My first introduction to the Ballroom World was in 2005 at a local social dance. A charming, young professional patiently led me through patterns, and I had no idea what I was doing. It was fun! Soon I was working hard and ready for my first competition, and with that my first American Smooth ballroom gown. It was a green rental that the teacher picked out for me, and I loved it.
Since that time, my husband Mike and I have added dance styles, learned innumerable steps, and moved up in categories, and I have gone through many many dresses. As we still enjoy Smooth, we are still dancing it, but my little green dress of yesterday would have a hard time keeping up with what is competing on today’s dance floor.
This begs the question: What is today’s Smooth lady wearing?
I started researching this topic and realized that there is a lot to cover. It depends on level, age, body type, and who you are on the dance floor.
Today’s professional Smooth lady is a wonderful combination of Standard, Latin, and Theater Arts. She is beautiful, graceful, powerful, and sharp, with her own unique personality. Likewise, her Smooth dress must portray her, her partnership, and their dancing.
Flowing skirts are trending with high slits or sheer panels exposing long, tanned, beautiful legs. The dresses tend to be asymmetric in shape, and single toned in color or offset by white, black, or Navy blue. Although, nudes mixed with dark or bright tones and the occasional animal prints are also out there. Exquisitely stoned bodices tend to be scantier than in the past, with beautifully open backs and intricate strapping. Interestingly, floats and feathers aren’t just for the Standard girls anymore, as some Smooth gowns include delicate drapes, a plethora of feathers, and gorgeous sleeves to frame the turning girl.
So where does that leave the Amateur lady who is looking for a new dress? It is great to consider trends, but they aren’t for everyone. Plus, you need to look your best and help your partnership stand out.
First consider how you dance. Yes, you are dancing American Smooth, but how do you dance compared to others on the floor with you? Are you the beautifully graceful and wispy type, who never stands still and should be surrounded in layers of swirling fabric? It’s a gorgeous look, but we can’t all pull that one off. Are you a fierce dancer who wants a robust, statement dress with strong lines and colors? Or, are you a classic gorgeous dancer who favors Fred and Ginger lines, in lovely colors, with curvy skirts? All are good, but they don’t mix well. A fierce dancer in swirling fabric can even be confusing. That’s when you get comments like, “I like the dress, but not on her,” or even worse: “What was she thinking?”
Now that you have considered your dancing and what you look like. Consider the color. It is not necessarily about the color you like or wear on a daily basis. It is about the color that will make you stand out on the floor. For example, you might like black, Navy blue, eggplant, or maroon, but if you are a relatively small lady who is new to the competition floor in a full semi-final, the judges won’t find you in the sea of black jackets and bright dresses. You need something that will stand out. Go for neon, red, yellow, silver, white…something bright. If you think it doesn’t match your skin tone…use more tanner or body makeup. You might be the next best Ginger Rogers, but if judges don’t see you, they won’t mark you. Don’t make them have to look for you. A professional once said to me…turn away from a full dance floor, then give the floor a half-second glance and turn back again. What color did you see? What stood out the most in a quick glance? That is the color you want to wear. There is a reason that firetrucks are the colors they are.
Of course, we must take into consideration our age, body shape, good features, and bad features. If you’re young and perfect: read/follow the costume regulations and go for it. Just remember that the more we see of you, the more the judges can see what you are doing. For the Seniors: a not-so-young lady can look as gorgeous as a younger lady, but maybe shouldn’t be in the younger one’s dress. The high slit is great if you still have Heidi Klum’s legs but consider tanner and fishnets before you put the dress on. Sleeves or no sleeves? If the “guns” are sagging, you might want a dress with sleeves. Yes, they can be warmer, but considering your partner is in a shirt and a jacket, should you complain?
Then let’s talk about your capabilities: Do you have beautiful arm styling? Don’t cover them with black gloves or dark gauntlets; no one will see them. If you have long sleeves, make sure they are in a good color or stoned. If your arms are bare, consider some bangles. Does your coach think you have great footwork? Maybe the skirt can be a little higher to show that off. Do you dance your back well? Look for a dress that will reveal that feature. Consider what you like about yourself and accentuate that – long neck, beautiful shoulders, big bust, great curves, tall, petite…it’s all good!
So, you see a dress that looks perfect for you. It is the one! You put it on, and the dressmaker says it is gorgeous. Stop!! Don’t just look at it in the mirror. No one will judge you while you are standing still, and no one will see you that closely, except your partner and those giving you awards at the end. Look at it from across the room. Put it on and move in it. Can you turn? Is it too heavy? How does the skirt move when you do your steps? Is it wide enough for your kicks, or is it too wide and might get in your partner’s way? Can you see yourself in a crowd from across the floor? Do you look like you want to look in it? Are you tripping in it? Is it too tight? Is it too loose? What kind of jewelry will it require? Will it need shoes that are a different color? Also consider…unless you are extremely wealthy…is it timeless? Can you wear it a few years, or will you be sorry you bought it after two competitions?
Let’s talk briefly about secondhand dresses. Some people scoff at the idea, but secondhand dresses can be amazing finds at good prices. A beautiful dress that was worn once or twice by a professional or top-level amateur can be a real showstopper, and it might save you a lot of money. Don’t worry if a few stones have fallen off, but make sure that they aren’t all letting go or separating from their backs – this might indicate the use of bad glue or cheap stones. A little mark here and there can be expected, as you know it is a secondhand item, but make sure the seams are solid. Also ask if any items come with the dress – bracelets, necklace, earrings, gauntlets, etc. Then, don’t be afraid to negotiate. If someone is selling a dress, they are ready to part with it and need room in their closet. Be respectful. Offering $200 for an item when the asking price is $2000, can be highly insulting, and lead to hurt feelings. Consider, many quality new dresses are priced well over $5,000, and if it is off the rack, a professional might have worn it before you as a sponsor dress.
So where does that leave you? Picking out your next dress can be a lot of fun. Don’t be in a hurry and don’t go alone. Ask your partner, ask your friend, ask your teacher, ask the lady who happens to be trying on a dress next to you. Try on different dresses and styles – new and pre-owned. Do you like one? Walk away from it and decide if you are sad or relieved. Then make your decision.
Final note: Yes, I still have pictures of my lovely green rental dress and I still like it. Your “next” dress will not likely be your “last” dress. Remember, this isn’t the Red Carpet at your one-and-only movie premier; it’s Ballroom Dancing!