Clothes make the (milonguero) man

28th April 2010

"Coz' every girl's crazy 'bout a sharp dressed man." ~ ZZ Top


What does it matter what we wear? Surely we're just there to have fun; as long as we're comfortable, why shouls it make a jot of difference?

Well... it does.


At least, in social dancing.

A Dancer's Progress

Here's a brief outline of where I've been going, sartorially...

Stage 1: T-shirts are fine

So, I started off by simply putting on clothes that were comfortable - light trousers and T-shirt. Sure, I had decent dance shoes, but clothing-wise, that was pretty much it. I was comfortable, I could move around fine, I didn't sweat (much), so it was all good for me.

(For what it's worth, I still think that outfit is absolutely fine for learning - you'd be nuts to wear a full suit for almost any Tango class, for example).

I stuck with this outfit for a good couple of years.

Stage 2: OK, so a collar won't kill me

So eventually - bear in mind I learn slowly - I noticed that almost everyone else was wearing a shirt. Yes, even in classes. So I reluctantly joined in with the herd. No problem - shirts are fine, and by the time I was wearing them, I'd acquired enough muscle memory so that I wasn't exerting myself so much all of the time, hence retaining the "no-sweatage" bonus.

I stuck with this outfit for another couple of years.

Stage 3: The Jacket

Recently, a friend has started to wear jackets; initially as armour (don't ask), but now he wears them full-time when dancing. And the reason is, it's improved hist posture.

When you think about it, jackets are designed to be worn to maximise your "stand-up-straight" posture - both psychologically and physically. Physically, they're tailored in such a way that they make you look more upright - it's quite hard to slouch in a decent jacket. And psychologically, you're thinking "smart" and standing a little taller.

So, I tried one out. It works - at least, some of my partners have said it makes a difference.

(There is a downside - because jackets are more "rigid", they're not suited for wide, free-flowing movements. So they make it more difficult to dance in a nuevo style - they're far more appropriate for salon dancing, where you don't change the embrace much.)

Stage 4: The Suit?

Possibly this is the next step - suits have some additional advantages...

Suit trousers

If you bend your knee while wearing jeans you can clearly see that your knee is bent, the jeans follow the contour of the back of your knee and form an arrowhead. They also show pronounced creases to highlight this, particualrly on blue jeans. If you bend you knee slightly in suit trousers though, the back of the trousers will still fall in a straight vertical line, camoflaging that your knee is bent. Should you bend you knee further eg back sacadas it still softens the effect. The creases are considerable less and if you're wearing dark trousers blend in. In tango this all helps you look better than you are / covers your mistakes.

Likewise because suit trousers hang, it's much easier to get the legs to brush past each other as you walk than with jeans

Colour consistency

For example - black on black - again it becomes harder for an observer to distinguish exactly what's what when you're moving your legs, again to your advantage. Likewise when combined with a suit jacket because your hips are hidden, your dissociation can't be so clearly seen.

And one for the ladies...

The last advantage is more for women. Much in the same way magicians tend to wear black and have brightly (and scantily-dressed) assistants, the message is "look at her, not at me", which seems to be either exactly what a lot of women want, or implies that you feel she's an important part of the dance which is what a lot of other women want.

What does this mean?

Firstly, a big caveat: all dances have "uniforms", things that dancers wear which indicate (correctly or not) that This Is A Good Dancer.

And having the wrong "uniform" can send out the wrong signals - I've been caught out many times, asking an unknown woman to dance based on her "uniform", and then finding out that she's far less able than her clothing implied.

So going out and instantly buying a suit won't instantly transform you into a better tango dancer, any more than buying a Stephen King book will turn you into a best-selling thriller author.

That said, there's some justification for these uniforms, as they tend to work. Stefano, for example, doesn't look right out of his suit.

But I guess what it means, is that clothing matters, far more than I'd initially thought when I started learning. Clothing can affect your quality of dancing. It won't teach you anything you don't know, but the right clothing may help you use the stuff you do know, in a better way.

So that's another one to file in the big "I Wish Someone Had Told Me This Earlier" folder.

~ David Bailey, 28th April 2010

Related Articles