Gender and Dancewear: An Evolving Business Opportunity?
Dancewear options for boys and men are slowly, finally, expanding beyond black tights and white T-shirts. But as the dance world strives to better include transgender and nonbinary dancers, new conversations about whether dance apparel needs to be gendered at all are emerging.
Ballet Rosa founder Luis Guimarães remembers receiving a message from a happy customer years ago: a photo of a young man wearing a splashy pink and purple leotard, and a note about how much he loved the product.
“I started to question why there weren’t any options for male dancers with some flair, with some fashion, with some style,” Guimarães says. The experience partially inspired Ballet Rosa’s Homme collection, launched in 2021 as the first catalog dedicated exclusively to men’s dancewear, and featuring a colorful array of shirts, leggings, unitards, warm-ups, accessories and more.
But beyond the need to offer men and boys dancewear options as expansive and exciting as those offered to women and girls, Guimarães’ anecdote speaks to a larger issue: that, like most streetwear, dancewear is heavily gendered, in ways that increasingly do not serve the needs of dancers who are transgender, nonbinary or, like Guimarães’ customer, who simply refuse to allow outdated notions about who is supposed to wear what dictate how they express themselves.
Parts of the dance world are already thinking more expansively about gender: Many schools now offer an “Option 1” and “Option 2” for their uniforms, allowing each student to choose which best fits their gender expression. And even on the typically ultratraditional ballet stage, it’s becoming less uncommon for new works to feature roles that don’t specify a gender (in other words, a role might be danced by a man or a woman depending on the night).
But the dancewear industry has been slower to adapt, offering few options that aren’t specifically gendered, showing almost exclusively cisgender dancers in marketing materials, and, in many cases, populating the men’s section with little beyond basics.
The Slow Expansion of Men’s Dancewear
Women looking for upscale, fashion-forward leotards have long had an abundance of options. But New York City Ballet principal dancer Jovani Furlan found that as a man looking for something chic but simple, clean but “with something to say,” there was a hole in the market. In fact, by Furlan’s estimation, while there are many dancewear brands catering exclusively to women, there are very few with a specific focus on men.
Enter Furlan Dancewear, launched earlier this summer, which offers a capsule collection of unitards, biketards, shorts, tights and belts in five bold colors. Furlan says the brand has been successful thus far—thanks at least in part to gorgeous marketing photos on Instagram—and he is in talks with several boutiques interested in selling his products but doesn’t feel ready to sell wholesale just yet.
While Guimarães sees the Homme collection as having a positive impact on Ballet Rosa overall, by bringing more attention to the brand and making it a one-stop-shop, he says it is not yet a financially profitable endeavor. This, he says, is why we don’t see other brands taking this leap.
Victoria Lyman, owner of Allegro Dance Boutique in Evanston and Barrington, Illinois (who also happens to be married to Guimarães), says that she’s experienced firsthand how investing in menswear takes time to pay off, having offered a large men’s section for many years after surviving the first few seasons of slow sales. She says that she sees retailers who’ve given up when this investment doesn’t pay off immediately, and who haven’t taken the time to build a customer base of men and boys, who she says often just assume stores won’t have anything for them.
“Having offerings for every dancer within one space is important,” she says. “You have to look at your company as a whole, not that one category—because if you do focus on the results for that one category, you’re really quickly going to get rid of it.”
More Options for Men = More Options for All
More dancewear options for men wouldn’t just serve those dancers who identify as such, says Ashaand Simone, a nonbinary dancer and educator based in Chicago. Queer women could be potential customers, they say, or dancers across the gender and sexuality spectrums interested in a “masculine” look.
Simone says that while they rarely wear items made by dancewear brands, opting instead for athleisure, it’s less that they “need something that is gender-expansive,” or marketed as gender-neutral or unisex, and more that there are so few options for dancers who “prefer clothing that’s colonially masculine.”
“We often like to talk about things being gender-neutral, but I’m not gender-neutral,” Simone says. “I’m gender-vibrant.” They add that creating a third “unisex” or “gender-neutral” option just adds another category, when the categories are part of the issue in the first place. “People are more expansive than that,” they say.
For now, dancers interested in items not necessarily marketed toward them can gamble on whether or not they’ll work on their bodies. Furlan says that women have been buying his brand’s unitards, and while he didn’t create them with breast support in mind, he’s heard positive reports. Although the brand was created with the male-identifying dancer in mind, he intends to adjust the language to make it more inclusive of other gender identities. Ballet Rosa has a number of trans customers, says Guimarães, and often makes custom orders—like lengthening the torso of a leotard—for dancers who don’t fit in the existing sizes.
Rose Kirshner, owner of SF Dance Gear in San Francisco, has found that not making assumptions about what a person walking into her store might want to buy has been key, and that slight design differences between products made for men and women has rarely been an issue. After all, she points out, there’s a huge amount of variation in bodies in general: Having breasts or needing to wear a dance belt are just two of the many ways in which some bodies are different from others.
It makes sense, then, that Simone sees this conversation as inextricably linked to the need for dancewear to support a wider range of bodies, emphasizing that having more options overall will not only benefit LGBTQ+ dancers—including those who may want to wear a binder under their top, or may need to tuck—but also dancers whose body types have traditionally not been served by dancewear. Any effort to serve these communities, though, “would need significant marketing,” says Simone. “Because most of us have stopped paying attention.” They also add that in order for these changes to be made, dancewear brands need to consult the dancers who are not currently being served.
Guimarães says he’s seen some Ballet Rosa items work for multiple genders, and that the brand makes two versions of the same product in some cases. He’s interested in making more gender-neutral products, but, like Simone, is wary of creating yet another category.
“I think it’s up to us to keep paying attention and reacting as things change, because I do think it’s going to change a lot,” says Lyman. “And maybe one day there will be a catalog that’s just called ‘dancewear.’”
Lauren Wingenroth is a New York City–based writer and a former editor of Dance Business Weekly.