I vividly remember my first year of ballet. I was nine years old, and my teacher, whom I adored then and still adore to this day, had an assistant. She wore a blue camisole leotard, black tights, and a long black wrap skirt. Her hair was pulled into a nice bun and her ballet shoes appeared to be worn, yet tidy. Sometimes she would wear pink or black legwarmers. To me, she was everything a ballerina was supposed to be. I wanted to be just like her. She was my idol. My teacher at the time—the one I mentioned earlier—wore something like a sweatsuit to every class along with Keds. Her hair was never pulled back. To me, she was everything a teacher was supposed to be. I wanted to be just like her. She was my idol.
Through the years I had many teachers. Each one with their own style, with that style extending to their choice of wardrobe. When I look back at my teachers I am able to recall with much detail how they dressed for teaching me ballet. Yet, at the same time I wonder if what they wore even made a difference. Without a doubt it made an impression on me. But did it matter what they wore in regards to how well I learned from them?
The Ballet Teacher “Look”
When I began teaching, I had a very specific look I was aiming for: Ballerina Teacher Goddess. It included a solid colored leotard, a floral skirt just the right length, pink seamed tights over the leotard with feet rolled up the ankles, pink ballet shoes, hair in a high bun with flowers on the right side that matched the leotard. I also needed to wear a light lipstick. I remember shopping for the perfect flowers and making the perfect floral skirts by hand. I took it all very seriously. One day, as I was preparing to teach, a new little student arrived. Her mom looked at me and then exclaimed to her daughter, “Oh, look! You have a REAL ballerina teaching you!”. I beamed.
That was 20 years ago.
What Do I Wear Now?
Well I didn’t really think I had much of a style, but last Halloween my students came walking into the studio all dressed in a similar way and looking vaguely familiar to me. They were ME. It was hilarious and touching. The most striking things I noticed were the fuzzy socks and the scarfs. Clearly, I have a style.
I am not one for rules. Being told what I must wear and what I must do is not going to go over so well with me. Considering that, one can be sure that this article is in no way informing any teacher of what they should and should not wear whilst teaching ballet.
So, then What is This About?
It is about taking this topic and looking at it in a slightly different light. More of “what do I wish to wear” as opposed to “what should I wear”.
Admittedly, I have gone through a variety of phases in my teaching wardrobe:
- Mature Teacher—Sports bra, tank top, thick leggings, long wrap ballet skirt, teaching sandals.
- The Dancer—Basically, whatever I would wear to take ballet class in. The art of putting on warm ups played a leading role during this phase.
- Pajama Time—Yeah, I literally wore pajama pants. I coupled them with a tank top. Comfort was my only priority in regards to my attire throughout this phase.
- When I Was Too Busy—For a few months, I was entirely too busy doing administrative work for a school I taught at. I almost always ended up teaching in normal clothes—by accident. The dance clothes were in my bag but I would run out of minutes to change into them.
There were a few more phases in there, but as I look back on all those times what I don’t see is any type of change in how my students received instruction from me. Whether I am in a sundress and yoga pants or leotard and seamed tights, the actual learning that takes place is the same.
I know many teachers disagree with me on this topic. They hold high standards for how teachers present themselves. I respect this. Ballet is a disciplined art form and it makes all the sense that teachers should practice that through their wardrobe. After all, we expect our students to wear the dress code we set in place for them. Why should teachers be given a pass?
My answer to that is simple: We have done it already.
There is a Time for the Dress Code
I was a student and followed all the dress codes for all the schools and programs I attended. The discipline of preparing myself for ballet class by putting on tights and a leotard, getting my hair in a clean bun, double checking my bag to ensure I had all my shoes—that was part of my routine, and I needed it. It was crucial for me to have that routine in place to be able to step into the studio and feel focused from head to toe. Zero distraction. It was so much a part of my routine, that eventually I no longer needed the dress code to help me focus and be prepared because the discipline had become me. I was a legitimate dancer through and through—no dress code needed. I was also an advanced dancer on the cusp of joining a company. It takes that long for the discipline to make deep roots.
We set dress code policies for our students primarily so their line can be seen properly and to instill in them a respect for the art form. Teachers have gone through this process already. We have served our time. Our line is not the focus while we teach, and our respect for ballet is as solid as anything could possibly be. The focus should now be on the routine we personally need in order to pass on our wisdom to the next generation. Whether that includes tights or fuzzy socks is for no one to decide but the individual teacher. And those choices may change on a daily basis, never at all, or somewhere in between.
If our instruction is presented with thoroughness and infused with passion, our students will not lack a respect for us or ballet simply because we choose to not wear traditional teaching clothes. By wearing what we prefer, we will be comfortable and more at ease with ourselves in front of our students. This, in turn, will allow our authentic teaching style to shine through and mature at its own pace.
So, What Should Ballet Teachers Wear?
My new teacher self of days gone by needed to look like a ballerina straight out of ballet heaven. This gave me confidence. It helped me stand in front of the class and speak with authority. My maturing teacher self of these days has very different needs. Instead of forcing myself into a ballet teacher box where I must wear only certain types of items, I choose to live in my own self—my own body and mind. But it took me many years to arrive here, and I do believe that new teachers need guidance where wardrobe is concerned. Most often demonstrating is a large part of how they teach and, when one is fully demonstrating, what they wear holds more importance (this way clean technique can be easily seen by the students).
We can all gain a better understanding of who we wish to be as teachers and where we wish our teaching to go. Just as the strict dress code for students empowers them with a focus to learn, our choice of clothing has the ability to help us learn our own way forward as teachers. We have the discipline for ballet in us already. All we must do is trust it. And when we trust that discipline—it will show us what to wear.