I recently ended up dropping about $400 in upscale practicewear for a showcase (a lady student and I need to wear the same thing in a two-couple Viennese waltz routine I’m choreographing), and I thought I would offer some thoughts on the subject (pictured below, Dance America’s D7 Short Draped Back Dress, available online through DanceShopper.com).
Q: So what the hell is practicewear?
It’s basically expensive-ass ladies’ clothing (because honestly, the men either wear their Latin pants or they don’t) designed for ballroom dancing, made out of the same expensive-ass materials ballroom costumes are made of. It tends to come in basic, solid colors (black, purple, red, blue, etc.) and is intended to stand up to long wear, travel, washing, getting shoved in the bottom of your dance bag, sweat, and still enhance the shit out of your movement when you wear it.
Q: I am a bronze 2/3/4/silver/open championship level/world ranked dancer. Do I need to buy practicewear?
Nope! You’re cool. You can totally practice in anything you want. When I don’t give a shit, or at the end of the day, my go-to practice outfit is a pair of stretch yoga pants from Old Navy and a tshirt from Target. Total cost something like $30.
Q: Okay. But couldn’t I just buy some flattering separates in black with some spandex or stretch in them at the mall and call it a day?
Sure! You look pretty. Do whatever. It really doesn’t matter.
Q: I still don’t get it. This is confusing.
That’s not really a question, but still. I hear you. Look, this is the situation: ‘practicewear’ is a stupid name. It should be called, “entry-level” or “basic ballroom costume wear”. Because you are not, unless you are absolutely built out of $100 bills, going to be wearing this stuff to practice in every day at the studio. You’re going to wear it (as a student) at a showcase, a fancy ball, a competition, a session with a coach. These are your ballroom church clothes.
Q: Ohhhh. Okay. That makes more sense. But why is it so expensive?
Well, the first issue is the material – most upscale decent practicewear is made out of four-way stretch lycra or poly/spandex or what one manufacturer (Chrisanne) calls ‘dancecrepe’ – basically a high-quality stretch material designed to stand up to the demands of pretty tough usage and still look fabulous. The second issue is the amount of material. If you are buying a short Latin/Rhythm dress, you may think that it’s not a lot of fabric, but odds are that the skirt is cut on the bias to make it twirl better. Check out that DanceAmerica dress on the left – it’s carefully draped, has a three-tiered ruffly skirt, and a cowl back. It’s a lot of fabric for the length dress it is. That fabric usage is only intensified when you get to long skirts for Standard or Smooth – often they are are eight or even twelve panels of fabric, with inset godets or flares. All of which is designed to make you look super cool when you turn (and it does!) but that’s a lot of fabric. You’re also paying for the construction – these garments are designed to not ride up or shift around or look bad the first time you start moving.
Q: Do I have to wear all black all the time?
No. You don’t. But I do. Because it looks nice. Don’t hate.
We all know that dancers wear black INCESSANTLY. There are a couple reasons for this. (1) It really does make you look thinner. It is not magical, okay? It will not somehow convince anybody that you are a size 2 if you are a size 22. But it helps you look your best at the size you are. (2) It unifies your lines. If you are colorblocked out (like you’re wearing a red shirt and black pants or something), that will cut your lines in half and make it tough to see what you’re doing. If you’re wearing all black (or all any color, but see #1) you will present a much more continuous picture and make it easier to focus on how the lines of your body look. (3) If all your clothes are already black (hi!) then you might as well stick with what works. Seriously, you guys, I am looking at my clean laundry, and it’s an entire basket of black. Well, black plus sheets. (4) If you wear all black, you can put any accents you want on top of that for easy changes. Tango? Toss a red flower in your hair. Samba? Get some neon bracelets. Waltz? Wear a floaty scarf. DONE. Practicewear! It is versatile. Do yourself a favor and buy shit that you can wear for multiple things and in multiple incarnations.
Q: I wear a size 16 or up. Can I wear any of this shit?
Maybe! It is a bullshit reality of the world of dancewear that much of it is designed around the body of a relatively small woman (probably in the 5’3″ – 5’6″ range, and between a size 0 to 4). Don’t take that personally. It sucks for tall girls, it sucks for really short girls, it sucks for bigger girls…. basically it sucks for pretty much everybody.
Nevertheless. Here’s the size chart from Dance America for the dress above:
I would say Dance America, because their sizes run a little big anyway, is probably is your best best for larger sizes. And bear in mind that all dancewear is incredibly stretchy. So there’s a lot of give there. But the flip side of stretchy is that, well, it might be stretched pretty tight against your body. So please please please wear correct foundation garments – either dance pants/dance trunks or something similar, and a supportive bra. It will make you look infinitely better and you’ll be able to focus on your movement and not whether your skirt is flipping up too much.
If an XL is too small, then there are some other options. eK clothing is a company that does casual dancewear; their line is aimed at salsa and club dancers, so it’s priced and constructed accordingly. I will say that I have bought pieces from them that are perfectly fine, and I like them – but I would not wear them to a session with a coach or out on the floor to perform. I would wear them for social dancing, which is what they’re intended to do. The super cool thing about eK clothing is that they do offer some of their dresses in plus sizes, up to 2X or 3X in some designs. They also tend to run large and have a lot of stretch. They also have a great returns policy, so the safest thing (because the sizing can be inconsistent) is just to order a whole shit ton of stuff and try it on, and send back what doesn’t work. I have this dress, and I love it. I wear it pretty frequently, and it’s stood up pretty well, although the fabric is quite thin.
