DANCING WITH STYLE WITH The Wellesley Ballroom Dance Team
by Tiffany Chu '22, Serena Chan '23, Victoria Ho '24, Emma Lee '24
Photography by Ana Rubin '24
January 29, 2021
Alexandra Martinez Lopez '22, Hailey Sweeney '23, Cece Henderson '23, Beatrice Chen '23, Christina Yin '23, Charlotte Emily Ryan '21
The Wellesley Ballroom Dance Team (WBDT) is a group of committed and passionate ballroom dancers. They train with professional coaches at MIT and dazzle—decked in gorgeous costuming—in collegiate competitions across the East Coast. We interviewed WBDT about the relationship between their costume styles and ballroom dances.
VH: One thing that I was really curious about is the practicality of ballroom costumes, and how they’re designed to hold up throughout entire dances.
CER: We have a couple of different styles and the costumes are designed to accentuate the movement of the particular style. Often, they have built-in leotards so that when you're dancing, everything is going to stay in place. At least from the costumes I've interacted with, they're made of really durable materials so that you can wash them again and again. The stones have really strong glue so they're not flying off. Like for Latin dance, you'll see a lot of skirts with fringe sewn in and you'll lose a strand here and there, but for the most part, it's really sewn in there so that when you're doing your turns, the fringe can be whipping around without coming out.
AML: In terms of durability, we also work with the costume coordinator throughout the year to make assessments. Sometimes a costume will be a little loose for some people, so it will take stitches to tighten it up or fashion tape for competitions to make sure that everything stays in place.
CH: To give some context for people who aren't as familiar with the styles that we dance: in general, there are two big categories and the costumes are very, very different. Latin rhythm is one category; that's like your cha-cha, your jive, your rumba. The costumes tend to be a little bit shorter and with a little bit more skin with lots of fringe and sparkles. Then there's standard smooth dancing, which is more of a princess-like waltz, foxtrot, and quick steps. For those dances, you would wear bigger, fluffy ball gowns.
VH: Another question that I have is related to how it seems like your costumes are reused. Obviously, people have different body types so I was wondering what that reusing process works. Do you have to tailor it to the person? I know you mentioned fashion tape and stitches too.
CER: Obviously everyone has a different body type, but most of the time we get pretty lucky that our costumes happen to fit multiple different people. In the past, we have done things like just completely take the bra out and put a new one in so it fits the dancer’s bust. We also might have someone who's available to sew things tighter or to use safety pins to hug the body more securely. If there is a case where someone doesn't fit the costumes, we have used some of our budget to buy a new costume and then someone else with that body type in the future will reuse that.
Charlotte Emily Ryan '21
VH: Aside from the materials and sparkles, in terms of practicality, what are some other big ways that ballroom costumes differ from everyday clothes?
AML: It depends on the costume. So I've had to compete in costumes that are very heavy and have fringes and stones. So even when you’re dancing, you'd have to use a little bit more energy in everything you do because of the weight of the costume. That's definitely very different from my daily sweatshirts and leggings. Also, I guess in terms of practicality, I don't usually show a lot of skin but in ballroom, I feel very comfortable doing it just because I think that makes me feel very confident when I'm dancing. I also feel very confident in wearing a very revealing dress that I maybe wouldn't wear in my normal day-to-day life.
HS: That question is kind of funny for me, because of what I wear for standard. Because I'm a female leader, I actually wear a jumpsuit that we bought from, I don't know, JCPenney or Macy's last year. So it's actually something that's not meant for ballroom. It's meant as some sort of formal or semi-formal wear for women. I really like it because the fabric is very light and kind of very floaty in the pant legs. It looks white on the top and black on the bottom–so it fits what you could say the men wear for their standard dancing (they wear a white shirt with black pants and sometimes fancy suits). For me, it's very similar to everyday clothes, just because of the way we got them, but it also feels special in a way because I only wear them for dancing!
CH: I think ballroom is also really fun. Again giving some context to the sport, it's very subjective. In each dance, you start with one round of everyone who wants to compete and you get 90 seconds to dance. The judges can tick off whom they think should move on to the next round. So it's not just about the quality of dancing, but it really is about your presentation. There's a very, very flashy kind of ballroom culture. Hair can get really sculptural and the makeup is always fun. There's always rhinestones on people's faces. It really is about being able to stand out in a sea of bright colors.
