Presentation matters. Obviously, you need to remember your steps and your timing and your breathing (we sometimes forget that part…). But if you’re new to the competition scene, the sight of all the perfect hair, perfect makeup, perfect tans, and stunning costumes might seem daunting -- how do dancers pull it off? Never fear! We’ve put together a prep guide to help get you oriented for everything from makeup to costuming -- for gentlemen and ladies. Let us help you shine even brighter on the floor.
When it comes to costuming, it is important to choose something that you feel comfortable in and that flatters your body shape and type. Men generally have it easier as their options are more limited, but the same rule applies. First, here is a video where dance professionals give advice on choosing a costume. Following this we’ll go more in-depth for gentlemen and ladies, taking into account the differences in style between costuming for International and American styles.
Standard v. American Smooth
Gentlemen for those of you dancing Standard (International), a tail suit is required. These can be costly but if you are a beginner, you do have other options. For example, you can purchase a basic Standard shirt -- this will be white and long-sleeved. Note that rolled-up sleeves are not allowed. The shirt must be worn tucked-in and buttoned up all the way as bowtie or tie is required (black or white). It is possible to wear a regular white dress shirt, but in such cases it is advisable to wear a waistcoat or vest in order to prevent the shirt from bunching at the shoulders when you hold your frame. Dance shirts and jackets are designed to lie smoothly at all times, and in some cases are actually leotards.
For gentlemen dancing American Smooth, there is more leeway. Shirts may be another colour, though they must be solid and without patterning. Vests/waistcoats can be worn if dancers do not have a full suit, and the colour may match that of the shirt. In Smooth, gentlemen wear suits as opposed to tails and the suit jacket is black. Note that there should be no reflective materials on the shirt, vest, or jacket (save the rhinestones for Latin/Rhythm). A Smooth jacket is longer and slimmer than a regular jacket, and will lie smoothly while holding your frame. Ties and bowties may be any colour, but not multi-coloured.
Pants are the same for Standard and Smooth. These are all black, straight-legged, and sit where regular dress pants do (note that pants worn with a tail suit will sit higher, as will Latin pants). They do not have the stripe that is common on Latin pants.
Bottom line for the beginner: collared shirt, black pants, tie/bowtie, vest/waistcoat, cufflinks. Below is an example of a Basic look for Ballroom or American Smooth. Following is an example of a full Ballroom look on the left and a full American Smooth look on the right.
Latin v. American Rhythm
For Latin and Rhythm, there is no difference. A basic shirt is fitted, long-sleeved, and either black or white without pattern or ornamentation. It will either be a turtle-neck or open to mid- or lower-chest.
Pants are black and usually have a black satin stripe running down the outside of the leg and/or a satin waistband. They are more fitted at the thigh than Smooth pants and flare out around the lower legs.
Once you reach more advanced levels, you may want a fancy Latin shirt. This is the same as a basic Latin shirt, but with as much bling as you could want. However, many advanced gentlemen dancers (even professionals) opt to wear the basic. Below is an example of a look that can be worn at any level. Following this is an example of a Latin/Rhythm shirt that would only be worn at more advanced levels.
Standard v. American Smooth
Standard and Smooth competition dresses are generally long ballgowns. If you are a beginner competing at the lower levels you may opt to wear a shirt/skirt combo as well. Basic dresses are simple and lack much of the glitz of full competition dresses.
If you choose to wear a full ballgown, there are some differences to keep in mind depending on whether you are competing in Standard (International) or American Smooth.
The most noticeable features in a Standard gown are the floats/wings and the style of skirt. Floats (or wings) are pieces of fabric, feathers, beading, etc. that hang from the sleeves. If there are no sleeves, then they hang from armbands. These are designed to give some additional movement to the upper half of the body since in Standard you never leave closed position. The skirt on a Standard ballgown is generally full and layered (a “fluffy” skirt) and wide. Again, this is to create more movement when dancing in closed position. Stylistically, dresses also tend to be more conservative with higher backs and fronts in order to make visible any detailing when in closed position.
American Smooth dresses do not make use of floats or wings. When dancing American Smooth, floats can actually be hazardous and entangle either partner when doing open patterns. Skirts are also slimmer and much less voluminous than Standard skirts. The open positions and patterns of Smooth offer much more opportunity for wind ups and spins, thus creating more movement of the skirt. American Smooth skirts often have slits in them as well. Stylistically, American Smooth dresses take much more influence from Latin dresses with cutouts, open backs, deep-V necks, more detailing, etc. This is because in Standard you almost never see the front of the dress, whereas in Smooth the whole dress is on display since partners are not restricted to closed position. In the following image, an example of a Smooth dress is on the left, and the Standard is on the right.
