing, or item of dancewear, or a shoe, or a cat or whatever, and you think, “Self, this really would look a lot better if it sparkled like CRAZY.” Congratulations! I agree with you! Let’s glue some rhinestones on that action!

In this series, I’m going to walk you through an actual recent stoning project and give some general tips on what to do, what not to do, and my own process that I’ve developed over the course of screwing up a lot. As always, questions and your own experience and tips in the comments are greatly appreciated.

All the advice in this post is going to be designed for the At-Home Stoner, but it’s also a good guide to check out if you’re buying a ballroom dress, or something that already has rhinestones on it, so you understand where your pricetag and your stones come from. (Personally I will only get free-range, locally sourced, organic, gluten-free rhinestones, but we all make our own compromises.) Ready? Then let’s get completely and egregious stoned. (That’s right. There are going to be a LOT of jokes like that in here. Can’t help it, won’t help it. (Rhine)stona 4 life and all that.)

Rhinestone supplies

Part One: Get a Box. Of, um, rhinestoning stuff. Supply list time!

  • Rhinestones (a bucketload of them, way more than you think)
  • Rhinestone Color Chart (optional but useful)
  • Adhesive of your choice (I use Gem-Tac)
  • Application tools
  • Unsparkly thing that you want to make sparkly
  • Some awesome kickin’ jams because this is kind of a boring process (hello, podcasts!)
  • A well-lit and well-ventilated space
  • A good flat surface with plenty of room that you won’t be bummed about spilling glue on

What rhinestones should I choose?

My friends, the first question is, what amazing sparkle are we going to glue onto some unsuspecting and presently insufficiently sparkly surface? If you’re planning to do this kind of thing on the regular, it’s worth investing the $30-$40 into a Rhinestone Color Chart, the equivalent of a Pantone book or a Home Depot wall of paint chips. I purchased mine years ago from Rhinestoneshop.com, and it’s been a fantastic investment. It’s also a great tool for online dress shopping – what color is Amethyst AB really? (Answer: it’s much more blue than it is purple.)

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If you don’t have a color chart, and are buying stones locally, you can always take your fabric with you to the store and check on in there, but it’s been my experience that rhinestone sellers don’t have years of patience for you futzing around with their tiny boxes of expensive stones. Know what you want before you go, or at least have it narrowed down to a few key options. There are a ton of great places to buy stones online, including

If you’re local to the LA or Orange County area, I recommend the following real-life stores – either Bead Source (with locations in Silverlake, Reseda, Valencia, West LA, Thousand Oaks, and DTLA) or Bohemian Crystal (in the fashion district in downtown LA).

How many rhinestones should I buy?

This is a cost-benefit analysis, for sure. Typically you buy rhinestones by the gross (144 of the little suckers), and for a conservative project, let’s say a top, you’ll want three or four gross at a minimum. For an entire Smooth dress, you’re looking at about 20-30 gross when all is said and done.

I buy mine and then immediately dump them into little containers and label those containers with my label maker. I do this because it is deeply gratifying to me and gives me a sense of being an Organized Person in this one, completely pointless, and utterly inconsequential regard. You, um, you can leave them in the bags. Doesn’t matter.

Why do I need so many rhinestones? I’m not in the circus.

It’s true. (Or IS it?) But wearing an unstoned fabric on the floor, under the lights, tends to look washed out and matte and really, really flat. It doesn’t show or accentuate your movement, or draw the eye. Even if you just do a basic scatter of same color sparkle on your fabric, it will light up on the floor and make you look alive and vibrant. If you want to go beyond that to an actual design, you’re looking at even more rhinestones. We’re talking competition and performance here – obviously if you’re headed out social dancing you don’t need to glue on the bling. (Although I will admit that I totally have. No shame!)

What kind of rhinestones should I buy?

Swarovski. I’m really not compromising on this one. Here’s the deal – Swarovski rhinestones are made of actual cut, faceted crystal. They have a bajillion little facets and they sparkle like CRAZY. Other “rhinestones” – especially Korean ones – are either cut glass, or worse, molded plastic or acrylic. They’re the cheap-o jobs that you see on skanky tops from Forever21. Some people like Preciosa stones, which I’ll admit I’ve never used. I have heard rumors that they tend to fall off unless you use E-6000, whereas I can testify from personal experience that Swarovski stones really stay stuck on with Gem-Tac. I have tried ordering rhinestones from Elite Crystals (they use glass instead of crystal), and they’re not as good. If you’re really in a budget crunch, wait and save money or use fewer rhinestones. I think, if you’re going to spend the money anyway, just buy the best ones and be done with it. Swarovski forever!

Also buy extra because you’ll end up needing more rhinestones than you think, and there’s nothing worse than running out the night before you need a costume finished with three damn inches to go and no more rhinestones. You’ll drop a bunch on the floor, and you’ll find them weeks (and even years) later, and think to yourself, you are an expensive, tiny, glittery bit of mess. I love you, but I also hate you.

True story – I have found rhinestones stuck to the soles of my feet, I have woken up with them stuck to my cheek, and I have found them in the parking lot underneath my car. That is what you are signing up for. Once you buy a bag of fabulous elusive sparkle, there’s no going back.

Oh my god. This is really expensive!

Yes, it is. 10 gross of Swarovski Crystal AB size 16ss will run you about $70. (That’s 1440 stones). Definitely take the time to shop around on the internet and see whose prices are the cheapest at the moment. Just wait til you start gluing the little suckers on – you’ll see why those finished ballgowns have such high price tags. There’s a pretty high PITA (pain in the ass) cost factored into that.

