One of the first things a new dancer learns is that Shoes Are Important. You blithely arrive for your first dance wearing the street shoes you intend to dance in, and watch as dancer after dancer arrives and immediately heads for a chair to change their shoes. And the shoes they’re changing into, well, they’re odd. People who seem to have gone to a lot of time and effort to put together very swanky, vintage outfits are pulling out… tennis shoes? Really? Or men’s dress shoes with that cute little dress? Are you serious? And they are. Deadly serious. There is nothing a dancer takes more seriously than shoes.
You start to realize that these are special shoes. They have brand names like Aris Allens and Bleyers, or they’ve been specially modified at shoe stores. They have soles made from suede or leather which must never, never, never get wet! Ever! Other dancers are happy to talk at length about their preferences in shoes, debating suede soles vs. hard leather vs. soft leather. You start to think that maybe you ought to get your own pair of these special shoes. It’s a watershed in a young dancer’s life when they buy their first pair of real dance shoes, or take a pair of shoes to a cobbler to get them resoled with suede. It signifies a certain amount of commitment. It says, “I’m serious about this. Serious enough to buy the shoes.”
Sometime about the time the dancer buys the shoes, or maybe a bit before, the dancer’s clothing starts to change. This is particularly apparent in girls. When girls start dancing, they usually dress like a cross between their idea of glamorous 1940s vintage and what they’ve seen of ballroom dancers. There’s a lot of full skirts, party dresses accessorized to appear more “vintage,” and sometimes low cut/strapless looks with a lot of black and white color schemes. They want to look pretty! And cute! And vintage! If they keep with it long enough they start to realize that dancing is hard work. It’s exercise, and it’s not very fun exercising in a strapless dress. They start dressing down more. Jeans and workout pants begin to make their appearance. They might still wear skirts, but they’re shorter, less full. They do twirl tests, making sure that if the skirt flares, it doesn’t flare too high. They start wearing more t-shirts, and less cute little vintage-y blouses. Somewhere down the line they start attending dancing weekends and workshops, and start collecting event t-shirts. They start to realize that when you exercise, you sweat, and begin to steer their color choices towards those which don’t show sweat stains. They start to bring extra shirts to change into after they’ve sweated through the shirt they’re wearing. Utility and comfort begin to be more important than vintage, although cute is still always a priority (it is, after all, social dance).
By this time the dancer has been dancing a few years, they look totally different. The long skirts and high heels are gone. Instead they’re wearing the Swing Dancer Uniform: jeans or other comfortable pants or skirt, t-shirt (preferably wearing the logo of a Lindy Exchange) or other breathable top, comfortable shoes with slick soles, no-fuss hair. They’ve come to dance, and it shows.
Recently I’ve come to realize that beyond the requirements of good dancing clothes, there are also good teaching clothes. I would say that learning to dance is 30% watching your instructors, 60% trying to do it yourself, and 10% hearing the teachers explain. This means that students have to be able to actually see what the instructor is doing with his or her body. For me that means not wearing any skirt longer than knee-length, and, well, added attention to the cute factor. Wanting to be a better dancer often begins with wanting to look like your instructor. So I try to look like someone they might want to emulate. I’m still pretty new to teaching, so I don’t have this part all figured out. Who knows? Maybe in a year or two I’ll be writing a post on How To Dress Like A Teacher…