Dress to Dance

Kathakali - Classical Dance Photo Courtesy: Kathakali.net

Kathakali - Classical Dance
Photo Courtesy: Kathakali.net

Clothing is a vital element of life. In every setting, whether social or professional, casual or formal, the way one dresses becomes a crucial factor in how one is perceived.

It isn’t any different for dancers. In fact, when it comes to dressing for dance, the relationship between the dancer’s body and movements and her clothing, which acts as her second skin, is intricate and layered. A dancer has to be mindful of not just the environment she is in, but also the social behaviour and cultural values she is embracing by way of her performance.

Broadly, some dance styles and their related dressing requirements are listed below:

  • Traditional/Classical Dance – 

In most traditional Indian dances such as Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi and Mohiniattam, the saree, which is the primary element of clothing, is draped in different styles. For men, the main garment would be a dhoti wrapped in distinctive panaches. Usually accompanied by heavy jewellery and flowers, such dance forms also call for dark and gaudy makeup keeping with the dramatic nature of the movements associated with such forms.

  • Folk Dance –

Most folk dances originate within tribes and at villages. They are generally employed as a means of stylistic story telling. Chhau & Bihu, folk dances from Jharkhand and Assam respectively, are heavy in terms of ornamentation with a variety of headgear, necklaces, bracelets and amulets adorning the dancers. The clothing remains quite muted in these dance forms, with locally woven dress pieces or suits worn by the performers. Exaggeration by way of elaborate accessories and props makes up for the understated dressing seen in such dances.

  • Western Classical Dance –

Comprising mainly ballet and forms such as the waltz, ballroom and fox-trot, dancers performing routines in these genres are generally finely dressed with exact fitting clothes and shoes, which are also an integral part of the overall dress-code. Unlike classical and folk styles, these dance forms find support in the clothing worn by dancers. For instance, ballerinas need to deck up in body-fitting clothes like leotards so that the litheness of their movements can be observed from afar. For women, lace and net accourtments enhance the elegance of not just the dancer, but the dance as well. In more modish forms such as ballroom and waltz, flowing gowns made of rich fabrics and sequins for the ladies, while immaculately tailored suits for the gentlemen are the preferred mode of dressing. Of course, shoes customised to match the clothing are unmissable; in tap dancing, the shoes determine the richness of the performance.

So you can only imagine the prominence of shoes in the overall dress design of such sophisticated dance forms.

Martha Graham Dance Company  -Modern/Contemporary Photo Courtesy: http://michaeljwrites.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/martha-graham-dance-co.jpg

Martha Graham Dance Company  -Modern/Contemporary
Photo Courtesy: http://michaeljwrites.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/martha-graham-dance-co.jpg

  • Modern/Contemporary Dance – 

By far the supplest of all dance forms, contemporary is truly an independent and free discipline. The defining characteristic of modern/contemporary dance is its inherent fluidity; one can devise any composition by following the principles of flexibility ingrained in contemporary. The distinction in structured classical dances and newer types of dance styles is in the vocabulary used in either. Contemporary eschews rules; it embraces novelty in the way a routine may be structured, and in the way its content is presented for consumption. 

The way society exists at a point in time – this is what contemporary captures in its presentation. Hence, when dressing for a performance in this domain, one has to be mindful of the audience one is interacting with. Clothing has to be not just thematic, but also understandable and acceptable for viewers at large.

For instance, when putting up a performance on women empowerment, performers need not necessarily dress in dark colours like red and wear sarees to denote the concept of ‘Stree Shakti’. What they can do is mix-and-match dhoti pants with a dupatta (a garment similar to a stole) wrapped around to resemble a saree. Team this up with a fitted bustier, and what one gets is a representation of the woman form using materials and clothing that are part of the everyday lexicon of life. These infusions of regular elements, hence, make contemporary far more natural as an expression. 

Although cool and trendy in presentation, the overall expression in such a dance form needs to be relatable. While overall emotional enunciation is conveyed by way of the choreography itself, dancers’ external appearances need to be in sync with the outwardly communication of this internal dialogue. After all, every piece tells a story, and costumes act as a bridge between the foundational narrative and final manifestation of this story.

Heavy movements and copious floor work characterize contemporary dance. Keeping this in mind, costumes need to mould themselves to a dancer’s body such that the meandering movements are captured and portrayed in as exact a manner as possible. It’s not unusual to find minimal clothing like vests and hot pants with hair worn open in the practice of a fusion dance piece.

Tao Dance - Contemporary Photo by: Fan Xi

Tao Dance - Contemporary
Photo by: Fan Xi

“The use of props, the use of costume… The strongest, simplest, most powerful theatre I think I’ve ever seen,” said renowned dance critic Glen Tetly. When placed in the context of how a dancer should dress when in performance, one realises how powerful this quote is. Just imagine the cross pollination of various clothing rudiments from across dance genres with contemporary dance… 

The impact such a development can have on a recital is monumental. This isn’t a subjective claim; just think about it. Visualise the stylistic enactment of a situation where a woman is being harassed by society, with the principal dancer in stark, minimal clothing, and the supporting dancers donning masks akin to the ones used in a Chhau dance. The mere presence of the larger-than-life masks would communicate an overbearing influence on the minimalistic female form. Monochromic colours would be, at once, subdued, yet standing out. This is how costume can influence performances.

So the next time you’re gearing up yourself for a contemporary exposition, unleash your creativity and blend styles to establish your unique identity. Do not be afraid to experiment; marry everyday experiences with surreal, or dreamy, anticipations. Look around to prep your performance with new sartorial distillations; use clothing and costume as an extension of your overall repertoire, and see your dance come alive in more ways than one.

Ushamrita Choudhury
Chief Writer at ASC Ushamrita