What is all this flatback, hotfix, 16ss business?

Okay. So you want to glue on rhinestones, which means you want flatbacks. (The backs, uh, are flat.) Hotfix rhinestones you heat up and attach – nobody likes that. They have an adhesive back that melts onto the fabric when heated. It’s impossible to move them if you mess up, it’s difficult, you need a hotfix tool…just forget it. Glue glue glue.

Flatback rhinestones come in a bunch of different sizes, measured in “ss” (stone size) – all the way from ss5 (1.9mm across) to ss48 (11mm across). My go-to size, like everybody else, is ss16 or ss20 – anything smaller than that, like the ss9 in the picture below, is just way too time-consuming to glue on unless you’re doing a small highlight, and you don’t get that much bang for your buck.

Swarovski also has different cuts, or facet options – from their new “Xirius” cut (2088) to their previous “Rose Xilion” (2058). Unless you’re a dress designer or a huge rhinestone aficianado (in which case you probably do not need this how-to guide even a little bit), there’s no great difference between these. Some people think that the 2088s are sparklier, and they probably are, but I doubt that it’s going to be something that noticeable.

You can also get rhinestones that you can sew on, which is great for highlights, big fancy blingy things. Of course, you can glue those on too, and many people do. It’s just a question of what will be easier and work better once you actually start moving in the garment.

Rhinestone Size Guide

What does AB mean?

It means “Aurora Borealis” – it means that this particular rhinestone, should you choose it, will sparkle and shine like the very Northern Lights draped upon your body, shifting and shimmering in endless fascinating patterns, and causing men throughout the ages to look up to the sky in wonder.

It means they’re extra sparkly.

Swarovski invented this technology about fifty years ago – they coat the crystal with a thin, metallic layer that is extremely iridescent and reflects whatever colors are near it. This is why you can use Crystal AB on pretty much ANYTHING – it will reflect the colors around it.

What kind of glue should I get?

Any vendor that sells rhinestones will also sell adhesive, so pick that up at the same time. You’ll have several options, but I recommend Gem-Tac. It’s less noxious, sticks great, and is pretty forgiving. Plus it’s cheap. You can usually find it at Michael’s or Jo-Ann Fabric, or even Walmart. Some people stone with E-6000, but that stuff is super toxic and dries clear and hard as a rock, so if you have something you really don’t want to move, it’s your guy. (Another true story – Shawn remounted our toilet paper holder in our bathroom into the drywall with E-6000 and it’s been great for years, so, you know, take that into account.)

What is this weird stick with a ball of wax on the end?

It’s a rhinestone applicator. The theory is, you can use the little ball of wax to pick up individual rhinestones and place them on the fabric, thus saving you many years of your life. I have not found that to be true. Some folks like these things, but I’ve never found that they help me that much. I have a very technologically advanced system of glue, my fingers, and some cheap-o straight pins that I use for making dots of glue on my fabric. It’s pretty uncomplicated, but it works! Sometimes if I’m really working in tight quarters or I’m having a rough time, I’ll use a pair of tweezers. That’s about it. We’ll go into this process in more detail in Part Two, so just hang tight.

All right, friends! That’s the end of Part One. Stay tuned for Part Two, where we actually glue some sparkly crap onto some fabric! 

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What’s in your dance bag? Ballet Edition!

Welcome to guest blogger Adult Beginner, who writes about the journey of ballet as a grown-up lady at her blog. If you haven’t checked it out, you SHOULD; she’s funny and smart and insightful and very honest. And she draws fantastic pictures! So thanks, Adult Beginner, for letting us take a peek into your dance bag! This is the second installment of our “What’s in Your Dance Bag?” feature – see the previous post, and read the comments from other savvy dancers talking about their dance must-haves.

Adult Beginner

Huh, pink and black or GTFO, I guess.

From left to right:

1.) Bobby pins. Everywhere. Forever.

2.) Scünci hair band, for keeping it smooooooth.

3.) Sansha Nijinsky full-sole leather ballet slippers, in the mesh bag. That mesh bag is brilliant marketing. I would almost stick with Sansha for life just for the thrill of that mesh bag.

4.) Capezio split-sole canvas ballet slippers. Don’t remember the style name for these. If it was stamped on the bottom somewhere it has long since worn off. The canvas makes a prettier pink color and texture than the leather, but man they get dirty! Gross, sorry for your eyes, you guys.

5.) Sansha Pro 1C split-sole leather ballet slippers, in mesh bag, yay.

6.) Black cotton Motion Wear shortie-shorts, because I constantly worry that I will forget my skirt or shorts or whatever and will be forced to do ballet in just tights and a leotard. That is just way less clothing than I’m interested in. Therefore, shorts in the bag.

7.) The bag itself: just a dumb old cotton tote. Bags with pockets and zippers and compartments and phone holders and magnetic closures and buckles and things seem great for organizing all your business, but in reality they just add weight on the shoulders. A plain old tote is so much easier and lighter. And can be thrown in the washing machine.

What else is usually in there: water bottle. Sometimes a pair of leg warmers. Phone is in my purse. Same for lip balm. That’s all a girl needs.

Stay tuned as we feature more guest bloggers in the coming weeks and look at what’s in THEIR dance bags. Thanks again to Adult Beginner  – seriously, check her out!

