One of the worst parts about being a Ballroom or Latin dance competitor is the high prices of costumes. Compared to the thousands of dollars that  Ballroom dresses cost, us guys usually get off a bit easier with our custom made shirts, vests, jackets, and pants which can usually be assembled into a reasonable outfit for less than one grand in total. But is it possible to shave away some of those hard earned dollars?

Over the past 3 years, I have experimented with several shirts that have saved me hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in costume expenses, while getting more compliments on my costume styling along the way. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Fancy dance tux shirts are a waste of money. I bought a cheap cotton tux shirt from a local tux rental shop for just $20 to wear with my students in competition, and I quickly found that it had several advantages over my more expensive stretchy tux shirt:

  1. I didn’t have to worry about getting it soiled with self tanner, makeup, sweat stains, etc. because it was so cheap ($20) to replace.
  2. Because it’s made of cotton instead of polyester and lycra, I can bleach the hell out of it and wash it in the heavy cycle and it always comes out undamaged and looking like new.

I liked my $20 Ballroom tux shirt so much, that after a while, I bought 3 more and rotate them to maximize their lifespan. I even made a Latin dance version by taking the sides in and sinching up the sleeves under the arm.

Any shirt is a Latin shirt if you’ve got the right Alterations Lady. I was lucky that there was an Alterations shop in the same shopping center as the dance studio that I teach at, so we were able to experiment around until we got my Latin tux shirt just right. We later altered 2 black silk shirts (each purchased for less than $50) to dancewear specifications, as well as 2 vests. The vests were especially good value, because they look just as good as ones that are designed for dancing, but at a tenth of the cost ($200 in some places for a plain vest, vs. $20 for the cheapest one I got). Doing the vests was even easier than the shirts, because there are no sleeves to deal with. Just have the sides taken in, and have them remove the tab at the back (which tightens the vest) for a slick, custom look.

Here’s my cheap $20 tux shirt. I have competed with it in some of the most prestigious events in the world. The red arrows show where to have the shirt taken in on the sides, and the blue ones show where to have it taken in under the arms.

This pic is of one of my white tux shirts that I use with my ballroom suit. This one is un-altered. Notice all the extra fabric under the arms.

Here’s the “Latin” version that I had altered. Notice how much less loose fabric there is under the arms.

A freind of mine, Fabian, who was on season 6 of Dancing With the Stars, showed me a shirt that they gave him for  the show which was bought at Express and then lightly modified by sewing a red satin strip along the inside of the collar to match the red satin stripe on their latin pants. I have found that many shirts from Express or Buckle work well for these purposes, and both Fabian and myself have competed at the national level with our bargain finds. I often get more compliments on my cheapie shirts and vests than I do on my shirts that cost hundreds of dollars.

This black cotton polyester blend shirt cost me just $60 from Banana Republic and required no alterations at all.

Know your Fabrics.The only thing to watch out for when you create costumes in this way is working with stiffer fabrics like cotton. Since many dance shirts these days are made from polyester, lycra, or spandex, they can be tailored to fit much more snugly than regular shirts. If your budget creation is made from cotton or silk or some other stiff fabric like this, be careful not to tailor the fit too snugly because the material won’t move with you, and you might rip the fabric or reduce your own mobility.

You might be tempted to take the budget costuming to the next level and use this approach for all your stuff, but be warned, here are a few budget costume items that you shouldn’t try:

Don’t try to make your own Dance Pants. One part of your costume that you should not skimp on is dance pants. I have seen guys try to save money by making their own, but they usually end up looking shoddy. Since much of your dancing is judged by your footwork and leg action, you don’t want the judges to be distracted by your hobo pants. Drop some scrilla and get a nice pair. My favorite brand that I have found recently is DSI. They fit me perfectly right off the rack, and they are very well made. I have used my pair that I bought in Blackpool for some intense comp and practice wear, and they have yet to shed a thread. They also make it look like I’ve got a butt, which is a considerable feat indeed.

You can make your own smooth suit, but I don’t recommend it. I have seen guys try to modify a suit or tux off the rack to make a ballroom costume, but it’s really tricky business. First of all, unless you already own the suit that you want to modify, there’s the cost of buying the suit itself, and then once you’ve got that, you have to modify both the jacket and the pants to make it look right. Regular alterations shops aren’t usually good at dealing with stuff like suit jackets, because their shape is held together with a padded understructure. This means that you will have to go to a suit tailor, and he will charge much more than the alterations shop. Also, since he is probably not used to doing dance related modifications, there is a very good chance that he’ll bung it up and you’ll end up with something that looks very awkward and feels terrible to dance in. The result is more expense and headache than it’s worth. Plunk down the cash and get a properly made suit. If you dance Standard, a well made tailsuit is a must. American Smooth dancers have many more options, but I still like the classic look of a suit. I got my dance tux made by Ron Gunn about five years ago, and the only thing that’s gone wrong is a loose button on the inside of the jacket, and that’s it. Ron Gunn was one of the original dance costume innovators, and  his many years of experience shows in the quality and craftmanship of his work. The pants that came with my suit are the most well made dance pants I have ever owned.

My trusty Ron Gunn Ballroom suit (although a bit dirty).

Notice how the seam tucks right up under the arm, ensuring that the shoulder pads don’t lift up when you raise your arm. This also gives more of a defined look.

Hope this helps you sort out your dance costume needs!