CER: I think another fun thing to mention is the shoes. In addition to the costumes and everything, we dance in heels–like a nice sandal that you might wear to dinner, but people will also put rhinestones all over them. Dancing and heels is a whole other thing, and having a shoe that looks well with your skin tone is going to enhance your presentation and really tie the whole picture together.
Alexandra Martinez Lopez '22
TC: My question ties to what we were talking about earlier with presentation. As this is a competition, what is the relationship between the costumes you wear and perception? As you said, judges judge on presentation. When coming up with costumes, are you mostly considering the presentation in terms of how others are seeing you or first going with what you think goes best with a piece? Or perhaps how do those two go together when planning costumes?
BC: They sort of go hand in hand. If you feel confident and really good out there, that's going to show! But there's definitely an aspect of wanting a dress that is unique in a way unlike what everyone else is wearing. To stand out.
HS: There definitely are some costumes that if you wear you will get noticed. My ballroom partner Beatrice has her Latin costume, which does reveal some more skin. So I feel like sometimes it does help us get noticed more, and in a way that does give us more confidence because we know we are going to be looked at because of what we wear. It’s just like an added bonus.
CH: I remember when I came into the role of costume coordinator a few months ago, and our previous costume coordinator was telling me that part of this job is, you know, being sensitive towards people's bodies like absolutely not judging them, but at the same time being honest about what really makes a person look fabulous. When you find that perfect dress for someone, you can really see their confidence skyrocket! Then, you know, on the dance floor that does shine through and kind of makes them even more noticeable. So like we said, it's totally hand in hand.
CER: I think one interesting aspect though is you can have a dress that looks great when you stand there and take a picture, but if it doesn't move properly on the floor, it is going to impact your dancing. So sometimes we have a dress that is fun to move in but maybe looks a little odd at first. A big factor is like: Okay, well, when I'm standing here maybe it's not what I would typically see myself in, but when I'm moving in it, it has either a big skirt or lots of fringes so that you get that movement aspect of it that you really like.
AML: I also want to clarify one thing about the aspect of the question of how the judges perceive us. I hope we haven't made it seem like we're in a way like dressing for the judges. I think we dress more for ourselves because if we really reflect confidence in our dancing, that's what judges really want to see. So if you're wearing something that makes you feel very confident, then that’s going to just help how you dance overall.
Beatrice Chen '23
VH: Who are these judges usually? Are they volunteers?
CER: So the judges that ballroom competitions have are professional dancers that have undergone different certifications in order to be able to judge ballroom. There's a really strict system called the YCN point system where a competition only counts for points if it's judged professionally. They also do immature competitions where judges will be champion dancers who haven't gone professional.
AML: What we do, it's considered collegiate ballroom. There are definitely people who do this professionally and a lot of the judges have danced professionally, ranked, and been in national and international competitions. A lot of them are also coaches for either professional couples who are also competing all over the world or collegiate teams at different colleges and universities.
TC: Thanks for helping clarify that! Cece, earlier you mentioned there being costumes based on skill level, how does that system work?
CH: Kind of like Charlotte said, there's a point system that helps determine which level of dancing you're in for each style. We have newcomers for if it's your first few competitions and then it's bronze, silver, gold, and then open, which is more of the pre-champ. For each level, there are specific moves that you can do in each dance or that you're kind of expected to know. So within that, our costumes are assigned to a level based on how complicated they are. How extravagant they are and how old they are. Because as you move up, I think there's more to accentuate. Whereas maybe as a beginner, you still want the sparkle, but you can take it down a notch a little bit.
CER: We’re constantly in this process of re-evaluating what level our costumes are, but Wellesley is really lucky that the costumes we have are very nice because we take care of them. We have great team members to do that. But like Cece was saying, it has to do with the cut and how many stones there are. The general movement for a champion level standard dress will be like a huge ball gown that when you move, it looks like what a princess wears. Bronze standard will still be really nice, but it might not have as many layers of under skirt or be as grand.
AML: I think that's also one of the fun things about ballroom. Looking forward to upgrading the dress, right? Because every level, it seems like it gets better and better. So it's kind of like a motivational factor of wanting to compete to get good points. Move on to the next level and get a new grander costume.