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What’s in your dance bag?

Ever wonder what’s in those big ol’ bags dancers carry everywhere? I do! Because I’m unbelievably nosy curious!

So in the spirit of full disclosure, I’m opening up my dance bag. Here’s the essential stuff I drag around every day, that I can’t leave home without.

But what I really want to know is, what’s in YOUR dance bag?

What's in your dance bag?Don’t leave home without a way to send out aweome jams into everyone’s ears! I’m a huge fan of the Mini Jambox by Jawbone – in fact, it’s saved my butt more times than I can count. Usually when I head to a studio to teach, they have a sound system, but sometimes speakers are on the fritz, or the giant tangle of cables is not worth the ten minutes it’ll take to unravel, or there’s just generalized technical difficulty in the air. This little bluetooth speaker packs some serious sound, and it fills up a room without being obnoxious or tinny. Paired with my iPhone, I can pretty much create a mobile dance studio sound system wherever I go. (Also great for travel, teaching on the road, or in clients’ homes!) The battery lasts forever, it pairs flawlessly with any bluetooth device, and it comes in a ton of fun colors.

Don’t leave home without Spotify, either. This app (available for iPhone and Android) is a dancer’s best friend. Instantly stream any music you could possibly think of, right from your phone! The free version is fantastic, but Shawn and I happily pay the $10/month subscription – that lets us stream anything ad-free, forever, and it also gives the option to download files to your device in case you’re in a no-bars situation. Search by artist, song title, album, as well as playlist – seriously, you can search “standard foxtrot” and press play on a pre-made playlist that will have you gliding across the floor in strict tempo. It’s an amazing way to find new music, old favorites, and specialty tunes!

1.) My choreography notebook. I always have this bad boy with me. I like to jot down ideas, keep track of fixes in choreography or routines, write out timing, and generally take notes on lessons. I love using this music notebook by Moleskine; in case I need to write out a little bit of a melody or a rhythm, it makes my life a lot easier. Plus I love seeing a page that reminds me where dancing is coming from – it’s a creative reminder to keep the music in mind!

2.) Apples. You guys, I love apples. They travel well, they’re delicious, they’re crispy and juicy, and I am never without one. I’m at least an apple a day person, but usually more like two or three. It’s a major grocery store emergency at home when we run out of apples – in fact, one of the crisper draws in the fridge is the Apple Drawer. What else would you put in there? Dude. Apples.

3.) KIND bars. Okay, here’s the thing. I get really grumpy when I’m hungry. And I love snacks. (For real, the first question about any party or event I always ask is, “so, what kind of snacks do you think they’ll have?”) Obviously apples are my favorite go-to, but sometimes an apple alone can’t get the job done. Or I’m hungry and I discover that I’ve already eaten the only apple in my bag (DISASTER!). I’m a huge fan of KIND’s bars – they’re made with all natural ingredients, no chemicals, and they’re available in a ton of fun options. I’m not a sweets person, so I really like their savory flavors (honey almond BBQ, jalapeño, sea salt and dark chocolate, etc). I like KIND bars that are low in sugars and high in protein to help keep my energy up between lessons. (All their products are also gluten-free, non-GMO, and kosher.) Plus they survive in my bag, don’t fall apart, and taste great even when I discover one four days later and go, “oooh, hey, snack bonus!”

4.) Burt’s Bees White Tea Extract towlettes. Let’s face it. Sometimes dancing is a sweaty business. Or sometimes you have on a full face of makeup and JUST CAN’T HANDLE IT anymore. I keep these guys in my dance bag to make sure that I can always freshen up after taking class, before a lesson, or after a performance or at the end of a night of dancing. They’re easy on the skin, remove makeup tolerably well (don’t expect too much), and are pretty cheap. That’s a win.

5.) My boy shoes. I have so, so many pairs of shoes. It’s ridiculous. Some I keep for specific reasons (“hey, what if I need to dance outside on concrete in at least a two inch heel but I don’t want to wear a black shoe?”), some I keep because I’m lazy (“hey, I should throw these awa– oh, forget it, I’ll deal with that later”), and some just are…around (“wait, when did I even buy these? I really do not think I have ever seen these shoes before…”). But for most teaching and general purpose practicing, I like to wear a boy’s Cuban heel Latin shoe. (“Boy” because I have small feet and a men’s shoe is still too big.) It gives me enough stability to lead anything, but still enough of a heel to be up off the ground. And, well, usually kids’ shoes are a little cheaper than real ladies’ practice shoes, and boy’s shoes tend to be wider in the toebox which is good for my wide, flat, no-arch-having feet. I love my boy shoes. My go-to shoe of choice in the high heels department is, of course, the unstoppable and unbelievably awesome Ray Rose Drizzle (slim heel in gold).

Not pictured: about a thousand hair ties, my makeup bag, and, three earrings (none of which match), and receipts for about 239842098034234 cups of coffee.

So! What’s in YOUR dance bag? (Tell us in the comments!)

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Ballroom Dress Rental: A User’s Guide

Knock Knock

Who’s there?

Ballroom Dance Dresses.

Ballroom Dance Dresses who — wait, are you kidding me? You cost HOW much? Bwahahahahahaha, NOPE.

(just a joke I hear a lot)

This beauty is a stunning and different ballroom (Standard) gown.

