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Tips for Buying Your First Flamenco Costume
Your First Flamenco Dress
When you first start getting confident in flamenco, it's tempting to rush out and buy yourself a beautiful flamenco dress, to make yourself look like a real flamenca.
Wait! Take a deep breath and let's be realistic. It's going to be a few years before you're good enough to dance solo. In the meantime, if you get a chance to perform, it will be in a troupe. Your teacher will want the group to look smart, which means all of you must be wearing similar costumes. If you buy a dress, what are the chances it will match what she wants? Flamenco dresses come in so many different colors and patterns, with sleeves from extremely frilly, to tight, to none. A flamenco dress may have several skirt frills and multiple petticoats, or be tight and sleek around the hips with no frills at all. The chances of your dress coincidentally meeting your teacher's criteria are pretty slim!
So it's not a good idea to buy that dream dress until you know you'll get the chance to wear it. Instead, talk to your teacher, or to other students, to find out what approach she takes to costuming. If you're unlucky, she'll insist on a specific dress for every dance (and refer you to a dressmaker to have them made). However, many teachers take a more pragmatic approach, which is easier on their student's purses - skirts and tops.
Don't think separates are just for amateurs. A combo which is often worn by professionals, is a skirt with a matching shawl, worn as a top. Again, there's a bonus - you can use the shawl as your working shawl. If you buy a multi-colored shawl, you can buy two or three skirts which pick up the colors from the shawl - and still spend less money than if you'd bought a dress!
What to Look for in a Flamenco Skirt
Choose sensibly, and you can have a skirt that will serve you well in class but also be useful as a base for your first performance costume. Some schools will insist on basic black, but you may be allowed to have a coloured frill or hem - if so, look for something multi-coloured so you can wear it with a variety of tops and shawls, like the skirt below from Flamencista.com.
All my flamenco skirts are 100% polyester, preferably microfibre. It's comfortable, has a nice sheen, and moves well. Best of all, it can be thrown in the washing machine when I get home from a performance, and come out good as new!
Flamenco skirts can be cut several different ways. The best skirts for flamenco are slim-fitting around the hips and flare generously towards the hem. This is usually achieved by using panels, which are very narrow near the waist and get wider as they go down to the hem.
Some skirts have more v-shaped panels (called godets) added round the hem for even more width. A nice touch is to have the godets in a different fabric, which accentuates the movement to the hem. A popular combination is a plain fabric for the skirt, with toning polka-dotted godets (or vice versa).
Another option is a circle skirt, but avoid styles where the circle starts at the waist – the bulk of fabric around the waistline isn't flattering, and it's not a flamenco look!. Instead, choose a skirt that starts on the hip (rociera), or one with a tight-fitting basque around the hips and the circle starting from the bottom edge of the basque.
Please don't wear your skirt floor-skimming, like an evening dress - it may look nice, but you'll only end up catching your shoe in the hem. It's much safer to have the skirt finish at ankle level. Remember flamenco shoes have tacks in them which can cause a lot more damage than an ordinary high heel!
In flamenco, you'll often be asked to pick up an edge of the skirt in each hand and swing it around as you dance. If the skirt doesn't have enough fabric, these moves will reveal all of your thighs and, quite likely, more of your butt than you'd like! In fact, even proper flamenco skirts tend to lift up with the momentum of the movement in fast dances - I've been surprised how much leg I've shown in pictures of performances!
Take another look at the photo. That blue dress has plenty of material plus two petticoats - but look how high it's flying. That's a lot of thigh! So dancing in a skirt that's too light and skimpy isn't a good idea.
So when buying an ordinary skirt to use for flamenco, remember to pick up the hem and move it around when you try it on. Look in the mirror and make sure you're not revealing more than you want to!
Cheap Flamenco Dresses
If you must buy a dress "just because", it's best to look for a cheaper option - unfortunately, I'm not sure there is any such thing! New dresses are almost always horribly expensive, assuming you can even find any for sale locally. One solution is to go to Spain. I know that sounds like an expensive solution, but what a marvelous excuse to take a flamenco holiday! If you book yourself into a course at one of the flamenco schools, you can kill two birds with one stone, so you can still say you saved money.
Schedule your visit to just after the Feria de Abril in Sevilla, and you'll find some bargains in the flamenco stores in Andalusia. Flamenco dancers follow fashion as much as the rest of us, and the stores sell off this season's styles at a discount. Back home in your own country, no one will know you're wearing last year's style, and you'll have an authentic flamenco dress at a fraction of the price.
Incidentally, if you decide to go to Seville for the Feria and stay for the sales, make sure you have accommodation before you go. During the Feria, hotels book out far in advance (and are very expensive).
The other thing to watch is – make sure the dress you're buying is a flamenco dance dress, not a feria (or vestida de gitana) dress! Feria dresses are tight way down past the knees with just a few frills at the bottom. At first glance, they look like a bata de cola dress without the train, but the tight section goes further down the leg, so there's not enough freedom of movement to dance properly.
A dress designed for professional dancers may look very similar, but it will only be tight to about mid-thigh. You can see some examples in this video:
Flamenco Skirts for Class
My personal view is that all female flamenco dancers should wear a proper flamenco skirt to class as often as possible. After all, performing is stressful enough without having to cope with unfamiliar clothing that does unexpected things—and flamenco skirts certainly fall into that category!
The weight and drape of a traditional flamenco skirt will make a big difference to how fast and easily you can move. If you do all your classes in dance pants, you'll be totally unprepared to deal with a skirt on stage. For instance, in pants you might make a fast turn in one direction, then back the other way, with no trouble. In a heavy dress, you’ll have to allow a pause in between, to let the skirt catch up with you. That’s just one example of how the movement of the skirt affects how you move.
Also, for a traditional flamenco dancer, the skirt isn’t just a costume—it’s as much of “prop” as her castanets or her fan. She uses it constantly, lifting it and swirling it around to highlight a movement, or flicking it high with a deft little kick. Watch any flamenco dancer and you'll see how she uses her hands and sometimes her legs to throw the skirt around, adding an extra dimension to the drama and movement of the dance.
Using props while you’re dancing is a bit like the old “rubbing tummy, patting head” trick: it takes a lot of coordination. Start using the skirt in a small way, right from your first lesson, and you’ll get the hang of it more easily and more quickly. Provided your skirt isn't too long, you're not likely to cause any noticeable damage by wearing your performance skirt in class.
Cheap Alternatives to a Flamenco Skirt
If you're just starting out, you may feel you aren't ready to invest in a genuine flamenco skirt. Unfortunately, gypsy-style or Boho tiered skirts may look suitable for flamenco, but they usually don't have nearly enough material (unless they're a circle skirt, in which case they'll have that fat-round-the-waist look), and are much lighter than the real thing. Though it's not an authentic flamenco skirt, I like this Bal Togs skirt from Discount Dance Supply for students, as it's low cost but still has a good weight.