Class Dress Code: Function Over Fashion

Class apparel has been quite an evolving debate for me ever since I started teaching in public schools.


Photo Courtesy of ashleigh290

I recognize the value of seeing the body in order to shape the body.

I recognize the advantage of comfort and individuality in promoting confidence.

Pushing traditional dance apparel – leotard, tights, dance pants- makes sense for reinforcing discipline and presentation. Students “look” like dancers, and for those that value that image- this is powerful. Through the clothes, they assume the identity and can become more serious about the work done in class.

On the other hand, I tend to push sensing movement over imitating the pictures in movement.

Yes, guiding students to make technical corrections can be easier when I see the body clearly, but if they are uncomfortable in the class dress code- does it make the most sense given my approach?

For students that don’t value the look of a dancer but identify with the feel of dancing, a leotard and tights puts them in the wrong mindset and their discomfort impedes their class performance.

Then, there are other obstacles:

  • The lack of adequate changing facilities,
  • The high number of low-income families,
  • The realities of school budgeting, access to affordable dancewear (families don’t have transportation to the local dance store or choose not to shop online for a variety of reasons),
  • And last but not least- it an be a big waste of time sending a group of tween/teens into a small room with mirrors, echoing walls, and no directly supervising adult (I monitor from the hall) with the task of being efficient (and quiet)!

So what makes sense for my program?

Letting the kids be the judge.

Leading them to make the right decision for themselves.

Giving constructive feedback when I think their decisions might not be the best for achieving their goals.

My latest approach has been not grading them on attire, but more adequately grading their performance in class.

Wearing attire that doesn’t support their class work because it is too tight, too short, too low or so on prevents them from dancing their best. So when I talk to them about their performance we don’t debate about fashion, we talk constructively about function. It is a natural consequence.

I, therefore, am not the disapproving adult harping on them because I am out of touch. I am the adult that wants them to do their best and asks the right questions so they see what changes they need to make.

Sometimes that means changing into dance apparel for class. Sometimes that means not fighting the school dress code and being better prepared for their entire day.

Our trust remains intact and we both can do our jobs better.

Other interesting conversations about dance fashion, function, and approach to formality:

  • What are dancers wearing these days in performance? How does it compare/contrast across dance genres?
  • How has the costuming of dance changed class practices, movement vocabulary?
  • How do we relate to people based on what they wear? What assumptions do we make?
  • How do our clothing choices reflect our body image?
  • How is the body celebrated or shamed in current society?
  • How does this reflect movement of social dance? theatrical dance? concert dance?
  • Should classes have uniforms? What would be the advantage? Disadvantage?

This fall I will be using this quote I found on Pinterest to develop a composition unit on some of the ideas listed above. My plan is to cover the mirrors with “Caution” tape with this posted in several places.

Warning: Reflections in this mirror may be distorted by socially constructed ideas of 'beauty'.

Here is some additional reading on dressing for dance:

The Great Costume Debate: The Controversy Over Age Appropriateness

Writers Offer Dance Wardrobe Wisdom

The Costume “Blackout” Keeps Choreography Center Stage

How will your students be dressing this fall?


Heather Vaughan-Southard
Heather Vaughan-Southward specializes in connection and community building. She offers project-based learning in K-12 and healthcare contexts, pedagogy consultation, and creative-self-care experiences. Heather formerly directed dance programs in Higher Education and K-12 settings and danced professionally in Chicago, NYC, Los Angeles, and through-out Michigan. She represents Dance for the Michigan Arts Education Instruction and Assessment project (MAEIA), serves as a columnist for Dance Advantage, authors the blog EducatingDancers, and was invited to the Editorial Board of the Journal of Dance Education. She is a national conference presenter in the fields of dance and movement pedagogy and is completing a comprehensive pilates certification through the McEntire School. Heather currently serves as Director of Health and Education Services for Happendance, Inc., a non-profit dance organization based in Michigan. Heather is married to author Scott D. Southard and has two children who seem to be in perpetual motion.
Heather Vaughan-Southard


  1. When I started teaching in a public school 11 years ago, I enforced the “dance dress code” of leotards, tights and appropriate dance shoes. It gradually became more and more of a nightmare as I dealt with the many obstacles you discussed. I also teach in an urban area, and I finally came to the realization that what they were wearing wasn’t nearly as important as what they were learning. When the kids are more comfortable, they are more open to new things.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this with us! It is always nice to hear about topics that have been on my mind lately as well.

    Personally, I feel like forcing students to wear some sort of leotard can really change the vibe of a class – especially in ballet. I am not talking about black leotard and white tights, but something in general with a leotard – be it leotard and jazz shorts, leotard, tights and a crop top. On the one hand, I think it gives those students who want to wear the classical black leotard with pink tights the chance to do so (as I have experienced that many are too shy to do so in a class where everyone wears black leggings and some sort of t-shirt) and it adds this certain “Ballet”-vibe to a class.

    Lately, there was something else though I had to deal with. Teaching a 1 1/2-Jazz/Hip Hop-combo class for both twelve/younger and thirteen/older, I half about half the class wearing sneakers and the other half wearing socks or jazz shoes. I do differentiate a lot between both styles and we do seperate sections with Jazz Across The Floor and Hip Hop Across The Floor, but still especially with the youngest ones I made the experience that they are unwilling to put off their shoes for the jazz section. I understand that these are the typical once-a-week-students who just want to have and move around, but I wonder whether it is more important for them to be dressed appropriately for what we are doing as with sneakers there is no pointing the foot, no real turning etc. or if it is more important for them to feel comfortable. Any advice?