Category Archives: Competitions

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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Bring a friend.

Pierre Balmain working on a dress for Ruth Ford. I wish that this was the face I made when trying things on 100% of the time.

So you guys, here is some exciting news – I totally bought a dress! I was just sort of browsing and then I found an AWESOME and PERFECT and sort of WEIRD dress that I love. Added bonus? I got a great deal on it, and the designer is going to add a removable underskirt so it can work as a smooth OR a rhythm dress. Fabulous fabulous fabulous.

(Hey, wait! you say. Aren’t you having a dress made? What is up with that, Imelda Marcos Ballroom Dancer? To which I say, I am totally having a dress made, and it is going to be super awesome and amazing BUT it is my professional competitive dress which means that it is going to be not a lot of fabric? It is not really dancing-with-students appropriate, especially when you bear in mind that some of my students are like, eleven years old. Also a lot of people will change dresses between Rising Star and Open divisions, or even between semis and finals, and it would be nice to have that option. So in addition to my super serious professional amazing dress, I need kid-appropriate dresses that are still fun and awesome and could work on the pro floor too. That’s a high bar! But man, thanks for asking.)Yeah, so anyway, the dress-buying process made me think about all the bad choices you see on a regular basis in the ballroom world. It is unreal how many people wear clothes that do not fit or flatter them, or that do not highlight what they do well, or that emphasize the wrong thing, or that simply do not suit the choreography they are doing AT ALL. Like, on any given Sunday in a competition ballroom the bad choices outweigh the good choices by a landslide.

It also made me think about the amount of hot air that gets blown up your skirt…people will tell you that ALL KINDS OF HIDEOUS CRAP looks great, either because they are terrible at looking at things with their eyes, or because they don’t want to hurt your feelings, or because they would really like to sell you said hideous crap.

Oh my gosh, you look awesome! Wow! This ugly ass gray-green-brown is TOTALLY YOUR COLOR! You’re so pretty! (Give me two thousand dollars, please.)

Which brings me to my main point: my darlings, if you are trying to buy a costume, BRING A FRIEND. It is easy to get flustered or upsold or to think that something looks good when it does NOT.

But not just any friend. You need a very specific kind of friend. I am fabulously lucky in that my friend who is my dress buddy is a dancer, so she knows what will and won’t work on the floor, but she is also a brilliant visual artist, so she has just the best eye.

(Me: “Hey, is this the shape dress I am allowed to wear?” Her: “Dude, no, remember what we said about this shape skirt?” Me: “Ohhhhh right. It was yellow and sparkly, so I got confused.”)

Plus she’s been through the hassle of dealing with her own ballgowns and their associated bullshit, and we have worked on a fair number of dresses together, so we can figure out what dress modifications are and aren’t possible given our current level of dress-fu. (Nor is this her first rodeo; she is good at recognizing danger signs and pulling me out of the line of fire so that I do not, for example, drop four grand on a dress I do not really need.)

Another great thing about her is that she does not filter her reactions to dresses AT ALL. They are right there on the face. So I know if I have put on something wacky and awesome or something just wrong. (The moral of this story is that my friend is the greatest person ever and you are all sad that she is not your friend. I know! That sucks for you! She is a lot of fun!)

SO, when I was trying on dresses yesterday, the lady who reps the design house (who is also a friend of mine, and whom I’ve worked with on many occasions) was doing her job really well, which meant she was telling me how great I looked and how slammin’ my bod was and how every damn dress I put on was fabulous and looked amazing and could be altered to look even MORE amazing.

Which was confusing! I am easily confused by people saying nice things to me! Happily my dress buddy was there and could look over and go ‘eh’ or ‘oh, interesting,’ or ‘take that ridiculous fucking shit off right now’ with her face.

And when I put on the good dress, the dress selling lady was right in there telling me how awesome it was BUT THIS TIME my friend was like, oh, oh yes, this dress is a winner. And I believed my friend, because I knew that she was totally right and that she would not let me look stupid.

