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Clothing Advice
for Swing dancers, primarily

Related pages on our web site:
Clothing & fragrance tips for dance class
Buying Dance Shoes


  


Several gentlemen have asked us for specific clothing advice, so we offer the observations on this page. These observations are primarily for SWING dancing because they'll make the biggest difference in that context, and primarily for MEN because no women have ever asked for our advice. Also, these observations are primarily for REAL-WORLD SOCIAL DANCING, rather than in-class learning. (For in-class attire, we have some brief pragmatic suggestions here.)

For
WOMEN, we'll pass along these two tips:

Swing/Lindy: If you want reasonably priced, custom-made 'vintage' look clothing designed especially with Swing dancers' needs in mind, the local hard-core Lindy Hoppers very highly recommend
Our Dancing Daughters

Salsa: We highly recommend Edie "the Salsa Freak" Espinoza's hilariously outspoken
helpful hints on everything from underwear (including men's) to garlic to hair.

Dancing will get you warm. Some dances -- Swing and Lindy Hop in particular -- will get you really, REALLY warm. The clothing you choose can make a huge difference in how comfortable and presentable you are, anywhere from 'warm but doing fine' to 'sopping wet and increasingly fragrant.'

You'll hear a lot of folks at a Swing dance remarking on how exhausted they are. We suspect that they are experiencing that horrible drained feeling that comes from wearing too-hot clothing, and are mistaking it for the very different sense of gentle fatigue that comes from a long night of good dancing.

The right clothing choices will make the room feel 10-15 degrees cooler. Which is a very good thing when dancing. Would you rather dance when the room temperature is 90 degrees or 75?


DIFFERENT ATTIRE FOR DIFFERENT DANCES

The more comfortable you are, the happier you'll dance. Comfort, to us, means (1) staying cool, and (2) not violating the local clothing norms. As it turns out, there are different clothing norms for different dances -- and for different dance joints -- which should be taken into account when figuring out how to stay cool.

For Ballroom dancing, people tend to dress somewhat formally. Luckily, the dances themselves are, for the most part, stately and calm enough that one can stay fairly cool even when fully encased in a tuxedo or business suit. So we offer no interesting suggestions here.

For Latin and Salsa dancing, people tend to dress in a casual style but with quite a bit of flash. Salsa dancing will get you warm, so you might want to take a look at the observations below and tune your Salsa wardrobe accordingly. Unfortunately, the flashiest clothing is almost never cotton, so if that's the Salsa look you inhabit, you will almost never be able to achieve maximum coolth.

For Swing dancing, people tend to dress anywhere from super-casual to moderately dressy. The 'rules' about attire are the most relaxed and varied of any of the dances -- so you've got a lot of leeway for choosing clothes that will keep you comfortable. Within the Swing universe, each dance joint will have its own range of clothing-style norms. For example, at some Swing dance venues in the Boston area, half the people dress as though they are just about to mow the lawn or take out the garbage, while the other half dress at the nice end of casual (e.g., Boston's Swing City). At other venues, dresses or dressy slacks are the norm for women, and the men dress up similarly, although usually in short sleeves and no jackets (e.g., the once-a-month BSDN dances in Watertown, Mass.). You'll only have a specific sense of the local clothing norms after you've gone to a particular place at least once.


SHIRTS

Very lightweight cotton, worn untucked, is cool. Everything else is hot. Cool is comfortable. Hot is not.

The coolest men's shirts are:

  • extremely light 100% cotton cloth -- not jersey (like t-shirts) or knit.
    • the lightest and best is often labeled "Egyptian cotton" or "cotton lawn"
  • somewhat loose in fit;
  • open collar;
  • short sleeves (duh);
  • worn outside the trousers -- therefore a square bottom edge looks better than tails.

The open bottom and top, combined with the slightly loose fit, allow for excellent chimney-effect heat dissipation. (Simply untucking your shirt will drop the effective room temperature by almost 10 degrees.) The light cotton cloth allows for good 'breathing.' Surprise: this describes the better class of shirts worn in Hawaii and the Philippines. And now you know why we often dance in lightweight cotton Aloha shirts.

More on Aloha shirts. For dancing, there are good Aloha shirts and bad Aloha shirts. Aloha shirts made of synthetics -- rayon, nylon, polyester -- may look fabulous, but they are not cool to wear; we don't recommend them for dancing. Many of the very best Aloha shirt patterns are printed on rayon, alas. There are also many Aloha shirts printed on heavyweight cotton that are both stiff and hot -- terrible for dancing.