This beauty is a stunning ballroom (Standard) gown. She can be yours for only $3600. (Which is a very fair price.) Dramatic Jewel available at Vanda Dance

Love ballroom dancing but dismayed to find that you can get a used car for the price of a competition or performance dress?*

Thought about gluing rhinestones to crap you already have?

Considered buying a knockoff dress from some shady dressmaker in Hong Kong through EBay?

Honey, we’ve all been there. Don’t feel bad.

Fortunately for dancers ladies**, the world of insanely expensive dresses has experienced a slight improvement in recent years, and that is the emergence of the RENT-A-DRESS. (It’ll pick you up! Hopefully. If the bodysuit fits well.)

So now, rather than spending two grand on a dress you love but might wear three times a year, you can spend two hundred to five hundred dollars to rent a gently-used fancy gown that only a few other ladies have sweated their fake tan into will look great on you.

I’m a huge advocate of ballroom dress rental. Firstly, it’s a super cost-effective way of getting out on the floor in something that makes you look like you belong there, without sinking tons of dough into a dress.

It also lets you change it up a lot more than you would if you had purchased a dress – so if your body changes, or you dance different material, or you dye your hair a really fun shade of fuschia, you aren’t locked into a dress. Plus it’s fun.

* Seriously. On Craigslist right now I could get a pretty solid early 2000s Lincoln Navigator, a tow truck bed, a super nice 2003 Ford Focus, or a creepy 1998 white van to commit all my serial killings in. Each for $3600.

**and honestly, how much does it suck that this is exclusively a lady problem? Dudes can just buy whatever they need and go to town. No big deal. I swear to God, once my partner bought an entire competition outfit AT THE COMP the day we were dancing and had the seller hem the pants. Good to go. About $800 – WITH new shoes! Jesus.

So! Let’s get started! How do you rent a dress?

STEP ONE – Open up a bunch of browser tabs

That’s right, this is an entirely online experience. So get thee to a rental website. I recommend the following (basically in order of my own personal, for-whatever-it’s-worth preference):

  1. Encore Ballroom Couture – I love these guys. Beautiful top end dresses that look up to date and are in great condition, fabulous photos, easy to use, and great service. For my money, they have the top-end-iest dresses (their European collection makes me drool). Not cheap, but worth it. And they have the option to buy many of the dresses.
  2. Vanda Dance – a new venture from Ballroom champ Victor Fung and family (I have a suspicion that the name is V&A, as in Victor and Anastasia, his lovely dance parter and fiancée). They are the nicest folks, and although I haven’t used the rental service yet, I’m planning to! They operate out of Orange County which is super convenient for me, and I have seen the kinds of dresses they rent hanging around (har har har, hanging around) their studio many times. As soon as I’ve rented from them I’ll let you know, but I am confidently recommending them to my own students. You can rent or buy virtually all the dresses, AND they rent accessories! Super cool.
  3. RentBallroomDresses.com – a huge selection. Worth it when you can’t find anything that looks good or that you like. I’ve also found that they have a wider range of dresses for ladies who need a larger size or who want more coverage than you get with a spandex handkerchief and 2394829384902834 rhinestones. Dina, the owner, is a pro-am dancer who wanted more options, and her business partner designs all the “Mimi G” dresses. I’ve had great success having students rent from them in the past, and their customer service has always been just epic.
  4. Rhinestone Dress Rentals – these guys almost didn’t make the list, but I checked them again and they’ve upped their game. They used to have a pretty sad selection but I see a lot more options from actual dress designers, but I’d still go with one of the top three unless you really can’t find anything.
  5. Rhythmic Rentals – I’ve never used them; haven’t ever found anything that I was crazy about. I don’t know about their customer service.

STEP TWO – Go shopping!

But, but, but…what do I pick? Well, first off, narrow it down by style. Are you doing Latin, Smooth, Rhythm, Ballroom, or something else? (If you don’t know, ask your teacher.)

LATIN/RHYTHM

There’s no real difference between Latin and Rhythm costumes. Not really. The big question is, what are you comfortable wearing, and what will enhance or detract from your movement quality? Here are some general guidelines that I’ve found from my own personal experience of looking at people wearing dresses AND trying on a bunch of dresses over the years and going, huh…well, that’s appalling. Please don’t take it personally and don’t believe me too much.

  • Long skirts work for long legs. Shorter skirts work better for shorter legs (which I am the proud owner of).
  • Butt ruffles are rarely a good idea.
  • Midriff-baring costumes require a high degree of confidence in your midriff and the ability to contain your core pretty much 110% of the time.
  • Bare arms are not as bad as you think.
  • Long fringe makes you look slow, short fringe makes you look fast.
  • Big pouffy skirts also make you look slow.
  • Asymmetrical hems can be pretty cool.
  • Unless you’re Yulia in this actual routine, don’t wear fringe pants.

Okay! So you’re looking at what appear to be a bunch of swimsuits with flappy bits and rhinestones sewn on. What size should you get?

Well, ballroom dresses are actually pretty forgiving in the size department. Usually they’ll stretch a good two, sometimes three sizes in either direction. So if, for example, you wear a size 12, you could probably order a medium or a large, or anything in the 8-14 range. (In fact, many sites will give you a range of possible sizes.) It will depend a lot on the dress – sometimes you can get away with a totally ludicrous size, sometimes not. It’s worth emailing the rental site if there’s a dress you love and asking how much flexibility you have. I have done that many times – and they’re usually very forthcoming and honest. They want you to find a dress that fits as much as you do!