Q: Well, shit. I don’t have $200 for practicewear. My lessons are expensive! Can’t I buy the same design on eBay from a shady operator in Hong Kong and save myself some money?
You can. But you’re an idiot if you do. There are a range of good, high-quality designers who retail here and in Europe, and most of them are readily available online. The shit you buy on eBay is half-assed and has no guarantee of quality – you might come out okay or you might come out with something completely horrendous. Not to mention the fact that the eBay retailers are ripping off designs and presenting them as their own. That sucks.
If you want to buy practicewear (and again, you don’t need to!) sink the money into a quality garment that will actually fucking last, flatter your body, enhance your movement, and make you feel like the special fucking snowflake that you are.
Q: Jesus, okay! Relax already. So can you tell me about these companies/designers you like? And how do they fit? I want to buy some practicewear, maybe, but I can’t try it on.
I’m relaxed. I’M RELAXED, GODDAMMIT. Anyway.
If you want to try stuff on, you have two options – order it online from someplace with a generous return policy and keep what fits, or wait until you are at a sizable competition (something along the lines of Emerald or USBC, or maybe even Desert Classic) and then go see the vendors.
Okay, companies – in no particular order, here are some observations on my experiences with major practicewear designers. Bear in mind that most of these companies (with the exception of Dance America, which I don’t think does real costumes, although I could be wrong) also design and sell actual costumes, so you’ll hear their names frequently.
- Dance America: retails a wide range of practicewear (skirts, tops, dresses, and even a few pairs of pants) in solid colors. They change out their colors seasonally – this spring they have a tangerine that I absolutely love, and a few seasons ago they had a really stunning royal blue. Their line is pretty universally flattering. I have seen it on ladies of all sizes and shapes, and because it is heavy on the draping and the ruching, it generally looks pretty great on everybody. I myself own several pieces by Dance America, and I have been really happy with the quality and longevity of all of them. I wear my clothes hard, and I throw them in the wash on cold with Woolite Black and let them air dry, and they all look just as good as when I bought them. I will say that Dance America’s sizing tends to run big, in my experience – probably buy a size smaller than you normally would UNLESS you are buying a full-length dress, in which case stick to your normal size. They are cut a little short for my tall ladies, which sucks. I have, for example, the skirt at right in black (although I have a slightly older model of that skirt, I think – it used to be called the ‘Orchid skirt’ or something like that) and I am short (5’4″) without heels. If I wear it so that the ruching sits at my hips, the thing comes down right to the ankle (pretty much the same way it fits on the model). For a lady with longer legs or a longer torso, it would be a little short.
- CHRISANNE: a couture ballroom design house from the UK, Chrisanne sells practicewear but their mainstays are costumes and dance fabrics. If you are ever making your own dress, you really cannot do better than ordering Chrisanne fabric. It is absolutely top end stuff. They have a ton of basics in a limited range of colors (mostly black, white, and purple), and have recently begun bringing in designers to do lines of themed practicewear that can be quite fun. They are a relatively conservative house, design-wise, but their pieces are classic and will never go out of style. Their fabrics are lighter than your standard dance fabrics – a thing they call ‘dancecrepe’ – but don’t let it fool you, that shit wears like IRON. I bought a practice skirt from Chrisanne as my very first ballroom thing, back in college in like 2002, and I still wear that skirt three or four days a week to teach in. It still looks fantastic, it’s lost none of its stretch, and the only issue I have is that Chrisanne doesn’t even make it anymore. But it’s a lot like this:
- DSI London: Used to be called Hearn & Spencer, Ltd., but changed their name in 2000 to DanceSport International, Ltd. Another UK-based retailer, they do the full range of dance supplies (fabrics, shoes, trimming, accessories, CDs and DVDs, books, and of course practicewear for men and ladies). They do couture and custom costumes, and their practicewear line is not quite as extensive as that of Chrisanne or Dance America, but they do offer some designs that are less commonly found. I just ordered this skirt, which I think is beautiful, and I’ll let you know how it works on the floor. I also ordered it for my student, so I’ll pass along her feedback as well.
Q: Where can I buy all this stuff?
The best place is Danceshopper.com. I can’t say enough about their fantastic customer service! Just awesome. Do be careful to note the in stock availability of what you want, as well as shipping times – not everything is always ready to go all the time. But if you have any uncertainty, just email them and they will get right back to you asap. They offer free shipping on orders over $99 (which, honestly, all dancewear is) and a 30-day return policy. Yay Danceshopper!
Q: A lot of this dancewear looks the same. And, Christ, it’s ALL BLACK. I know that’s a thing, but seriously. I feel like Morticia Addams. Where should I go if I want to stand out from the crowd a little more?
I would head to Espen Salberg or Santoria, two other design houses (in no way related) whose designs I like but from whom I have yet to buy anything. Espen Salberg’s collections tend to be more adventurous in their cut and construction, while Santoria’s push the envelope by showcasing a lot of bold prints (although, because it’s ballroom dancewear, everything is usually available in black as well). I will say that my impression is that both lines are not necessarily designed for every woman. Many of their pieces will probably work well if you look like the model, but otherwise, perhaps not so much. A company like Dance America is definitely aimed at a broader demographic, whereas these guys (both in price point and in design) seem less interested in retailing to that wider market. But again, I haven’t worn any of their pieces myself, so this is pure conjecture.
I think that both of these pieces below (halter top by Espen Salberg, dress by Santoria) are super cool – I like that they look different!