So where does one find high-quality, super-lightweight Egyptian cotton short sleeve shirts or Aloha shirts? Unfortunately, such shirts are nearly impossible to find these days, unless you live in Hawaii. (If anyone knows of a good source, please let us know!) We have on extremely rare occasion found good lightweight cotton shirts -- Aloha style and just plain normal -- at vintage clothing stores, at Urban Outfitters, and in the big Filene's Basement in downtown Boston. We've bought most of our favorite Aloha shirts in Hawaii, not surprisingly -- but that's kind of a long commute for most folks. (If you are lucky enough to get to Hawaii, stock up. The big Liberty House, Sears, and Penney's stores at the Ala Moana Shopping Center, and the main Hilo Hattie factory outlet on Nimitz Hwy, have the best selections. Note: Liberty House has recently been bought by Macy's, so everything may change.) Unfortunately, high quality ain't cheap -- about $30-90, average about $60, for super-lightweight cotton Aloha shirts -- but the genuinely huge difference in dance comfort is worth it. Not to mention how spiffy you'll look. Medium-lightweight cotton Aloha shirts are about $30-60, average about $40.

You can also find cotton Aloha shirts for sale over the internet, but we don't recommend it for two reasons. First, almost none of the accompanying descriptions tell you what kind of cotton is being used -- lightweight? ultra-heavyweight almost-canvas? There's no way to know except to call and ask, or, better, to see the shirt in real life. As it turns out, most of the cotton Aloha shirts sold over the internet are heavyweight cotton -- terrible for dancing. (We've seen some of the shirts in person, and recognized them in their internet mug shots.) Second, Aloha shirt sizes are wildly unpredictable. Depending on the manufacturer, the year, and the particular shirt, you might need anything from "small" to "extra-large." Trying them on before buying is a very good idea.

T-shirts. We find t-shirts (and knit izod/alligator-style shirts) to be extremely hot, which makes for a difficult trade-off choice:

  • they are inexpensive;
  • they are comfortable when you aren't moving much, and informal;
  • they have a casual/athletic association in most guys' minds;
  • in the Boston-area mindset, they are the style-coward's garb of choice;
  • but they are very, VERY hot after 2 minutes of dancing.

Dancing Swing (or Salsa) in a t-shirt will leave you sopping wet in no time, which will reduce your comfort and will definitely affect your partner's comfort (see also "Fragrances, good and bad"). Changing shirts in mid-dance: If you must wear t-shirts or izod/alligator-style shirts when dancing, it's a good idea to bring a few spare shirts with you. Most hard-core dancers who insist on wearing t-shirts will change shirts in the Men's room every hour or so -- approximately one shirt for each of the band's sets. (These guys also bring a towel along, to dry off a bit in between shirts, and a small gym bag to hold it all.)

To put things into perspective, we find that we can dance about 2 to 3 hours in a lightweight cotton Aloha shirt before feeling overheated. In a t-shirt, however, we feel overheated after about 2 minutes. Personally, we think that people who dance Swing or Lindy Hop in t-shirts are just plain insane. But it is by far the most common shirt worn at informal Swing venues.

Silk is, surprisingly, a bad choice for dancing, despite its ancient reputation for being cool to wear in hot weather. Silk is cool only if you aren't moving much. When you start dancing, you discover 3 things about a silk shirt : (1) it doesn't 'breathe' and therefore is hotter than hell; (2) it changes color ferociously wherever it gets damp -- you'll be a walking billboard displaying a progressive diagram of the anatomy of sweat; and (3) a damp silk shirt loses shape and looks terrible.

Polyester-cotton blends. This combination is common in business-wear shirts, and even in some semi-casual short-sleeve shirts. We don't care for it much. At the speed at which you are pumping out heat while Swing dancing, polyester-cotton cloth acts more like polyester than cotton -- hot, hot, hot. And for reasons we've never understood, sweat seems to go rancid much faster under poly-cotton than under pure cotton.

Multi-layering? Is it a good idea to wear a t-shirt underneath (to absorb the sweat), and a fancier shirt over it, such as an unbuttoned Aloha or bowling-style shirt? We personally don't think so. We find that the t-shirt alone generates much more sweat than it can absorb -- it will be completely soaking wet in no time -- and the heat-retaining double-layering just makes it worse. But a lot of guys (out of sheer ignorance? masochism?) seem to think that the trade off is worth it. We think they are nuts, but you are welcome to give it a try and see how comfortable it is for you.