The other consideration is cup size, since costumes have built in bodysuits. Not a big surprise here, but if you are boobs-lite, you can order whatever you want. If you are boobs-classic, pay a lot more attention to the cup size indications. Sometimes it may be possible to wear an additional bra underneath your costume, if it’s a really closed in design, but I don’t recommend it. It adds lines and creases and bulk. A well-fitting bodysuit should give you enough support – and I say that having helped many ladies of very generous bosom select dresses.

STANDARD/SMOOTH

To float or not to float? That is the question —

Whether ’tis nobler in the arms to flutter

The chiffon and shine of outrageous ballroom,

Or to take arms as yet by man unfetter’d,

And not, by choreography, get stuck to your partner.

(It’s a work in progress. It was good up to the end there…)

So, yeah, the big difference between Standard and Smooth gowns is, you guessed it, FLOATS. That’s the name for the extra drapey fabric dangling from your arms in a Standard dress – because you’re in closed position for your entire dance, it’s not a problem. But because Smooth can open up, you can just imagine the infinite ways to have costume fails.

Rare anymore are the dresses with full attached floats (like the one above). Instead, most dresses now have removable floats or armbands that you can wear or not wear, so it isn’t a huge deal. Beyond that, Standard dresses tend to have fuller skirts with more layers (more classic ballgown-y) and Smooth dresses tend to be closer to the body and to be sexier (because of all that on-your-own shimmying you do).

The big consideration on Smooth or Standard dresses, besides sizing, is length. You don’t want the hem of your dress dragging on the floor, or up around your calves. Dresses should fall to the top of the foot at their longest – you want them to graze your shoe tops but not to touch the floor. (The judges will have a hard time judging your footwork if they can’t see it, and you’ll step all over the hem and rip it out.) Sometimes the dress site will tell you, other times not. If you’re tall or short (basically outside the 5’3″-5’8″ zone), email before you rent and verify that the dresses you have selected will work for your body.

Okay! So you’ve picked out some dresses! Yay! On to…

STEP THREE – Try that bad boy on

Usually renters will allow you to request one to three dresses for try-on at a time. There’s typically a fee for this, as well as shipping, but honey, it’s WORTH IT. Read the rental agreement at each site to make sure you get the picture, and be aware that you must return the dress undamaged and unaltered. No pinning or hemming or anything. A stone or two might fall off, no big deal, but it better look exactly like it did when you got it.

When your Big Box O’ Dresses arrives, it will be heavy. The dresses will be shoved into bags inside that box, and you’ll think, that seems like a totally crazy way to store them…until you try to fold one. Then you will understand.

Try on your selections with your dance shoes, and a friend. A friend who really likes you. A Dress Buddy.

If everything you ordered looks like total dog vomit, then join the club! That happens a lot! Good thing you did not buy any of these dresses! Ha ha, dresses, you are stupid and now you are going back to dress jail.

STEP FOUR – Find a winner

When you’ve found a dress you like, send it back to the renter and request the rental for whatever future date you’ll need. Obviously, dresses are hard to come by around big competition dates, so if you want something for Emerald or the Ohio Star Ball, think ahead and reserve that dress well in advance. For studio showcases or smaller comps that don’t fall during major events, you should have less trouble.

Typically you’ll get a dress for three to five days, which should cover the getting it, wearing it, and shipping it back. If for some reason you need longer, contact the renter and explain your special circumstances. Again, the same rules apply – don’t damage, stain, alter, or otherwise screw up the dress. If you do, they will happily charge you the full amount and you will own it, which totally defeats the purpose of this whole renting scheme in the first place.

If you DO end up loving your dress, and can’t imagine your life without it, contact the renter to see if you can buy it. Usually, if it is for sale, they will apply the rental and try-on costs (less shipping) towards the purchase of the dress. And when you want to change it up, you may be able to consign it right back to them.

So there you have it! Go forth and rent, my lovelies – and tell me in the comments about your dress renting experiences! (Or disasters. Or ask questions. Or WHATEVER, it is open season down there.)

polar express

Please don’t buy this dress, because I love it and someday it will be MINE. (Polar Express at Encore Ballroom Couture)

Related: The ALOD Guide to Ballroom Practicewear

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Emotional Training

“I’m just worried,” said my friend, “because you seem really sad.”

She sat cross-legged, facing me with the same easy intimacy we had always had, even though I hadn’t seen her in a few years.

“I’m just figuring things out,” I said, at a loss for words to express what was happening in my life, but desperately wanting to convey something, anything, that would articulate that I was good, but in the midst of a deeply personal transformation. “Everything’s good. I’m not sad. Not really. I’m just – I guess I’m just processing a lot, I’m sort of straightening it all out.”

“Okay,” she said, “I believe you. I know you’re in the middle of it right now – I can’t wait to see what it’s like when you get to the other side of this.”

“I’m doing a lot of feelings,” I said. “I pretty much always figured there were about four: happy, sad, sleepy, hungry. Those are my go-to.”

“I have a friend who teaches first grade,” she said. “She has a wheel with a lot of emotions on it, and she has the kids point to the feeling they’re having. Maybe you should get one.”

“It’s really not a bad idea,” I said.

