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What Do Ballerinas Wear?

By Benna Crawford ; Updated September 15, 2017
The classic pancake tutu takes some getting used to.

The Sugarplum Fairy and the Black Swan slip into their pancakes and matching satin shoes, do a last check of their headpieces and prepare to dazzle a full house. A ballerina is her art and athleticism -- and her costume. Whether she's wearing satin brocade studded with rhinestones or panels of Lycra and see-through mesh, the costume defines the character as much as the choreography does. Adjusting to a tricky costume is all in a day's work.

Classic Pancakes

Every little girl dreams of a stiff pancake tutu, flaring out from a tight, ornate bodice and identifying her unmistakably as a "real" ballerina. Real ballerinas have a love-hate relationship with the things. The stiff layers of netting and wire hoops that cause the tutu to stand out in a flat, horizontal "pancake" from the body can be awkward to move in at first; the boning in the bodice further restricts movement. A partner, who uses his view of the ballerina's spine and legs to ensure she stays on balance, can't see the legs below the pancake, so partners have to get used to the style, too. Some contemporary tutu bodices are made with stretchy material to encourage upper body flexibility, but learning to dance gracefully in the costume is part of the challenge to make every move look effortless.

Tulle and the Tutu

The pancake tutu is iconic, but the romantic tutu is a flowy, delicate, traditional design -- the type of tutu painted by Degas in his portraits of the Paris Opera Ballet. Romantic tutus have three-quarter-length skirts made from several layers of tulle that form an elongated bell shape under a fitted bodice. When Giselle kicks her leg or pirouettes, the tulle swirls, sweeps up and floats down, emphasizing dreamy and enchanted choreography. A classical bell-shaped tutu is also fitted in the bodice but the skirt is short and stiff, made of starchy net that doesn't float like tulle. The Balanchine-Karinska tutu is a hybrid of the pancake and the classic bell, developed in a collaboration between the balletmaster of the New York City Ballet and his designer. The Balanchine tutu looks like a pancake but without the hoops. Many layers of netting give it its fullness.

On Your Feet

The pain and the glory of pointe work is in the shoes. Pointe shoes raise a ballerina up on her toes, adding 5 inches or so to her height and placing her weight on the big toe. Ouch. Ballerinas acknowledge that their exquisite art form comes with nearly constant pain, blisters, bunions, corns and the occasional blackened toenail. All for art. Satin pointe shoes -- blush-pink or dyed -- are handmade with a rigid toe box formed from glued layers of fabric, cardboard and paper to proved a stable base for balancing and support the weight. The interiors are leather or cotton and each pair needs long, hand-sewn ribbons -- the dancer's job -- to wrap around the ankles and hold the shoe on the foot. Off pointe, ballerinas wear soft leather or canvas ballet slippers, preferably with split soles to allow for better foot articulation.

Second Skin

Contemporary costumes are sometimes minimalist, a stage version of rehearsal clothes in colored or flesh-toned stretchy fabric. The leotard is slim bodycon ballet-wear that covers the torso; it's worn for class, rehearsal and sometimes performance. Variations, aside from color and pattern, might be high-cut legs, spaghetti-straps. long or cap sleeves, V-necks, halter-tops or princess-style rounded necklines. With more a formal costume or with a leotard, a ballerina usually wears tights. Those may cover the entire foot, end at the ankle or be "convertible," with a foot with an opening on the sole so the tights can be rolled up over the foot to the ankle. Tights come in pink, black, opaque, fishnet, seamed, no-seam and custom colors for costumes.

About the Author

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .