Anyone who ever watched an episode of Dancing with the Stars knows that elaborate costumes are an important part of competitive ballroom dancing. The costumes on the show are theatrical and extreme. But partner dancing is a special activity, and when people go out to dance they often costume themselves accordingly. The style of dance and the social situation can be major factors in clothing selection.
For example, some high school and college age students have taken an interest in swing and Lindy Hop dancing. They sometimes costume themselves in outfits resembling swing dance clothing worn in the 1940s and 50s, some even wearing Zoot suits. Loose fitting clothing or knit fabrics allow the freedom of movement needed for acrobatic moves.
Smooth dances like the waltz and fox-trot work best on dance floors large enough to allow long sweeping strides, and turns look particularly graceful in long, flowing dresses.
In Latin dance competitions women expose lots of flesh with showgirl-like costumes, and men wear tight-fitting pants. These costumes help display the sensual hip motion used in most Latin dancing. At a Latin club, you won’t see women dancing in such extreme costumes, but you will see sexy outfits. At a Latino Valentine's Day dance I attended, a store named Gloria's had a fashion show, and every woman’s outfit featured at least one strategically placed cut out.
Many Latin dances feature fast spins for the women. These are easier to do wearing dance shoes with leather soles and at least some heel elevation (as with the dancer in red shoes in the photo). Skirts that flare up beautifully and display the legs during these fast spins are popular. With shorter skirts that flare, women wear dance briefs in a color that goes with the skirt, just in case.
Social dancing is a large world, with lots of subgroups. One couple that I know loves to polka, and they drive long distances to dance to bands like Barefoot Becky and the Ivanhoe Dutchmen. The polka has a long and varied history. In the 19th century it was sometimes an energetic and elegant formal dance. Today at large polka festivals in the United States and Europe you may see various national costumes, as well as costumes representing polka clubs. In the U.S. and Mexico polka costumes can vary from region to region. One constant around the world tends to be full skirts that flare nicely when the woman twirls.
West Coast Swing is done in an imaginary, long, thin slot, making it an ideal dance for bars. The attire is casual, though generally tight and sexy for the woman, befitting her provocative role in this dance. In West Coast Swing the distance between the couple repeatedly expands and contracts in an ongoing push and pull. It’s the only social dance I know in which the woman repeatedly steps toward the man as if to seduce or walk over him. When first learning this dance, from the male perspective it can feel like a elaborate form of self-defense. He can push the woman back, step backwards himself, step aside and guide her past him, or spin her in seemingly disorienting ways. Sometimes she’ll move teasingly close and then push away from him. Women dancing the West Coast Swing often make their bodies “slinky” with various intriguing undulations, especially at slow tempos. Tight fitting tops and pants (or jeans) help display these sensual bodily motions.
The video above is of two instructors randomly paired in a Jack and Jill competition. J&J dances are improvised, sometimes by partners who have never danced together. The exact choice of music will be a surprise, but the dancers usually know the possibilities well enough to interpret whatever comes up. (Incidentally, Wayne Bott danced this improvisation with a heart condition, but he clearly didn’t hold back.) West Coast Swing style is highly variable, depending on both the individual dancers and the style of music. (If you want to see examples of this, here’s three other couples improvising: 1, 2, 3.)
The Western two-step is a relatively elegant dance in which the dancers travel around the floor, similar to smooth dances like the fox-trot and waltz. The costumes are surprisingly expensive. I researched this at a farm and ranch store. A pair of cowboy boots will cost you $100 to $300+, and a nicely decorated belt $40 to $150. Many men wear hats while dancing, which adds $50 to $200. (These are local Western wear prices. High fashion cowboy hats can cost $1,000.)
The two-step is another dance with fast spins for the women, and good dancers sometimes use amazingly complex arm work. (You can see a sample of this in a competition below.) Boots work well for this dance, and, if women choose to wear skirts, they usually wear skirts that flare. However, at casual dances jeans are just as stylish for women as for men.
Since ranchers breed animals, I noticed that the stores that sell them clothing can be forthright in their advertising. One sign read, “Buy the Latest Fashions for your Favorite Stud.” A sign advertising women's jeans read, “Look Good While You’re Walking Away.”
That Western wear can be provocative is openly acknowledged by a company named Cruel Girl. They sell hats named “Cruel Intentions,” and their jeans slogan is, “Our jeans. Your body. A cruel combination.”
I asked a saleswoman if the advertising for men's jeans ever took a similar approach, and was told that it didn’t. Apparently, true to their strong, silent mystique, cowboys just quietly wear tight jeans. Jeans remain work wear for farmers and ranchers, and I learned that there is now a trend toward looser jeans for men. However, the women I asked preferred that their men wear tighter jeans for dancing. Perhaps their reasons are practical. After all, if cowgirls choose to go out dancing with their favorite stud (or candidates being evaluated for that position), then it’s only sensible to showcase his qualifications.
[“Dancer in Red” photo taken in a Los Angeles club by Randall Shinn. “Boots” photograph courtesy of Flickr user Julian Povey under Creative Commons license.]