Cece Henderson '23
SC: Asides from the costumes being based on different skill levels and categories, does the emotion or mood of the song and dance factor into how you choose your costumes? Do you consider your ballroom costume as a part of the “bigger picture” in telling a story through dance?
AML: In some ways it does because like Cece mentioned before, our costumes are already kind of different depending on the style that we're doing. So in Latin rhythm, the costumes tend to be shorter and tighter to the body versus standard smooth where the costumes are actual ball gowns and we wear gloves. The costumes in Latin rhythm do not change often, in the sense that the music does not change what we necessarily wear, but it will change how we dance. An example is rumba which is very romantic and sensual and another example is samba which is very energetic and fun, so we might be more flirtatious and excited rather than romantic. Our entire persona and character almost changes based on the style of dance. I don't think that the way we use the costume to dance changes, but I think that a lot of times, the persona that we embody when we dance changes.
CER: I want to clarify a little bit that this is mostly specific to competitions, but there is a side of ballroom that is more “showy” or more performance and show based. For example, if you were to do the rumba at a show, we have costumes in our closet that are a better fit for that. If you were to wear a Latin costume with a long skirt and dance and jive, you would get your feet caught and trip over which would not be a great fit. But we have some dresses that are specifically for that purpose. In terms of if you were to watch ballroom professionally, you would see professionals change between dances because you can use costumes to help you tell your story. For example, if you were dancing the mambo or salsa then wearing something that's kind of tiny and very fringey would accentuate your movements.
HS: For standard smooth, the dresses you wear make you feel like a princess. There is one dance that I always think about, the Viennese Waltz, which is often the dance you see in princess or period films. Whenever we are in costume and doing that dance or just practicing it, the mood always changes because I always feel so elegant and fancy and I feel like I am in that period piece. This is especially when one watches the Viennese Waltz at competitions when everyone is in different dresses and going around in a circle because our floor moves counterclockwise. Sometimes one can feel like they are watching an old-fashioned ball and it is so cool, I love it.
Hailey Sweeney '23
EL: I was looking at your team’s Instagram page and I see that the leader is often dressed less flashy and wears more tone-downed costumes. I think the most different costume I saw was someone with a deep v-neck with rhinestones. I was wondering since it is a partner dance, why would one partner be almost overwhelmed by the other partner’s more expressive and colorful costume?
HS: I can start with this question because I am a female leader. It is definitely an interesting dynamic when both of us are females, but normally, the stereotypical female part (I am not saying that followers have to be female though) tends to have the more flashy and expressive costumes. I think this may involve the history of dance. Maybe men just did not want to wear rhinestones and sparkles whereas now, as times are changing, Latin rhythm is a style where you see the deep V necks worn by the lead. This really helps catch the eyes of those who are watching. I know for me, personally, I like to use a little sparkle so for my costume for Latin rhythm, I wore a crop top that had sparkles on it and fringe pants which are common among female leaders. I felt really confident in what I wore and I think the same applies to men where they want to wear costumes that they feel really confident in. Some men feel confident wearing deep V necks with some sparkles and match their partners a little bit, whereas others prefer wearing a black t-shirt and black pants. I think it also depends on the leader’s level and how comfortable they feel.
CH: I agree with Hailey. We also have a lot of variety and I think when we do have female leaders on our side of the team, they tend to want a little bit of sparkle. I am thinking of one silver-level costume specifically; it's a fringe bodysuit with a silver rhinestone bra. But I also think presentation has an influence, which I sometimes see in our choreography. We have moves where the leader is not necessarily doing the same thing as the follower–such as the follower doing a spin in front of the leader–so in a sense, the leader is presenting the follower, whereas the leader themself, is kind of in charge of the couple and leading them around the floor.
EL: Follow up question: why do most leaders choose to wear black?
CER: I think most leaders actually choose to wear white but black is perhaps just representative of what our leaders wear on our IG. However, most leaders will generally wear a white top and black pants. As Hailey was saying, this is influenced by the historical part of ballroom dance. At the upper level, in Standard at least, the leaders will wear tailcoats, resembling a formal event. I think this tries to emulate that old-fashioned and formal style, but when we have female leaders, we ensure that they feel comfortable and powerful in what they wear, so we have invested in clothes like jumpsuits. As to why the jumpsuit is black, I am not sure. We can get a white jumpsuit, but I think the problem lies in wearing bright colors like neon green because there is a chance that what the leader wears can clash with what the follower wears.
