New to folk dancing? Can't decide what to wear?

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Here are a few tips about clothes for folk and ceilidh dancing.
And a few words about taking on fuel and water.

Suitable clothing could be summarised in three words - cotton and sensible. Apart from 'looking good' and being comfortable, you need to consider the possible effects of some types of clothing on dance partners.

The aim is to ENJOY YOURSELF. To do this you need to be able to dance properly and to be able to forget about your clothes. You don't want to be constantly adjusting, realigning or otherwise worrying about them. Most of all, wear clothes that will help keep you cool.

General advice.

Folk and ceilidh dancing can be very energetic. If you dance every dance (which you should aim to do!) you are likely to get hot. You need to be able to move freely. Ideally, your lower arms and elbows should not be covered. These factors primarily determine what you should wear, except that in some formal dances men are 'required' to wear long sleeved shirts. This is dying out (gradually).

If you are unfit, you will perspire a lot - and it will do you good to get some proper exercise. If the dance hall or marquee is very hot - maybe on a humid summer day - you may need a change of shirt every hour or two if you dance energetically. Some dancers use towels to wipe themselves down. This seems indelicate but it appears to be socially acceptable at folk festivals!

Don't forget to take a bottle or two of water - tap water if you are ecological, genuine bottled water if you have more money than environmental conscience. You'll need to drink quite a bit, or risk dehydration. My rule of thumb is 300 ml per hour. Some people (maybe those who wear designer labels) swear by isotonic drinks. You can make your own quite cheaply. If this link no longer works, just ask Google. She knows everything. Taking a snack can be sensible - maybe a couple of high energy cereal bars or bananas. You will be more prone to faint in the heat if your body literally runs out of energy.

Folk dancing is tactile. If you don't like being tactile, take up knitting or stamp collecting instead. Brushed cotton is sensual - especially on a woman (but it can be too warm). Apart from cotton there are some good manmade wicking fabrics but these are more expensive. So cotton wins as the best all round material. Aim for colours that don't change colour too much when wet - some are far worse than others. I should know why, but I don't.

Jewellery, studs and other weapons.

Limit jewellery to a minimum and preferably to zero. This applies especially at folk festivals and 'fast' ceilidhs where you may mix with experienced people who may dance more energetically than you do. Expensive watches may get ripped off, bracelets may never be the same again (or may never be seen again). Studded bracelets worn by 'new age' women (and men) are offensive weapons and can rip people's arms (believe me, I know). Even a diamond engagement or other ring can be dangerous if dragged across someone's arm. Leave them at home! Necklaces can get snagged and spill their beads across the dance floor. Long fingernails can suffer (and inflict) damage.

Fashion is for pretentious people!

Folk dancing is not a fashion parade. You are judged by your dancing ability not by displays of conspicuous plumage. Women do not have to spend a fortune on clothes - indeed many superb dancers make little effort dressing up - they know men will want to dance with them simply because of their expertise. Men who wear 'loud' shirts are a part of the scenery. A visit to a charity shop in an upmarket town can provide several outfits for less than the cost of travelling to one dance.

Getting dance partners.

Experienced dance teachers will tell you that over 80% of the reason why someone asks you to dance is simply how well you dance. Clothes make little difference. How you use your eyes can make a lot of difference. Before language was invented, primates communicated using their eyes and their fingertips. Many folk dancers still do. It's always OK to ask anyone to dance (women can ask men) and especially at American 'contra' evenings. At both Chippenham and Sidmouth festivals (the two best all round folk dance events in the UK) I get asked by many women for dances. Most don't know me, they just want to dance with someone who puts some zest into it.

Until you get known as a good dancer, wearing 'sexy' clothes might get you a few more partners but if you are like a sack of potatoes to dance with, most partners will lose interest. Spend your time learning to dance, not dressing up.

I say this elsewhere but I'll repeat it here: the best way to learn to dance is to find a really good dance partner to help teach you. Never try and learn only by dancing with someone of your own (limited) ability. Most local folk dance clubs contain quite a few people who delight in welcoming newcomers in order to teach them everything they know. Some dance teachers don't agree with this - they hold that newcomers should always dance with newcomers so they don't feel intimidated by people who are much better dancers. That's rubbish - I struggled for ages to learn a French mazurka with incompetent partners. Then a couple of really good women taught me - now I teach it myself!