*     *     *

oxford-skyline_1010001cFor the first twenty-eight years of my life, I was all about school. (Much like I am all about that bass.) I was a highly dedicated student, I pursued undergraduate and postgraduate education and a career in academia, and I was trained at some of the best universities in the world. My mental training was extremely rigorous. Sometimes it sucked and sometimes it was awesome, but it left me with the ability to walk into pretty much any setting, anywhere in the world, and be cool with whatever was happening. I was good to go, whether I was in a third-grade classroom, a gender studies conference, a snarky dinner party with currently fashionable literati, or a summit on nuclear policy. Not to say that I was equally expert in every single subject, but I knew how to learn, I knew how to research, and I had amazing credentials that would get me through pretty much any door until I could figure out what was happening.

When I became a professional dancer, I yes-you-can-do-pull-ups-for-major-reps-heres-how_aswitched gears completely and pursued physical training with the same zealous single-mindedness. (Some would say “bloodless fanatacism”.) I was strict in my attention to nutrition, to strength and endurance and high-intensity training, to flexibility and stamina, to dance technique both within my own discipline and in other traditional disciplines. I was a disciple of the Kale Method, my own personal approach to transforming my body into what I believed it needed to be. Sometimes it sucked and sometimes it was awesome, and in the process I discovered how much control and agency I had in my own body – a realization that fundamentally changed the way I walked through the world. Naturally it met with a lot of congratulation from the body-conscious world around me, which left me feeling deeply ambivalent. I enjoyed the validation, but suspected that there was something pretty fundamentally screwed up about it.

And now? Well, for the last year and a half, I’ve switched gears again. I’m deep into my emotional training – I’ve found the man I want to spend the rest of my life with, and I’m exploring what it means to be a partner in every sense of the word. That’s no joke, my friends! It’s a training just as demanding as graduate school or trying to get oversplits or run a marathon, except that there’s often very little outward evidence of what you’re doing. Nobody hands you a degree at the end, and you don’t get to go buy cute hot-pink lycra clothes for it (although, obviously, you totally CAN and in retrospect that would have been a pretty solid idea.) Sometimes it sucks and sometimes it’s awesome, but let me tell you – the hardest thing? Is that there’s no framework.

It literally took me until last week to realize that this was what I was doing. I wish I’d been able to tell my friend what I was doing when I saw her, but I hadn’t figured it out yet. And she was right – there was a lot of sadness, and a lot of other emotions too, feelings that I’d pretty much just locked down during Training Phases 1 and 2, and that were only now getting recognized and reconciled. I am grateful to be thinking about my life this way, because I no longer feel like I’m losing ground all the time. Like I’m a big slacker who isn’t Actually Doing Anything.

Am I currently up and ready to go on my Latin? Could I drop right into the archives and pick up my historical research where I left off and finally publish that book I’ve been fooling around with for years? No. But given a week or two to get back in the groove, I absolutely could.

Am I as devoted to the Kale Method as I was? Am I hitting the gym six days a week? Am I training to the point of physical exhaustion and seeing huge improvements? No. But given a week or two to get back into the groove, I absolutely could.

Instead, what I’m actually doing is being mindful of my emotional responses to people, to situations, to stimuli. I’m striving to be as open as I can to new experiences and different ways of living, with way less judgement and way more appreciation. I’m finally accepting some deep pain and loss that I’ve avoided for a long time because, hello, it’s incredibly painful. But I no longer feel at the mercy of my feelings, as if my emotions were weather that I had no option but to endure until it passed. I’m facing a lot of fears and actually talking about what I feel instead of locking it down so that I can get back to business. Because right now? This IS my business.

So watch out! Because I’m still working towards being able to pound out a bunch of unassisted pull ups, to (finally) learn some Greek, to being able to run a 5K without wanting to die a horrible death, to re-engaging with the world of academic thought that I left for awhile. I know that the successes and accomplishments I gained in my mental and physical training are still there, waiting for me to roll back into the library or the gym, and that soon I’ll be able to integrate all of them together and make choices about which particular part of myself to improve on any given day, but for now, there’s some emotional work that is way overdue.

[Ed. Note: Two dudes next to me in the coffee shop are chatting their heads off about bench presses. I feel you, bros. Talk about being on topic!]

 

 

Why the comfort zone is and isn’t your friend

comfort zoneWe’ve all seen this picture, right? “Life begins outside your comfort zone,” etc. And man, that’s totally true. But I want to present another side of things today – not staying in your comfort zone, but instead…

The intense benefit of making yourself physically comfortable during challenging situations.

So this idea that we need to push ourselves, to step outside our comfort zones and try new scary things, is absolutely correct. And that process is probably going to be, by default, exciting and intense. It might produce some anxiety, or a wash of other emotions. (Feelings soup.)

But it doesn’t have to suck.

We have this messed up idea that “leaving our comfort zones” means that we have to be miserable the whole time it’s happening, as if suffering lends virtue to the learning process. Untrue!

A few years ago, I was working at a dance studio and having a very challenging conversation with my boss. She and I were not on the same page at all, and we were both genuinely trying to make things better, but it wasn’t going very well.

After about forty minutes of frustration, we agreed to take a break and re-convene. I walked into another part of the studio, blowing into my cupped hands and searching for a sweater, because the room we had been using for our meeting was the temperature of a walk-in meat locker. I was freezing!

I ran into my partner, and he said, “How’s it going?”

“Kind of like crap,” I said. “Plus I’m a ice cube. That room sucks.”

“Why don’t you take a space heater with you when you go back in?” he asked. “I bet [your boss] is cold, too. You guys will probably get further if you’re comfy.”