Thank you, Ballroom Fairy, and thank you, dress selling lady, but most of all, thank you to my dress buddy, who is the shit.

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A prayer to the Ballroom Fairy

I just threw down a deposit on a dress…about what I make in a week. Please, Ballroom Fairy, let it not be ugly and please let me not look weird.

Eggs, baskets

I have a try out set up with a potential competitive partner. I am trying really hard to stay reasonable and sanguine about it but this is the best lead I’ve had in a few years and has potential to really work.

At the same time I know that the disappointment will be even more sharp if this prospect crashes and burns. Everything in my experience tells me that it’s likely to… but here’s to hoping anyway.

I just want to be on the floor so badly. So fingers crossed!

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Citius, Altius, Fortius

Several thoughts about the Olympics:

(1) Probably my single most favorite thing to watch on television, ever.

(2) I am SO GLAD dancesport is not in the Olympics. I am pleased that idea seems to have died out.

(3) Go Team USA!

image

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Accessorize! Making Armbands and Stoning Tips

So here’s the second installment of the costuming post. My Latin dress looks like this, and it’s pretty rad: 

The body of the dress is covered in slung sequin fringe (basically fringes of different length in red and holographic orange made out of sequins). It’s crazy fun to dance in, because the movement is insane, and it makes cool noises. I was dance testing it the other night at the studio and when I was walking back to the teachers’ room to change, one of my co-workers said, “it’s like applause every time you move!” SO TRUE. And who doesn’t want to take their own applause with them?

I bought it used off the interwebs, and it’s been an interesting reclamation project. When it showed up, it was definitely a fixer-upper (and hence cheap, which is why I could afford it!) – there’s a funky sort of nude panel on the left hip that wasn’t fringed, but just left open. I suppose it might look cool on the right person, but it looked weird on me. Clearly it looked weird on the last girl, too, because she had hot-glued these giant orange bird of paradise fake flowers on the hip? It was a very strange choice, and the ass flowers did not enhance anything. The side cutout was also too high in the waist (granny panties height) and the minimal stoning on the dress was cheap plastic shit.

So after I ripped off the ass flowers and most of the cheap-o stones, I sent it to a costume alterations house to be recut (because you have to know how to keep correct tension in the bodysuit as you do it, and you have to be able to sew the right kind of elastic – far beyond my present skill level). But I did the cosmetic alterations myself, including:

  1. adding new fringes and filling in that strange open hip situation (friends, I just typed ‘open hippo’ by mistake which is awesome; the idea of a sparkly fringe-y ballroom dancing hippo reminds me of the hippos in Fantasia who were my FAVORITE*)
  2. Pulling off the ugly cheap plastic “stones” and re-rhinestoning in the only acceptable choice, Swarovski
  3. ACCESSORIZING!
I mostly want to talk about #3, since you can save yourself a LOT of money if you know how to make your own ballroom jewelry and accessories. Last time we talked about how to do those fancy rhinestone bracelets you see all over the place; today we’ll talk about how to do armbands.
Like basically every Latin costume ever (and a lot of the smooth ones, too) comes with armbands. They’re super easy to make – exactly the same premise as costume straps, just with wider elastic and stoning.

Anastasia Trutneva rocking some armbands.

First, go ahead and sew a long piece of one inch elastic inside a lycra casing that matches your dress. (Don’t know how to do that? Learn here!)
Figure out how much you’ll need and then just add like six inches and do the whole damn thing at once, it saves time. After you’ve got your big giant lycra elastic snake, feel good about yourself for a minute. You did it! Yay for you!
Okay, now GET REAL. This is where there is high potential for you to fuck it all up.

Figure out how many armbands you want – I did three. An upper arm, an elbow, and a wrist (the wrist one being essentially a bracelet that does not move). It is important that you figure out how tight to make them: tight enough so that they stay in place when you dance and don’t move BUT not so tight that they cut into your arm and make it look weird and lumpy. Not even rhinestones will fix that.