TROUSERS

For trousers, light weight cotton is a very good choice. Linen or hemp is even better if you can find trousers made of it, and if you don't mind the incurably wrinkled look. The wrinkles will be greatly reduced by being nearly steamed out as you dance, so it is less of a problem than you might think. But the fabric details don't seem to make as much difference in pants as in shirts. Anything will do, although lighter (cooler) fabric is always better. Black is the best color; more about that below.

Style tip: Pleats are bad. When dancing, a long, smooth leg-line makes you look twice as good as you really are. Pleats make your legs look short. Bad. The effect is magnified when your legs are moving, which is pretty much a non-stop condition during dancing. Very bad.

But what about all those folks who wore pleats in the 1930s and 40s? Take a close look: their pants were cut with extremely high waist lines, sometimes almost to chest height. What the pleats took away, the ultra-high waistline gave back. This was no accident. These days, with a more naturally located waistline, only the very longest-leg gents look good in pleats, and that's only when standing still. Normal and short-legged guys look like frogs.

Style tip: Baggy is good. When Johnny Lloyd, one of the world's great Lindy Hoppers, was asked the secret to looking good on the dance floor, he reportedly said, "Baggy pants." Baggy pants give a great leg line by concealing all the major bends and angles. This is especially true in savoy-style Lindy Hop, with its characteristically deeply bent leg action, and you'll see that the really great Lindy Hop gents wear very baggy pants. It is also good advice for the other dances. Narrow-cut or slim-cut pants will show every awkward bend, sometimes even emphasizing them in the way they catch the light. Blue jeans are especially bad for showing every bend and ugly angle.


COLOR

Color makes a big difference for both shirts and pants -- not for how hot you'll become, but for how visible the effects will be. Many light-colored materials change color in remarkable ways when damp! Light blues and light reds will sometimes turn very dark in the wet spots, for example. You can easily check by splashing a little water on a corner.

For pants, darker is definitely better -- black is best. We strongly recommend against light- and medium-colored pants. To test, splash a little water on the crotch and seat, 'cuz that's what you're going to look like. Black is also excellent for making wrinkles in linen or hemp almost unnoticeable.

A little reassurance: everyone, without exception, will be damp at a Swing dance. So people are very forgiving about the resulting effects.


SHOES

Shoes don't have much to do with keeping you cool, but they make such a huge difference to your dancing comfort that we'll say a few words about 'em anyway.

Shoes that let you pivot or spin halfway around on one foot are much better than anything else, because you will be doing a lot of that while turning -- and there are LOTS of turns when you dance. So, in general, leather-soled or suede-soled shoes are good, and rubber-soled sneakers, hiking boots, and L.L.Bean boots are not good. Overall, you want shoes that let you pivot freely (to avoid knee damage), but not let you slip and fall.

Shoes that are made specifically for Ballroom dancing are about 10 times more comfortable than anything else for a long night of dancing, including Swing dancing. They are extremely well made, as light as a feather, cushioned on the inside and in the heel, and have an extra steel shank built in for extra support. They'll set you back either $120 (the good ones) or $70 (some discount lines), which is almost a bargain, considering how well made these shoes are and how expensive regular shoes are these days. There are also black-and-white Swing shoes that will be about 4 times more comfortable than ordinary shoes (but without the support and good construction of Ballroom shoes); also either $120 or $70. For the more casual dance venues, there are Dance Sneakers made by Capezio, Bloch, and Sansha, which lots of people love (about $60-95). Finally, there are inexpensive "character," "jazz," and bowling shoes -- but most people find that they are comfortable for a maximum of 30 minutes of Swing dancing and then your feet will be killing you. When you are ready for a dedicated pair of dance shoes, see our extensive tips on Buying Dance Shoes.

As you go out dancing, you'll notice that some dance places have "fast" (slightly slippery) floors, some have "slow" (slightly sticky) floors, and others have just-right floors. You will want to adjust your shoes accordingly. Contrary to our general advice above: For the very fastest floors, the best shoes to wear are ones with (slightly worn-out) rubber soles. For many more tips on adjusting to slippery or sticky floors, see How to Dance on a Bad Floor.

By the way, when going dancing in bad weather, you should keep your dance shoes -- and the dance floor -- dry. One way is to pop a pair of Totes rubber overshoes over your shoes, and remove them when you get indoors. (It's not a bad idea to carry along a plastic bag in which to store/hide the wet Totes while you are dancing.) A second way is to wear all-weather shoes outdoors, and carry your dance shoes in a bag; then change shoes when you get into the dance place. In case you feel awkward about these ideas, keep in mind that ALL serious dancers carry their dance shoes with them and change into them at the dance place.



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Page written 9-1-2001
Minor updates sporadically through Oct 2004
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