Dresses for Standard and Smooth vary in price, depending where you look -- they can range from hundreds of dollars to thousands, depending on the material used as well as the quality and quantity of rhinestones. If you choose to have a custom dress made, this will run the higher end of spectrum. If budget is a consideration, ask your instructor/coach if they know of anyone who might be selling or renting used dresses. Some designers also have a selection of dresses for rent. Rentals can still cost a few hundred depending on the season.
Smooth and Standard dresses have built-in bras and bodysuits.
Guide: How to Choose the Perfect Ballroom Shoe
Latin v. Rhythm
Latin and Rhythm dresses are interchangeable. As with Smooth and Standard dresses, they have built-in bras and bodysuits.
A Basic Latin/Rhythm dress will lack the rhinestones and embellishments of advanced competition dresses. They usually feature fringe or ruffles to accentuate hip and body movement.
Advanced Latin/Rhythm dresses are expected to be ALL THE THINGS. They may be short or long (in which case there is a slit, usually at the back), with rhinestones, fringe, feathers, beading, and gorgeous detailing. Once again, they can cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars. As with Standard/Smooth dresses, rentals can be an option if you’re on a tighter budget. The following is an example of a Latin costume. They can also look more traditional.
Guide: How to Choose the Right Latin Shoe
HAIR & MAKEUP
For gentlemen and ladies the same basic principle applies: keep the hair neat and tidy and out of your face. Stray hairs will mar the professional look you want to create. For ladies, the safest bet is to put your hair up. You will sometimes see ladies dancing with their hair down but some judges are not fans of the look. When in doubt, you can’t go wrong with a simple bun.
Larger competitions usually have hair and makeup stylists on hand, and appointments are booked beforehand. Costs vary, but if you choose to have your hair professionally done budget about $100-120 and another $100-120 if you choose to have your makeup done professionally as well.
But if you want to do it yourself, below are some video tutorials on hair and makeup for gentlemen and ladies.
Latin/Rhythm Hair Styling Dance Comp Review
Hair Styling Using Gel Dance Comp Review (Slick Style)
Basic Dance Competition MakeUp for Men Dance Comp Review
Ladies dance makeup and hair is much more elaborate than men’s. We’ll start with makeup tutorials, then move on to hair. In terms of eyeshadow colour, one general guideline is that you can never go wrong with neutral tones: browns, greys, golds, silver, etc. If your dance costume is red, orange, yellow, pink, multi-coloured, etc. you are better off sticking with neutral mattes and shimmers around the eye. However, if your costume is blue, green, white, deep purple, a matching eye can look very nice (my current look is a blue eye to match the blue of my Smooth and Rhythm costumes).
I’ve compiled some videos for dancers with pale skin and also for darker skin. But no matter your skin tone, the first video nails it in terms of what you should absolutely NOT do.
How to NOT do Ballroom Makeup
Makeup & hair for dancers with pale skin
Classic Ballroom Makeup by Rachel Macintosh
Dark, Bold, and Glittery Eyes by Rachel Macintosh
Makeup for dancers with dark skin
While not labelled as “ballroom”, these looks are perfect for the dance floor.
Classic look (Makeup Dos and Don’ts -- beginner friendly) by Dimah Umeh
Flawless Makeup for Women of Color ft. Sistar Cosmetics by Petite-Sue Divinitii (more colourful eye)
All That Glitters by Petite Sue Divinitii
Hairstyles for Black women
Throwback to a Donut Bun
High Bun on Natural Hair
“But why do I need a tan???”
Fair question. For those of us with paler skin, the bright lights the dance floor will give our skin a washed-out appearance. Adding some colour will prevent this. So what are your options?
You can choose to go for a spray tan or you can purchase tanning cream. I prefer going for a spray tan since it’s professionally applied and looks fabulous for several days. If you choose to go with a tanning cream or spray, make sure you apply it evenly. It is also a good idea to have someone help you with your back. Uneven application will result in discolouration once the cream or spray dries. And make sure to do your ears!
And lastly...HAVE FUN!!! That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it? Now that you’ve done the hair and makeup and costume and you look more fabulous than usual...get out there and let the magic begin.
We'll see you on the floor!