The way I did it was to guess as closely as I could, leave an extra inch of elastic or so, cut the piece off from the snake, and then just futzed with it on my arm until it stopped looking weird. This is SCIENCE, people. It is SUPER precise. Even with all the futzing, my elbow one still sometimes slipped. But fortunately this costs you like six bucks so if you totally blow it or you need to make different sized ones later, it’s not the end of the world.

When you have the circumference of your arms figured out properly, pin those bitches and then sew them closed. I decided to sew the upper arm and elbow ones closed completely, but to put a hook-and-eye closure on the wrist one. It doesn’t make any difference – I could have sewn that one shut too. But don’t hook and eye the bigger ones; if you need to make them open and closeable, use velcro. (I’ll probably do that next time anyway, since it gives you more flexibility on the sizing. But I was concerned that my stupid dress would get stuck to the velcro, so. We all make life choices.)

Next step, try not to be a huge idiot and sew your hook and eye on backwards.

Oops, is it too late for that?

Well, I guess you can try just leaving it and hoping.

No? That didn’t work? It flew off your stupid arm every time you extended it? Well, then, dumbass, looks like you better re-do it the right way.

Once you’ve done that, stone the shit out of those armbands. You will lose a little elasticity with the stoning, but not too much. If you’re super concerned, stretch it out as you stone and then release it to dry.

I elected not to stone them solid because I felt like it would be too much and take too long and I would run out of stones and I did NOT want to go back to the fashion district and buy more. So I did mine like this:

Then, of course, after they were dry I was like, needs more stones! And I went back and glued more on. Which was obviously the right decision.

And that’s it, really! Not tough – the hardest part with these bitches is sizing them correctly so they don’t look stupid.

* NB the ballet hippos from Fantasia are a future post for sure; it turns out there is all SORTS of interesting shit to be said about them.

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Congratulations to me…

…on not buying a $3800 smooth gown even though it looked SO GOOD when I put it on. So, listen to this.

I was at Emerald over the weekend watching some friends dance and of course I was shopping. Now, a year or so ago I was at Emerald and I don’t really remember what I was wearing, it was random, I looked like a normal human. But I got the coldest fucking shoulder from everybody. Here’s one conversation that occurred when I was looking at costumes a co-worker had asked me to check on for her:

Russian Dress Vendor: Vat you are looking for?

Me: Oh, I’m just browsing.

RDV: Ya, zis dress, is too small for you. Much too small.

Me: I know that, I’m looking for a friend of mine.

RDV: Hmpf. Well, ve don’t have in your size.

Fuck you very much! By contrast, this year I rolled in with my ballroom hair and makeup and in I’m-not-competing-today-but-I-could-be evening wear, best defined as a combination of ballet-inspired clothing mixed with slutty accessories. (My boots were really working overtime in the slutty department.) I still got the obligatory look-up-and-down by most of the randoms who rolled by, but this time instead of blowing me off, the Russian girls gave me fake smiles and the dudes at least got out of my way. Which is ballroom for, you belong here.

The nuttiest thing, which actually made me feel a lot of different feelings, was that I was able to pull smooth gowns off the rack and try them on and they FIT. And fit pretty goddamn well, too. (One fit so well that I was on the verge of dropping four grand that I do not have to buy a dress I do not need for a style that I don’t really compete seriously in. Which should tell you how cool it looked.) I think it was more the sheer privilege of being able to try on costumes and not have the dressing room panic of, this will maybe not go over my ass or figuring out what lie I would tell the salesgirl about why I didn’t like the dress when in reality I was just too big to put it on. My feelings, in no particular order:

  1. Holy shit, I have to try on this dress.
  2. Oh wow, I can actually WEAR this dress.
  3. Wait, this dress is actually TOO BIG and that is why it looks a little weird!
  4. It is BULLSHIT that these dresses are so expensive.
  5. It is DOUBLE BULLSHIT that they come in such a small range of sizes.
  6. Oh my god, that little Latin dancer is literally half my size. Like, if you cut me in half in one of those magician’s boxes, one half would be equal to her in both height and mass.
  7. OMBRE OMBRE OMBRE OMBRE SILK IS SOOOOOOOOO PRETTY.
  8. ProTan is the shit, because I shellacked my skin like two weeks ago and I still look hella tan, and it’s faded really evenly.
  9. Should I buy this dress which will be worth more than any other possession I own, including my car? YES IT IS SO PRETTY.

