Revealing dance tights!

Tights are quintessential to dance and ballet. Any mental image of a ballerina conjure up images of a dancer in tights, leotard and a tutu. Yet, this seemingly simple garment is a complex entity. Not only do tights serve many different purposes but they also are used by dancers to express an individual aesthetic. This posting delves into the history and purpose as well as the facts and myths circulating about the illustrious dance tight .

 Classical  image a dancer in tights, leotard and a tutu.

Classical  image a dancer in tights, leotard and a tutu.

Throughout history, tights were the subject of many controversies. Vaslav Nijinsky reportedly debuted in his Russian performance of Giselle before the Royal Family with skin hugging white tights in contrast with the expected loose brown tights. Supposedly, the Imperial Theatre immediately fired him for public indecency.(1) The Pope had his own dance company and insisted on blue tights so the dancers' limbs did not resemble naked flesh.(2) Now-a-days, the dance ensemble including the tights are a method to express a dancer's individuality and can be in all variations of colors, self modifications, and combinations.(3) Dancers will even show up to class in their worn out, ripped tights as a badge of hard work and experience. 

 Vaslav Ninjinksy in tights in  Le Spectre de La Rose  in 1911

Vaslav Ninjinksy in tights in Le Spectre de La Rose in 1911

History:

Let's start our journey with the tights at the beginning. According to Adrian Clarke of the Library of Costume and Design, tights are our tangible connection to Ballet’s origin. They are the oldest item of clothing with the longest tradition in dance.(3) Unconfirmed sources often site that Marie Camargo was the first dancer to shorten her skirts, enabling her audience to appreciate her intricate footwork. Around the turn of the 18th century, the costume designer at the Paris Opera, Monsieur Maillot, invented tights used specifically for tights.(4) Tights were commonly wore by men since the time of the inception of ballet but not worn during dance. During the Renaissance, the use of the tight become more common in theater and dance by both genders.(1)

 From Marie Anne Cuppi 1710-70 known as La Camargo dancing" oil on Canvas by Nicolas Lancret

From Marie Anne Cuppi 1710-70 known as La Camargo dancing" oil on Canvas by Nicolas Lancret

Movement:

Fundamentally, tights serve a distinct purpose- they allow for free and unrestricted movement. Well made tights move freely with the dancer to allow for dance movement through the whole range of movement of the joint. Some dance historians attribute the use of the dance tight to the blossoming of ballet into its full potential as dancers were able to freely explore more complex and wide ranges of movement.

Alignment:

The dance tight also serves another purpose- highlighting of a dancer's alignment. On stage, the light color of the tights contrasts with the dark or colorful backdrops, showing off the dancer's clear and long lines. In class, the tights allow for the teacher to assess for issues with alignment, including bent knees from tight hamstrings. Backseams are an additional visual aid, making checks easier. 

Warmth

Dance tights also serve to keep the legs and muscles warm. Dancers often wear wool leg warmers or pants over their tights during warm up and initial barre routine to help their muscles warm up and become supple. Warm muscles are looser and more contractile, allowing for more explosive and powerful dance movement as well as prevents injuries.

Muscle Activation

Some say the muscles of the leg are highlighted by ballet tights to help teachers correct dancers. However, I find in my own assessment as a physician of dancers, that tights inhibit a clear view of muscle tone and activation. I prefer to assess dancers without tights and with a clear view of the entire body and kinetic chain.

Health and Recovery:

Some dancers claim that ballet tights aid in compression and muscle recovery. However, the amount of compression present in a standard pair of dance tights is not sufficient. Dancers do use compressive garments for dance and recovery,(4) but these are not the standard ballet tights.

Sanitary Reasons

I've also heard teachers and dancers talk about tights as a barrier that protects feet against dirty and sweaty pointe shoes. However, I find tights are just too thin to protect the shoe or the dancer from the copious sweating that comes from the hard work of dance practice.

Grip/Protection

I've also heard dancers talk about the use of tights to aid in shoe grip particularly during pointe work where one is required to work through the toes. I find the opposite happens with me and my feet tend to slip out of the heel of the pointe shoes much more easily with footed tights.

In contrast, the thin, footed dance tights do provide an additional layer of protection for the foot particularly during long hours of pointe work. They can help keep padding and taping in place when pads are worn under the footed tights. They help to minimize abrasive forces and prolong the exposure duration of skin to the shear forces of dancing. (This is similar to runners using tape and petroleum oil on their nipples and waist line.)

Aesthetics:

Ultimately, dance is a visual art form. In this light, tights have an aesthetic role and serve to elongate a dancer's line, especially those with back seams. Choosing a tight color is tricky and can be as nuanced as finding the right pair of dance shoes.

There are 2 distinct pink colors: ballet pink and theatrical pink. Ballet pink tights are more salmon in color and look best with the more salmon shoes, like Freeds, Capezio, Gaynor Minden. Theatrical pink tights are a lighter pink and pair well with paler shoes, like Grishkos and Russian Pointes. Depending on the brand, these pinks will vary as well. The color will also vary based on the material and when worn. Capezio #9 in ballet pink is notorious for looking bright orange on dancers. In general, non-mesh tights appear as a pale pink in the package, but they often look white, yellow or purple once on a dancer. Mesh tights look extremely pigmented in the package, but become lighter once worn. 

(1) Tights tend to show up a different color in the package. Compare the color of the ballet pink tight outside of the package in the next picture to the darker color it appears in the package. (2) The color of tights changes compared with each other and against shoes. The theatrical pink tights are on the left and the ballet pink tights are shown on the right. (3) The color of tights changes compared with each other and against shoes. Here the colors of the ballet pink tights and the theatrical tights light against the darker skin toned tights. (4) Here the colors really darken against the shoes. (5) Here the ballet pink tights look a lot lighter when fully stretched and on against a dark dance floor.

Personally, my go-to tights are the Body Wrappers Convertible Mesh tights with Backseam. The convertible foot allows me to switch easily between pointe and flat shoes. The tights are soft and non-scratchy. Despite the mesh surface, the color blends well into all skin tones. 

(1) Here the 2 tight colors are shown over a darker skin tone dancer. (2) This can be compared with the next picture of the 2 tights over a lighter skin toned dancer. (3) The convertible footed tight allows for padding to be placed under the tights.

 

  1. Ostwald, Peter. Vaslav Nijinksy: A Leap into Madness. Kensington, 1990.
  2. Banham, Martin. The Cambridge Guide to Theater. Cambridge University Press. 1995
  3. Clark, Adrian. Tights Connection to the Beginning of Ballet: a history of tights. http://www.dancetrain.com.au/tights-connection-to-the-beginning-of-ballet/
  4. Kassing, Gayle. History of Dance: An Interactive Arts Approach. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2007.
  5. Adams, Rebecca. Ballet Dancers Explain Those Signature Leotards, Leg Warmers And Other Style Secrets. Huffington Post. 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/09/ballet-style_n_4064192.html.
  6. Rain, Francis. Compression Garments for Dancers. Dance Informa. http://dancemagazine.com.au/2014/11/fling-physical-theatre/