AML: I wanted to add that historically when you think of the leader and follower, a lot of the spotlight is on the follower because of the different dynamics in the movement. As mentioned beforehand, the leader is in charge of actually leading the turn right, but the person who's actually doing the turn is the follower. Therefore, there are more opportunities for those momentous movements for followers and a dress that has more of a flow would accentuate those movements versus the leader who is not doing those types of turns. Also, I personally think that wearing black gives a good contrast because when everyone is on the dancefloor, it is easier to identify who is a leader and who is a follower based on what they are wearing. If you have a female leader and a female follower both in dresses, it becomes difficult to tell who is leading who. There is also a functionality aspect of what leaders wear because they have to wear numbers on their backs so judges are able to identify us and mark us for the next round. This, however, does not apply to followers because a lot of dresses for followers do not have fabric covering their backs.
Christina Yin '23
EL: Thank you for your responses! I just have an additional question. I was wondering if there have been any wardrobe malfunctions or any fun stories to share?
HS: So, Beatrice is my ballroom partner and at our first competition wearing costumes, which we only had one before we were sent home because of the pandemic, Beatrice had more of a revealing and tight costume with slits on the side, a deep V, and a built-in bra. Standard and smooth were in the morning and rhythm and Latin was in the afternoon, we were in rhythm and were in the finals. We were really excited because this was the first time that we made it to finals for rhythm. We were doing a dance called “swing,” which has a lot of up and down movements, and when we were almost halfway through, I realized that her dress was almost at her bellybutton. The whole costume was down and I was trying to let her know that, but she did not realize, so I had to grab it and hike it up. We were right in front of the judges and we were trying to keep dancing and keep the dress up, but the dress was not cooperating. Next, we got off the floor and we were a hysterical mess. Luckily, Cece had safety pins so we took the straps and hooked it on the back. What a day that was! There were no more malfunctions after that and I am not sure if any happened before that. I die a little every time I think about it.
CER: I can report, that dress was mine before it was Beatrice’s and that dress has always been a problem. I didn’t have any dramatic experiences like that, but that dress has been prone to nip slips since the beginning of time. I wanted to share a story that happened to a team member. We were dancing at one of our competitions and she was wearing a newer dress from the closet, and while she was dancing in the final, between rounds, some people just saw her run off the stage to the back scenes area. I did not see this happen, but apparently, the whole leotard ripped and she had to run off holding it in place. Things like that happen but that is why we have sewing kits to fix it!
AML: I remember someone telling me when to pre-pack your bag for a competition. I would bring a mini sewing kit, extra practice clothes, and an extra pair of shoes because you never know what could happen. Always be prepared because sometimes things could happen!
HS: I always have a little tin of safety pins. You can even fix things with bobby pins and hair elastics. For newcomers, since we do not wear flashy costumes and usually wear a leotard and a skirt, I always bring those with me and I will continue to do so if something ever goes wrong. You hear horror stories of people forgetting their shoes and such, and when you hear those stories you get paranoid so you end up packing the night before and bring everything you could possibly think of just in case things go wrong. It is kind of like a doomsday bag.
Hailey Sweeney '23, Christina Yin '23, Charlotte Emily Ryan '21, Cece Henderson '23, Beatrice Chen '23, Alexandra Martinez Lopez '22
Charlotte Emily Ryan is a current senior and the president of Wellesley’s Ballroom Dance Team. Charlotte is majoring in neuroscience and has been on the team for 4 years.
Alexandra Martinez Lopez is a current junior and the team's publicist. Alexandra is majoring in neuroscience and has been on the team for 3 years.
Beatrice Chen is a current sophomore and majoring in anthropology. Beatrice has been on the team for 2 years.
Hailey Sweeney is a current sophomore and majoring in history. Hailey has been on the team for 2 years.
Christina Yin is a current sophomore and majoring in both math and computer science. Christina has been on the team for 2 years.
Cece Henderson is a current sophomore and majoring in math. Cece is the current costumes coordinator and has been on the team for 2 years.