And that’s the deal. Beware excessive fake tanner – it goes to the brain and may cause uncontrollable costume purchase. Thank God I had a buddy who was Rescue Ballroom trained, and she was able to pull me out of the vendors’ area in time and put a drink in my hand, which restored me to reality.

It was pretty much like this.

So I didn’t buy the dress, which is good, because I don’t have the money, but it did feel pretty cool to pull a dress and try it on, to be not blown off by the salespeople, and to have had the option. (The converse of that is, WHAT FUCKING BULLSHIT that I was ever blown off in the first place.)

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Accessorize! How to Make Ballroom Jewelry, Part One

As promised, here’s the next installment on costuming, as I learn to replicate expensive ballroom costume crap in the comfort and fabric-scrap-strewn luxury of my kitchen. Last time, we looked at how to make the straps that hold costumes together – today, it’s bracelets and armbands!

An essential component of any costume is bling. You have to accessorize your dress, or it looks half finished. The costume department on Dancing With The Stars has buckets of them so Karina can stack them up her tiny arms every week.

Trouble is, those accessories can end up costing as much as the dress – mostly because high quality Swarovski rhinestones are expensive, and gluing those little bastards onto things is a time intensive process.

At my most recent competition, I checked the price on regular bangle bracelets with a couple vendors, and the average market price these days is about $50-$60 per bracelet. That seemed pretty steep to me, so I decided to try making my own. I already had to make armbands for my Latin costume, so what the hell, right? I had taken the time to check out the bracelets and it seemed like it was just lycra wrapped around a stiff material to give the thing structure, and then stoned.

I decided to use 1/2 in plastic dress boning (hur, hur, BONING) as the stiff material (I know, I know). I cut it to size in strips and then ran a line of glue down the center of the boning strip so that when I rolled the lycra around it, it would stay put. I did the first one with E6000, but that was a little too much firepower, so for the second bracelet I used Gemtac and that was fine. I only needed enough glue to hold the fabric in place for a bit while I wrapped the lycra, not enough to permanently secure it through the zombie apocalypse.

I hand-sewed through the lycra and the boning along the inside of the strip, just to make sure that it stayed attached.

After I ran the stitches all the way down the strip, I cut off the extra lycra and figured out how to make the strip into a circle.

The first thing I tried was just joining the ends together and whip stitching it closed. But that did not work at all because the boning sat in a teardrop shape instead of the circle that I wanted. So I pulled it all out and figured that I needed to have some overlap of the two ends in order for the circle to stay intact once I sewed it shut.

I overlapped the two ends about 1/4 of an inch and hand sewed (hand shoved my needle – that was a lot of crap to sew through!) the thing closed, which ended up giving me a pretty satisfactory circle. I tried to keep everything as tacked down as possible so that when I was ready to stone the bracelet, there wouldn’t be any extra fabric or thread or loose ends of things fouling up my stoning.

Then I stoned it with Swarovski – I ran a line of Crystal AB 20ss down the center and filled it out with Crystal AB 16ss on either side, which fit just about perfectly. The 20ss go much faster, but the 16ss give more sparkle, and also I had more of them, so that’s what happened.

I’m really happy with the way they came out – they look exactly like the ones the vendors sell (except that mine are slightly different colored lycra and the stoning is better). And God knows I saved some money! It literally came out to about ten percent of the cost. If I had more ambition, I would do some bracelets and sell them. Maybe a summer project?

Total cost for 2 bracelets – $11.95 (versus $110.00)

4 way stretch lycra – $1.05

Plastic boning (ha!) – $0.40

Gemtac, stones, thread – $10.50

Total time – about three hours (but only because I was learning – the second bracelet I did in about an hour start to finish)

The finished product, shown here with Latin fingers so you get the full effect. (You will also note that I have not one but two different kinds of fake tan in the background – that’s ballroom for you, baby. You can also see the plastic boning strips in their raw form on the left – they worked really well, and I have a giant roll of the stuff that only cost $20. It would probably make about 23948290384023 bracelets.)

