One of the first questions new competitors have is, “What do I wear?”
Ballroom is a very image- and aesthetics-focused art/sport/hobby, and what you wear while you dance, particularly when you compete, can be quite important. While attire does not trump quality dancing, it can have a big impact on the impression you project on the floor, to other dancers, the audience, and judges. Essentially, don’t wear anything that says “I don’t care” or “I put 10 seconds of thought/effort into this” or “I have no idea what I’m doing.” Be clean and presentable and your dancing and performance can shine through, without any obstructions! I’ll focus on what to wear in this post, and discuss grooming, makeup, and hair in future posts.
Men: Undershirt, white dress shirt, black vest, black dress pants (or proper ballroom pants), black socks, black or white tie (normal or bowtie), standard/smooth shoes. This is your basic “ballroom waiter” look. You can vary it a little by color (e.g. throw in a colored or striped tie), but this depends on the dress code rules of the competition.
- Black socks are really important! Don’t be stuck wearing white athletic socks, they look awful.
- Tuck your shirt in and make sure your vest is long enough to overlap with your pants’ waistband, so no white shirt poofs out in the back.
- Also make sure your dress shirt is fitted enough, we don’t want any huge poofy sleeves obscuring your beautiful strong frame. Make sure everything is fitted and tailored to your body – not tight, but fitted.
Women: long (somewhere between calf and bottom-of-ankle-length) dress or skirt, coordinating top if it’s a skirt, closed-toe shoes (open-toe sandals are ok at the lower levels). Pantyhose/tights if you want. Proper undergarments that are safely hidden under your clothes. Avoid wearing a strapless bra if you can. So, if your dress is a halter, wear a halter-style bra as well.
- Aim for a flowy skirt that is big enough for you to take large steps in. A medium-weight fabric is probably best, one that goes with you but moves and doesn’t just hang there stiffly. Lightweight fabrics like chiffon can also be pretty, but more delicate.
- Make sure you won’t step on the hem when you move backwards, because that is a recipe for disaster.
- Something that shows off your shoulder lines, like a halter or a tank top, is great, or you can go for a flowy shawl-type look as well.
- If you do smooth, especially, go for something that allows for a lot of free movement – e.g., nothing that will fall down or restrict your arm and torso.
Men: black dress shirt or fitted stretchy long-sleeve shirt, black dress pants (preferably Latin pants), black socks, black Latin shoes (standard shoes are ok at the lower levels).
Sorry, you don’t get much variation here.
- Occasionally guys will wear a white shirt or a vest for a slightly different look.
- Higher level Latin shirts include stretch fabric, sheer panels, lace, ruffles, and/or cutouts. And an awesome attached-shorts onesie.
- Tuck your shirt in and make sure it stays there! A well-fitted dress shirt is especially important here, because you’re unlikely to have a vest to keep it under control. One option is to safety pin it (carefully!) to your pants.
- Please make sure your pants are properly hemmed for your shoes, whether you’re using standard shoes (0.5-1-inch heels) or Latin shoes (1+ inch heels). The hem should be about a quarter to half an inch off the ground when you’re standing. Absolutely do not wear pants so short that they’re flapping around your ankles. It’s just awkward.
- Fun potential accessories: suspenders, untied bowtie, necklaces with pendants.
Women: Knee-length or shorter “going-out” or party dress (or top and skirt). These tend to be more sexy or body-conscious/revealing than standard/smooth dresses.
- Something with a lot of movement, like a ruffly skirt that twirls when you spin, or fringe, is ideal.
- Again, appropriate undergarments, in particular dance pants/shorts for adequate butt coverage when you do said spinning (preferably in black or in a matching color to your dress). No one wants to see cheeks.
- If you go for a fitted skirt, there should be some movement elsewhere in the dress, and keep in mind that those skirts tend to creep up while you dance.
- Fishnets are pretty popular for these styles. Skin-colored is ideal (you can use a darker fishnet to cheat a tanner look), unless you’re going for an all-black look with black fishnets and black shoes.
Colors: What you see most commonly are bright solid-color dresses, in whatever shade looks best on you. You can go for an unusual color to “pop,” but make sure it looks good on you! Basic black is ok, too, but you might want to avoid that if it’s a particularly big competition with a crowded floor. There’s a chance you might get lost in the midst of everyone (but not if your dancing is good enough). I personally like tasteful patterns, particularly black and white florals, but in general simple, body-conscious, flattering cuts are better than super frilly designs. Try to avoid colors that wash you out or that are kind of bland.
Test your clothes out before you actually wear them in a competition! This is very important, for performances and social dancing as well. Something that fits fine and seems fine when you’re just standing there is nice and all, but you won’t know how it moves and allows (or doesn’t allow) for movement until you try it out. Importantly, some clothes may fall down or move around while you dance, which could lead to seriously awkward issues on the floor! (I know this from personal experience with a slightly-too-large Latin skirt that steadily creeped downwards in the middle of dancing…)
Where to find all of these items? Dance-dedicated brands are your best bet (found online, in dance stores, and at competitions), but you can certainly find clothes that work from mall stores and department stores. Forever 21, Charlotte Russe, Wet Seal, and perhaps H&M are good for finding inexpensive women’s Latin dresses and separates. For men’s fitted shirts, I’m told Express makes a good relatively inexpensive dress shirt.
- Forget about well-fitting, comfortable undergarments
- Wear wrinkled or stained clothes
- Forget to get your clothes cleaned regularly
- Wear anything too long (or too short, for that matter)
- Wear worn-down, hole-y, stained shoes (more on this in another post)
- Wear an outfit to a competition that you have never danced in before
- Wear anything too revealing (more specifically, more revealing than you are comfortable with)
- Wear something you cannot move in
Any other pointers on what to wear/not wear? Your input is very welcome and encouraged!
Images from: DSI, Dance America, ekClothing, Dance Shopper, edressme.com.