Dress using layers.

Imagine you go to a dance on a cold winter's night. You may have dressed in 4 or 5 layers, You need to be able to reduce them to one layer for dancing once you warm up - aim for a well ventilated single layer. You are allowed underclothes as well - but these are optional.

For men, a short sleeved 100% cotton shirt can be ideal. I find close fitting T shirts are far too hot. Thin cotton trousers are ideal - and not too tight fitting. 60% cotton 40% polyester trousers are OK - but again not too tight. Jeans are too hot and quite heavy - but many people dance in them. Shorts are OK for men and women at ceilidhs and festival dances. They may be frowned upon at a gentle club night. Wear the right clothes and aim to dance every dance. Silk shirts look good but can be so thin that they quickly get saturated and then stick to you. In my view they are suitable only for 'gentle' types of social folk dance. Polyester and viscose shirts or tops quickly become uncomfortable.

Maybe take something you can wear over your dancing outfit at 'half time' or else you may get too cold. A woollen sweater works well - anything to stop you losing too much heat when you are sitting around. If you go to a barn dance (in a real barn!) even consider taking a blanket to wrap around your legs. These places can get cold at night.

More dos and don'ts for women.

Don't wear a tight figure-hugging skirt unless it is quite short. Flowing skirts (these can be quite short!) or dresses work best. Plan to allow your legs free movement. Loose fitting cotton slacks are obviously OK. Your top should either have buttons (several missing is OK....) or be V neck and quite revealing anyway - it will help keep you cool and the men interested. A heavy sweater over a bra is a bad idea, even if it is minus ten degrees outdoors. After a few dances you'll want to take it off.

Tops should be short sleeved cotton and not fashion parade sequins or comprising a latticework of beads - think of the men who will have their hands around your back. These things are suitable for dinner parties but not for folk dancing. Any sort of stockings are likely to make you too hot. Dresses used with a strapless bar and that leave you with a bare back look very nice but can be intimidating for men - who will need to dance with you with their hand directly on your back. Some men find this unsettling. Also, you may not wish a succession of possibly clammy hands to be placed on your bare back! A skimpy cotton top is probably the best compromise.

Shoes and socks.

Socks should be cotton or cotton rich mixtures and short. Any colour - even if from different pairs. Shoes should be flat soled, lightweight and not too bulky. They should be well secured to your feet - not a loose slip-on design.

Stilettos are an offensive weapon and wholly unsuitable for many dance types that are 'flat' - these require you to dance with your feet broadly flat to the floor, rather than up on your toes. Waltz is one example, Irish set dance is another (leaving aside the experts of Riverdance etc!).

Trainers are OK but I don't much like them, the soles can be too sticky on the dance floor. Leather soles can be too slippery for beginners but are ideal for experienced dancers because their low coefficient of friction produces less stress in ankles and knees. On a highly polished floor it can be almost like dancing on ice and so you need to be well balanced. Many people wear sandals that provide lots of ventilation - but leave your toes more exposed to being trodden on. Proper dance shoes are ideal but are unnecessary for beginners. For formal ballroom dances stilettos may be OK - but not for folk dance. Many good dancers now wear 'jazz trainers' and find them comfortable.

Whatever shoes you wear make sure they are comfortable with no 'tight spots'. These may soon become sore spots - or worse. Some types of dances require hard soled shoes, some require clogs. These are specialised types of folk dance not 'evening out' ceilidhs or general dances at folk festivals.

Finally - if you wear any type of shoes with hard soles and a sharp right angle edge to them (leather soled shoes are often like this) you may find that these may catch against even the tiniest ridges in dance floors - and this can bring your foot to an unexpected sudden stop. This in turn can wrench your back and produce a stab of pain in your spine, especially if you have a bad back anyway - maybe a slipped disc or two! The solution is to wear shoes which have rounded edges to their soles - these will more readily pass over small ridges without 'catching' on them.

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