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Ballroom, Body Image, and Lousy Bargains

[Disclaimer: this is my personal experience and not any kind of representative sample. Also, all the stuff I’m talking about here has been my experience as a professional; my experience as a student was very different, so please don’t anybody think I’m talking about your experience, your situation. I’m really not.]

•     •     •

Two years ago: I was having coffee with a friend, my competition fake nails (bright orange) wrapped around the white mug which I thought looked cool. 

“If it makes me too crazy, I’ll stop,” I said. “I can keep it straight in my head.”

“I don’t know if you’ll be able to,” she said. “Is it worth it?”

“I think so,” I said. “It’s hard. But I think I can keep it from getting to me, too much.”

•     •     •

A year ago: a conversation with a coach.

“Take it from me,” he said. “Unless you look the right way, they just don’t take you seriously.”

“I know,” I said.

“The judges won’t even look at your dancing,” he said. “It’s just the way it is.”

•     •     •

Two weeks ago: a conversation with a student.

“You look amazing,” she said. “Like, you always looked great, but now…”

“Well, thanks,” I said, “I’ve been training pretty hard and I’m happy with where my dancing is.”

“No,” she said, “I mean, sure, your dancing is awesome, but I mean… YOU look great. Like, you’ve lost a lot of weight and, I don’t know, you look like a real ballroom dancer now.”

*     *     *

When I started dancing again three years ago, I was pretty seriously out of shape, for lots of reasons. Still, I had worked hard in my own brain to be okay with who I was and how I looked.

It would take me a long time, but I finally managed to mostly stop that horrible thing where when you feel bad about yourself, you say the worst things you can think of in your brain… why? I don’t know, I think it’s sort of like emotional cutting. It’s really nasty. Anyway, my go-to most horrible thing was always, you’re fat, you’re ugly. Simple, distilled, and unvarnished.

And it worked, until one day I (thanks in no small part to feminism and body acceptance activists’ writing) I said to myself, dude, seriously – you are fat. Relax. It’s fine. It’s just what it is. And you’re not ugly. And even if you were, why is that like the worst thing in the world? Who is it hurting? 

And after that, I would still, when I felt horrible, fall into the thought pattern of: you are so disgusting…but then I would think, eh, maybe? But whatever. Not that big a deal.

Changing that thought process and actually appreciating my body for what it could do instead of hating it for being a constant disappointment was no easy task.

Which is why when I started dancing more seriously and getting into better shape, it felt almost like a betrayal.

I hated that I was getting non-stop positive reinforcement from people – you look so great! Yay for you! Oh my gosh, you look amazing!

Which basically just meant, in my brain: you know all that damaging shit you thought about yourself before? Yeah, you were right. And everybody else thought it too.

The problem is, on the floor, your body is your instrument. That’s what you perform with, that’s the site where your art is produced. So you have to be okay with it being the object of other peoples’ regard, with their critical gaze – that’s part of the JOB. But it also sucks because, you know, it’s you. Added to which, the emotional intensity and honesty that dancing requires means that if you ARE separated from your body, if you are not truly engaged with your movement, it doesn’t work. So you have to fully inhabit your body and accept that it will be constantly critiqued. It’s difficult not to take that personally.

I know – I absolutely know – that in many ways, ballroom dancing is a shallow fucking industry. That’s okay. Take it or leave it, right?

But some days, the lack of critical awareness is harder than others. And it’s even tougher when you’re a smart cookie who doesn’t look like a ballroom dancer is supposed to look.

I am not a tiny Russian woman, with legs up to my eyebrows and perfect ballet feet. I never will be. At my highest potential, when I am eventually in the best shape I possibly can be, I will be super strong and powerful, but still short and pretty compact. That’s just how I’m built.