So I dragged a little electric space heater in, set it up, and within about ten minutes, we were able to resolve matters and move forward with energy that was about twenty degrees warmer (in temperature and in spirit).

Thus I learned my first and most important lesson about comfort zones: Push yourself, be better, all the time. But get comfy in your own body.

How often do we run into this when we are learning something new in dance? I know that learning new movement can be hard, can feel weird, can be a little funky. But how different would that learning process be if I breathed deeply and continuously, if I relaxed my neck and shoulders, if I released the tension I was holding, and the fear about looking stupid or doing things wrong?

Answer: um, a bunch, actually. I have been working on it. It’s crazy how much of a difference the comfiness of your actual physical body makes. That sounds stupid and obvious until you realize how often during an average day we disconnect from our bodies and forget to feel good and move harmoniously and easily. Having a tough conversation? Learning something new? Doing something that causes you anxiety? Deliberately choose to relax. Put your body into a position, a configuration, that’s actually physically comfortable. Change your environment, if you can, to make yourself more comfy. Keep breathing (the good big deep breaths, not just “I am continuing human respiration on a technicality” breaths). It’s hard  – ha! so step outside your comfort zone! zing. – but worth it.

Pushing outside of your comfort zone and growing as a human is awesome, but it’s tough sometimes. So don’t make it harder than it has to be – get comfy and see how much further you get!

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Transparency

And that's just true.

And that’s just true.

So a month or two ago, Shawn and I were talking through our students, and making sure we were each up to date on everyone’s progress and situation. I started to talk about one of my students, who hadn’t been taking any lessons lately. I felt badly about this, and after about three minutes, Shawn stopped me.

“You’re talking about this student, but you’re so focused on your own story that you’re losing his,” he said.

“Wait, what?” I replied.

“Do you think he feels bad about his dance experience?” Shawn asked me. “Absolutely not! He’s made amazing progress, and he’s accomplished some huge goals. You’re only talking about how you feel like you’ve failed as a teacher with him. If this student were here in front of you, do you think he would feel good about how you’re talking?”

“Oh, crap,” I said. “You’re right.”

I had focused so much on what I thought should have happened, and why it didn’t, that I was losing sight of why this person was dancing, and what HIS joy was. Not cool!

Transparency is one of our core values – but what does that really mean? And why is it so important?

For us, transparency means that not only should we strive for total clarity and integrity in all normal business operations, but also – and more importantly – in speech, actions, and thoughts.

One of our choices as teachers – and it is a choice! – is to be very mindful of how we think of our students and their stories. We try our best to always keep their stories front and center, and to honor them. Anything we say about a student’s dancing, his or her journey, personality, or life ought to be something that they would hear and feel good about. Or at the very least agree with and feel respected, empowered, and valued. (Most likely it’s something we’ve already talked about one on one anyway!

A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.

— the Dalai Lama

Have you ever been to one of those nail salons where the staff talk about customers in a different language in front of them? You know what I mean. And you know when you’re getting talked about – or when the lady three chairs down, who honestly is being a huge pain in the ass – is getting a royal chewing-out in another language. Even if you totally agree, it’s not a great feeling.

We make it a priority as teachers to never let that be something that happens – anyplace. Even in our own brains. It’s one of the reasons we started The Connected Dancer: because we feel so strongly that there should never be a “back room” conversation about a student, under any circumstances. The dance industry is full of amazing teachers, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s also sometimes pervaded by a culture that creates two separate worlds: a world of teachers-and-students, where things are phrased or framed or delivered in a very particular way for a particular reason, and a world-without-students, where professionals can vent their frustrations and emotions and say what they really think. That disparity isn’t always pretty. Sometimes it’s outright appalling.

It’s easy to think of people in our lives as problems to be solved – especially when we are responsible for helping or educating them in some way! I remember when I would take on students at Oxford, it was very common for their supervisors to call me up and say something like, yes, this is Owen, he’s working on history –  he’s got quite challenged by essay writing this past term and he’s just sort of a 2:1 student, really [that’s England-speak for a B student].

Ooooof. That would not make Owen feel awesome. It didn’t make me feel awesome, as his soon-to-be teacher, that’s for sure. It made me sad and a bit angry that this kid was being described by all the things he couldn’t do.

How different would it be if someone had said, hey, this is Owen, he’s working on history – he’s a really hard worker and he’s in the orchestra; he’s been working a lot on his writing and he’s really improved but I think you can really help him take the next step. Yay! That’s exciting! I am so pumped to work on writing with you, dude. And I already think you’re a cool guy who works hard and plays music. You’re all right by me.

The stories we tell ourselves about people in our brains define how we think about them.

If we are habitually describing people in terms of what their problems are, how they get under our skin, or why things aren’t going the way we want, it skews our world view and the way we interact.

For myself, I know that I am not always the most patient person. Sometimes I get frustrated, or distracted, or irritated. But being aware of the stories I tell myself about people, and how I think about their progress and our interactions has really helped me build my enthusiasm, my patience, and my respect. I am so honored that we get to teach the students we do.

Teaching dance is an amazing job, to be sure, but it’s also a big responsibility. People entrust you with their stories, their dreams, their fears, and their bodies. There’s the potential to do great good, but also the potential to damage not just someone’s body but their emotions and their psyche. As teachers, we feel that it’s our responsibility to help our students be the best dancers they can be, and by extension, to be the best possible humans. The authenticity and emotional honesty that truly good dancing demands just can’t be faked. It’s real, and it’s raw, and it’s visceral. That’s why learning to dance is so much more than just moving your feet around – it’s a full-body and full-person experience!

