Ballroom Costumes: Less Glitz, Better Fits

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the rarefied, regimented world of ballroom dancing, an incident in 1982 proved nothing short of a fashion coup: During an international competition, half a dozen of the world's reigning ballroom dancers--queens of the floor--threw down their tutus.

For decades they'd been consigned to wear short skirts with layer upon layer of netting that made them look as if they had stick legs and huge hips. They'd had enough. So the world's top dancers banded together and showed up for the final round of the British Open in the long, fluid gowns that have become the ballroom standard.

"Overnight they all started wearing Ginger Rogers dresses. Within a matter of months, no one wore the net styles," says Elizabeth Knoll, a national champion ballroom dancer who teaches at the Imperial Academy in Buena Park.

Like Knoll, today's ballroom dancers owe a debt of gratitude to the revolutionaries who made ballroom dance costumes more palatable.

Those who have seriously taken up the fox trot, waltz and other moves must also master the strict dress code of ballroom dancing, but they no longer look like extras in Swan Lake. Gowns for women have become infinitely more flattering, while would-be Fred Astaires have toned down the glitz in favor of understated elegance.

For Knoll and her partner, Dennis Lyle, a Fred Astaire National Champion ballroom dancer and owner of the Imperial Academy, the art of the dance has as much to do with the costumes as choreography.

"Costuming is very important," Knoll says, "if for no other reason than to boost your psyche. Even though what we do is athletic, it's also cosmetic. Judges certainly take into account the look of the couple."

Ballroom costumes may look like elegant evening wear, but they're designed with athletic endurance in mind.

"We have to move in them," Knoll says.

International ballroom dancing--the competitive style that audiences watch on PBS specials in which partners remain in each other's arms throughout the performance--calls for gowns that complement the frame and posture.

The trend today is full-skirted dresses that hit midcalf to the ankle, reinforced with boning or fish line in the hems for added volume. Feathers are optional and fall in and out of favor. Knoll senses a comeback and has ordered her next gown with a feathery hem.

One of Knoll's gowns has a teal crepe-back satin skirt over a layer of lavender organza, and a purple lace bodice studded with Austrian crystals.

"It's very streamlined and fitted. There's no froufrou," she says.

Men once matched their partners in glitz. They would wear a unitard with "ruffles and rhinestones all over," Lyle says.

Now they wear traditional tail suits--tuxedos with modifications. Their tuxedo shirts are worn with detachable collars made of plastic that rise high on the neck, which makes for a crisp, elegant line but also an uncomfortable fit.

"They don't wilt when you sweat," Lyle says. Trousers have high waists to elongate the legs. The jackets are specially cut so the shoulders don't bunch up, and the sleeves lie flat when the arms are holding their partners.

Lyle, whom Knoll jokingly calls "Mr. Sartorial Spendor," has his tails made by a tailor in Los Angeles for about $1,400.

"They wear studs, cuff links, the works," Knoll says. "The men look great. I think that's why I got into ballroom dancing."

For American-style ballroom dancing, which calls for more athletic maneuvers, guys can ditch the jacket and wear a vest for greater movement. Women wear longer gowns with extra-full skirts that can be raised high above their heads, with folds of fabric to spare.

"They're designed for when we do dips, drops and little swoopy things," Knoll says.

She has a royal blue polyester backless number with a black velvet collar and large rhinestone buttons. The dress has a slit up the center for showing some leg during high kicks.

Dresses for Latin-style dances "tend to have a lot less material," she says.

Dancers want to show off their backs, legs and hips. Skirts can be short and tight, and slit into panels. Knoll considers her dresses conservative; one style features an asymmetrical skirt and comes in a form-fitting black stretch velvet.

Men wear fitted black pants with everything from muscle T-shirts to tailored shirts, which many guys like to wear unbuttoned.

"They're a lot less gaudy than they used to be," Lyle says.

Costumes are made to withstand the rigors of the dance, but most competitors have stories of zippers popping, heels catching in hems and straps snapping.

One of Knoll's worst fashion mishaps took place in 1991, when she was U.S. champion representing the United States at a world competition in Berlin. Her lace bodice caught on the button of her partner's tailcoat, and she spun to the floor still hooked to his jacket.

"I was hanging on by a piece of lace," she says. She tried to fix the snag with nail polish during a break in the routine, and unwittingly spilled the polish all over her dress.

The accident didn't harm her score. Unlike skaters, ballroom dancers lose no points for falling, but scores can be deducted if they don't recover gracefully.

Knoll's gowns are made by Teresa Sigmon, owner of Seams Sensational of Portland, Ore., and a champion dancer who knows what's required of each garment.

"I tell her what I don't want, and she comes up with the design," Knoll says. Sigmon sends Knoll the drawings, then makes gowns to fit Knoll's size 3, 5-foot-8 frame.

Knoll pays about $1,000 to $3,000 per gown, but the costumes have a high resale value. After wearing a dress two or three times, she can sell it to another dancer below her level of competition for the same--or more--than she paid, thanks to discounts she receives from her designer. Each dress takes six to eight weeks to make.

The costumes are expensive because they're original designs, require many yards of fabric for the full skirts and are usually adorned with numerous Austrian crystals. Most competitive dancers need six to 10 dresses a year.

Knoll started dancing during her second year at USC.

"It was just a hobby. Then I got hooked," she says.

She turned pro in 1985 and won the U.S. national championship in 1991. Now she commutes from her home in Culver City to teach at the academy, and she performs in professional dance shows. She and Lyle, a Tustin resident, have performed at charity galas such as a recent dinner-dance for the Fullerton Public Library and a Viennese ball staged by the Orange County Philharmonic Society.

"Orange County has a strong, growing population of ballroom dancers," Knoll says.

Interest in ballroom dancing spikes every time there's a PBS broadcast of a competition or a new movie comes out, such as "Shall We Dance?" or the campier "Strictly Ballroom."

"Partnership dancing is growing. Kids are out there swing dancing and doing all kinds of incredible moves," Knoll says. "It's nice to touch somebody versus boogieing by yourself."

There's also a growing recognition that ballroom dancing is an athletic sport, one that requires couples to practice a minimum of 10 hours a week if they want to dance competitively.

"We wear special equipment. Ours is just more glittery than others," Knoll says. "And we still look good at the end."

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