So You Think You Can Dress Like a Dancer

Right now I’m working on a novel about circus performers. Every time I go to yoga, I tell myself I’m getting in shape so I can take trapeze classes as research. This is why it’s more fun to write a novel about the circus than, say, war.

The next question, of course, is: What does one wear to trapeze class?

I took gymnastics classes through my local parks and recreation department from the time I was five through high school. The gym consisted of some mats thrown down on the tile floor of the community center and a wooden balance beam that was known to leave parallel scrapes down the backs of young somersaulters. But in my mind I was one stern soviet coach away from the glory of my idol, Nadia Comaneci.

I grew up watching the TV movie version of her life and admiring the utilitarianism of a simple leotard in the colors of the Romanian flag, accessorized with a perky hair ribbon.

Stripes are very slimming. So is a diet of soviet rations and ten-hour rehearsals.

In junior high—middle age in gymnast years—I hit a growth spurt that made me a giant in gymnast inches. So I looked to diversify my talents and started taking jazz classes. Around that time, Teen Magazine ran a piece about a trio of young Cirque du Soleil contortionists. Their pink and purple unitards are forever seared into my mind as the epitome of ephemeral beauty. I think the article emphasized the Circus Performers: They’re Just Like Us! angle, with tidbits about their crushes and love of potato chips.

When you can do this, it’s important to coordinate your tights with your feathered bathing cap thingy.

But I loved them for the ways they were nothing like me, or, more importantly, nothing like the mean girls in tube skirts and slouch socks that populated my world. Being a dancer still seems like being a superhero. By day you do math homework and beg your parents to let you see Sleeping With the Enemy even though it’s rated R. But by night you twist your lithe body into Stretch Armstrong shapes and hang out with high school kids who practice their dance moves at clubs in Hollywood.

You don’t go to clubs because you’re 13 and too shy to even talk to Stella, your beginning jazz teacher, and Zeke, the hot guy in the nine o’ clock class (who’s gay! And everyone’s just like, whatever about it!), but that’s okay. Your new semi-friends exist in the bubble of the sweaty little storefront studio. Their uniform: crazy layers, crinkly nylon warm-up pants, high-top jazz boots, knee pads and chopped-up sweats that say, Regular clothes do not understand my elite needs.

Knee pads: not just for blowjob jokes.

Almost three* decades have passed since Flashdance, but the basic principle of tights and torn-up clothing holds strong.

Step 1: pirouette. Step 2: open can. Step 3: dance like a maaaaniac in the spray it creates.

As much as I loved Rodarte’s eerie bird getups in Black Swan, it was Natalie Portman’s practice clothes that I lusted after (designed at least in part by Amy Wescott; apparently the film’s costume credits were a subject of debate)—her shrugs, filmy skirts and asymmetrical legwarmers.

Pretty in pink. Stabby in swan.

When the apparatus is made visible, you get a behind-the-scenes peek into the world of spectacle. A well designed set is lovely, but I’m a deconstructionist at heart. Show me the scaffolding. Show me what goes on when the gillies are gone.

Love these lines.

Besides, the onstage attire marketed to real-life dancers is mind-bogglingly awful. I work next door to a dancewear and costume store, and the only thing scarier than the weathered clown they pose out front each Halloween (when his hand fell off they replaced it with a tiny mannequin hand) is what they expect dancers to wear for recitals. Depending on your genre, you can look forward to skimpy sequined ballroom-ish blech…

I can see my reflection in her hot pants.

…or “hip-hop” ensembles that bring the street into the studio via a thick layer of lameness.

I’m pretty sure whatever song she’s dancing to is the radio edit.

Add a few million dollars to your budget, though, and you’ll get some good stuff, like Stella McCartney’s costumes for her dad’s ballet, Ocean’s Kingdom. Full-body tattoos, unitards that look like they stepped out of a graffiti mural, capes that blend from one ocean hue to another—this is fashion that doesn’t have to worry about looking “costume-y” because, yep, it’s a costume.

The Little Mermaid is going to ditch her seashell bra when she sees this.

I’m dying to get my hands on a copy of The Circus, 1870s-1950s, which includes rare color photos of vintage costumes. They’re a beautiful homage to the creativity of a world before Lycra. (My mom grew up in Southern California and therefore could not claim to have walked for miles through the snow to get to school. But she had plenty to say about doing ballet before the days of decent elastic.)

Red Swan doesn’t need to get in touch with her dark side.

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise how many costumes involve feathers. Dancing is all about the desire to fly. It’s also fun to see women with real muscle tone subverting the soft-and-curvy norm of the day.

The OG warrior princess.

Carrie Bradshaw flower and arms that could throttle Mr. Big.

And there’s the rub. I can wear ballet flats (the only thing between me and frumpy nurse shoes, at least until I get a pair of the wingtips on that European girl in Michael’s menswear post) or “dance-inspired” stuff like this look from Vanessa Bruno:

Perfect for the office or cocktails after work! Um, right?

But until I get my ass onto that trapeze and build a non-civilian body to hang it all on, I’m not going to have the accessory that brings it all together. Still, a girl can dream. That’s what the circus, and zillion-dollar Rodarte fishnets, are all about.

Six-inch heels: fashion’s answer to the pointe shoe.

*At first I wrote “two,” but then my friend pointed out that I’m older than I think I am.


About Cheryl Klein

According to the ads that show up on my Facebook page, I love little vintage dresses and shoes with funky heels (and I should also consider a social work degree and self-publishing). Facebook knows too much, you guys. Other things I like: clearance racks, fingerless gloves, the phrase "a smoky eye," and clothing that reminds me of my early fashion icons--Pippi Longstocking, Punky Brewster and Laura Ingalls.


  1. Peter Varvel

    “Being a dancer still seems like being a superhero.” Thank you for understanding that. I’m still flummoxed by the fact that most people aren’t in awe of technically trained dancers that way I was . . . am.
    I practically lived in crinkly nylon warm-up pants in the early/mid 80’s! 🙂

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