Right now, I’m still Ballroom Fat (TM) – basically like Hollywood Fat. Defined as: actually totally fine and in good shape and in a normal, uncrazy world, not really meriting comment; but in your weird twisted world, so gross.

And you know what sucks about that the most? I see these other girls on the floor, thin and pretty and tan, and I am objectively better than they are. Like, my turns are faster, my footwork is cleaner, my connection is better, my dancing is just of a higher standard. But it does. Not. Matter.

Until I look the right way, I am not going to have an easy time finding a serious partner, and I am not going to be marked well by the judges. It sucks out loud, and I hate it. Because I actually like how I look and my whole situation, but I know that I am in the minority on that one. There is a certain standard, an appearance, A Look – and it’s just the ante you have to throw on the table, your cost of admission. You don’t have to like it, and you don’t have to agree with it, but it’s how the system works.

So now, unlike before, the shit I say to myself is true.

Why doesn’t that dude want to dance with you? Because you’re fat.

Why did you not make the finals? Because you look the wrong way.

I know that it’s shallow and stupid and that’s okay, I guess, because mostly I don’t feel bad about myself, I just feel tired. It is exhausting to know that you are looked at and judged and that you fall short all the time, and even worse to realize that when someone actually takes the time to see you and your dancing, they recognize the quality. Always the tone of surprise – hey, you’re pretty good!

Fuck you.

But really? What I dislike the most is the crazy bargains it makes me deal with, the chock full of nuts ideas it makes me entertain.

*     *     *

A week ago: drinks with another dancer.

“I need the judges to look at me and not say, oh, that fat girl is a pretty decent dancer,” I said.

“Totally,” she replied. “You want them to look at you and say, oh, that girl is a good dancer.”

“Exactly,” I said.

“But you’re doing it, right?” she asked. “I mean, you’re in better shape and you’re eating better, and, like, you must feel better…”

“I am, and I do,” I said. “But how fucked up is it that I don’t really care about any of that? Like, if you said to me: you can dance for the next twenty years and stay pretty much how you are right now, or you can dance for five years, blow your knees completely, but look thin and amazing for that period? I would take the five.”

“And I hate that I think that,” I added.

“Yeah,” she said, thinking for a long moment. “But I’d take the five too.”

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(Semi) Live! Behind the scenes competition blogging, part two

I’m back home again – I really tried to update LIIIIVE, but I’ll tell you the honest-to-God truth:

(1) I was working my tail off.

(2) When I wasn’t working I was out carousing with other dancers.

(3) When I wasn’t carousing or working I was passed out dead asleep so that I could continue to do (1) and (2).

Y’all, it was super fun. The other issue is that until yesterday, I had my competition nails on, and I don’t know about you, but I find it absolutely impossible to type with those stupid bastards. It hurts, and it’s awkward, and I am usually a super fast typist so it irritates the hell out of me.

But! I did keep notes! So for anybody who loves ballroom competitions, who’s considering competing, who just generally finds the whole thing fascinating because it is a tan and sparkly circus sideshow, I present, in no particular order, DO’s and DON’Ts of ballroom competition, followed by some stuff I learned at this comp that was new to me. (I’ve been doing this crap for a while, but this was my first time on the judges’ side, so it was pretty instructive.

*     *     *

DO dance as many heats as you possibly can. Look, competing (as a student) is expensive, no lie. I get that. All the professionals get that. But if you’re going to do it, I swear to God, you will have infinitely more fun if you dance 80 heats as compared to 15. You’re already there, you’re already looking fabulous, you might as well just do it! There is nothing, NOTHING worse than sitting and watching other people dance and thinking, shit, I should be out on that floor.

DO enjoy yourself! If you’re going to be out on the floor, please be having fun! If you look terrified or bored, it is just a bummer. Just enjoy the hell out of it; the judges will forgive a lot if you smile and take genuine pleasure in your dancing.

DON’T overdo it on the dress. Be sensitive to what flatters your particular body type and your dancing. I know that I always say, it’s ballroom, more is more…but ladies. Seriously. Sometimes, no, it is not. If your dress has feathers and ruffles and stones and netting and gloves and a goddamn cocker spaniel, it’s probably too much. You want people to watch your dancing, not whisper about the dress.