And just like a greenhouse helps plants flourish and stretch toward the sun, as it shines through clear panes of glass, so too does learning and growing happen best in an environment of authenticity, integrity, and transparency.

 

*This post previously appeared on our website at www.TheConnectedDancer.com. Check it out!

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There are no mistakes on the dance floor

For real. I really mean it. I see you not believing me. That's why I also wrote WORDS. Ha hah!

For real. I really mean it. I see you not believing me. That’s why I also wrote WORDS. Ha hah!

There are no mistakes on the dance floor. What we think of as a “mistake” is really an shortcoming in perception, a failure to perceive what someone else is putting out there.

Hey, here’s a crazy idea. What would happen if we started to really BELIEVE that about our dancing?

Well, instead of starting every conversation with, “here’s what went wrong,” we might get to really appreciate our own and our partner’s creativity. We might be more open to new ideas, to new ways of doing things. We might dance in and with our bodies instead of getting mad at them for betraying us at the crucial moment. (Et tu, corpus?) We might listen to the music.

The really nutball thing is, we all know how freakin’ awesome those states of being are. We’ve all experienced them, at some time or another, even if only for a few seconds. It’s why we keep dancing! 

But what if we really BELIEVED that there are no mistakes on the dance floor? I mean, it sounds good and all, and it’s a nice thought, but who really BELIEVES it?

This cat does. Stefon Harris is a slammin’ jazz musician – he plays the vibraphone. Dude, anybody who literally PLAYS VIBES knows good vibes when he lays ’em down. And he gave a really great TED talk about this very idea. There are no mistakes on the bandstand, he said, and then he goes on to prove it.

There are a lot of excuses we can all make about why that might be true for Stefon but not for us, but here’s my challenge: try it.

Seriously. What are you out? It’s free (recession friendly!), it’s totally internal (you don’t even have to TELL anybody you’re changing your perspective), and if it sucks, you can blow it off and go back to rolling along how you usually do. But try it. Go into your next lesson, your next social dance, your next comp, or just your next practice in front of a mirror and say, “hey, there are no mistakes here, just chances to be better at perception. Rock on.”

I’m here to say: I’m a believer.

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Blogologues!

So there’s a crew in NYC called Lively Productions that does these live theatre productions of the internets called Blogologues.

It’s a super fun idea, and they curate shows based on themes – the latest theme was Health & Fitness, and guess whose post on kale goddamn smoothies was included? Mine! The answer is, mine, the one I wrote, here on this dumb blog!

Performed by the lovely and talented Allison Goldberg, “Will It Blend?” made it off the screen and onto the stage! How exciting is that? Thank you to Jen and Allison for thinking that some random shit I wrote about kale was worth saying in front of actual live humans, and thank you to the live humans who (apparently) laughed! I am told there is video forthcoming, which will obviously be tossed right up here for all of us to look at, but in the meantime: pictures! (Click on the first picture below to see the gallery)

Antsy.

My evil genius plan is totally working. I have a partner, I’ve done a successful warm-up comp before my season of legit comps starts in a few weeks, I have multiple fabulous ass dresses, I’m on track with my nutrition and strength training and spray tanning, and I’m generally teaching and training well. At least my coaches tell me that my dancing makes their eyes hurt less frequently. But they still say it.

Harder than it looks.

Harder than it looks.

Sidenote to all the students out there: do you get tired of your teachers telling you to stand up straight? Well, guess what. I have spent many more thousands of dollars than you on dance lessons and coaching and I still had two hours of “how to stand up straight” this week. It’s amazing that anybody manages to walk upright at all.

Ballroom dancing – pushing evolution forward, one posture-perfect step at a time.

Anyway, everything is going according to plan. So what’s my problem? I’m twitchy because it isn’t happening fast enough, I guess. I’m not PERFECT ALREADY, and, because I’m jumping into a bigger pond, I’m measuring myself against a lot of folks who are way, way better than me and ranked way, way ahead of me. So I fall short, and that makes me irritated, and I am motivated to get better, and I do, but not fast enough.

Plus my life is in flux; I don’t know what things are going to look like for me personally or professionally even six months from now, much less a year. And that’s cool on one hand because it means I have a lot of choices and a lot of flexibility and it makes me CRAZY because it is very difficult for me to be zen and roll with the universe.

All of which means that I am so, so grateful for the competition floor – it is simple and clear and easy. I know exactly what I have to do and there is a winner and a loser.

And on that one day, for those five dances, I know exactly what is going on.

I love competing for lots of reasons – I love the process of hair and makeup and tanning and nails, not because I give half a shit about any of it, but because it is a ritual that feels like putting on beautiful ballroom armor. (One of my new dresses really makes me feel like a fancy version of Xena, if she were into lavender and gold instead of black leather.) I love standing around in chintzy hotel ballrooms and hallways and watching the sparkly aliens roll around in tracksuits and bedazzled swimsuits. I love the community even though everybody is usually the worst, and I love all the barely suppressed emotions and how goddamn PERSONALLY everyone takes everything, all the time. It’s like an emotional nuclear reactor. I love putting on my game face and air kissing a bunch of other aliens also in game faces and tranny makeup and going, oh, you look so great!! 

I am antsy because I want to be on the floor all the time. Competition…it’s like heroin because it’s expensive as hell, makes you look crazy, and ruins you for any other high.

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