DO own your floor. That part of the floor you’re dancing on? It’s YOURS. It belongs to YOU. You are the Lord High Commander of that part of the floor – own it! Take up space! Do not allow other people to impinge on your sovereign territory! I was watching some friends of mine compete in the pro divisions, and I’m telling you, there were seventeen or eighteen couples out on the floor. I was looking for these friends and couldn’t find them – why? They weren’t owning their floor.

DO show up to the on-deck area. Don’t be an ass about this. If you are a pro and you are dancing with six different ladies, I get it. You can’t line up on deck every time. But if that’s you, it’s YOUR responsibility to be on your shit and not miss a heat. Do not make the deck captain come look for you. Do not make the MC announce your number over the loudspeaker. Embarrassing!

DO be pleasant and courteous to everyone. You know why? Well, number one, it’s decent fucking manners, and what, were you raised in a barn? But if you need a more politic reason – you never know who is behind you, or who is paying attention. People remember. Keep your mouth shut. Be pleasant. If you need to talk shit, roll out of the ballroom and wait until you are in a secure third-party location.

DO get over yourself. At the end of the day, it’s still a damn ballroom dance competition. It’s pretty ridiculous. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Oh, I almost forgot – this is probably my number one rule:

DO cut the waistband out of your fishnets. Ladies, you look beautiful. You have these amazing dresses, you spent a ton of money on them, your hair and makeup looks great! Please please please please please do not wear fishnets with the waistband cutting you in half like a sausage. I don’t care what kind of shape you are or aren’t in, it’s still visible. And it looks bad. Fishnets are made of elastic. Your dress has a built in bodysuit. Get some scissors, cut the waistband off your fishnets, and they will still stay up and do their job and you will have a smooth line.

*     *     *

And here is some stuff I learned, in no particular order:

• Being able to haul ass gracefully and still smile at the judges is worth something. Way to not fall down and still BOOK it across the ballroom! One judge said to me, “Girl, you were RUNNING. I was watching you more than I was watching the pros compete. It was more interesting.”

• The best hair spray (maybe ever?) is got2b glued freezing spray. Seriously, I did my hair Friday afternoon and then worked my tail off Friday evening and then went out and fell into bed around 4 and then I got up and showered around 8 am (I kept it from getting too wet) and MY HAIR STILL LOOKED PERFECT. Awesome.

• All judges mark differently. Some are done scoring thirty seconds in, some wait until the music stops to write down their order, and some do a rough draft order and then revise it as they watch the heat. The moral of the story is, if anybody tells you stupid things like, oh, all judges do x, they are wrong. Wrong!

Smashbox makes this really amazing concealer. If you are, I don’t know, let’s just pick a random example, going out drinking and dancing till five in the morning and kissing a bunch of random boys and girls and then rolling back to your hotel room and trying to look ballroom polished and fabulous for a seven am call, THIS IS YOUR CONCEALER.

• Always overdress. (That’s one of my rules for living, actually, but I saw it in action this week.) There was a lovely girl, brand new trainee instructor, who showed up to the last evening’s formal banquet and show in what was basically a sun dress. Nobody cared, really, because whatever, but she was uncomfortable. Always bring an extra evening gown, or something that is black tie appropriate. You never know. It’s ballroom, baby. You can’t overdo it. (Except for the feathers + spaniel dress situation, but that’s been covered.)

• The judges notice and remember bad behavior on the part of professionals. As a student, the event is for YOU. The pros are there to make sure you dance well and have fun, not to be tools. Not only do the judges notice and remember, they tell each other about it and laugh and laugh and laugh and then they do not call you back when you are on the floor with your professional partner. (See above, don’t be an ass.)

• Students are amazing. Seriously, it is so awesome to see them improving and learning and dancing their hearts out on the floor. It is ABSOLUTELY what makes this the best job in the world. If you are a student – thank you!!!!! You are the best.

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