Arts + Culture

Fit for a Champion

Behind the process of creating a ballroom dancing gown that’ll catch the eyes of the judges

BY March 21, 2017


A ballroom dance competition is like no other judged event. Couples take the floor. Music starts. Movement explodes. The dancers share the space, but each pair is in its own world, dancing its own choreography, trying to catch and hold judges’ eyes. That is why dancers know—beyond perfecting their steps—that appearance is everything.

Doré Designs owner Dawn Smart sketches a competition dress for Bonita Springs-based professional ballroom dancer Irina Kudryashova.

Ballroom dance is synonymous with The Dress.

Up close, dresses can be gaudy things—emblazoned with sequins and stones—but on the floor, they are works of art. They swirl and sparkle and magnify movement. They augment a dancer’s best physical traits and obscure the ones she wishes to hide. They are hand-stitched to each girl’s specifications, body size, body type. The stones, hundreds of them, are glued one-by-one onto fabric.

Every year, about a thousand of them are made in Cape Coral.

Doré Designs occupies an unassuming, low-slung building on a side street near Cape Coral Parkway. It is one of a handful of ballroom dressmakers in the United States, outfitting the upper echelon of pros. Doré dresses have been worn by competitors on shows such as So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Got Talent. The company was founded back in the late 1970s by Dorothy Salcedo, a Cape Coral mom who wanted to outfit her son as he launched his dance career. Today, it’s owned by Dawn Smart, who employs roughly 25 designers, seamstresses, embellishers and support staff and a couple of sales reps who are out on the road.

“It’s an interesting business to be in,” Smart says. “Basically, we are pleasing judges. We are not pleasing dancers. We are not pleasing the audience.”

A ballroom dancer’s support team, explains Smart, consists of just two specialists: the coach … and the dress designer.

Join us, then, as we witness the birth of a ballroom dress. We shadow Smart, her team and professional dancer Irina Kudryashova, who along with her husband and dance partner, Nazar Norov, owns DanceLife, a ballroom studio in Bonita Springs. The couple last September were named national champions in American Rhythm, one of the competitive ballroom styles.


The Design

Kudryashova offers input on the design.

Kudryashova shows Smart a photograph of a dress she had admired on another dancer. Inspiration is tricky; she and Smart will borrow from the attributes Irina likes (such as the strips of fabric that create a geometric effect) while making the dress substantially different—and flattering to Irina’s petite frame. She stands at just 5 feet. “If you’ve got long arms and you need sleeves, then your dress should have sleeves,” Smart explains. “If you need shape for your body, then you need a dress that gives you curves. If you need a fuller skirt, if you need something that balances out your hips … whatever you need to visually enhance your figure from far away, then that’s what we need to give you.”

Kudryashova asks for the illusion of wider hips to create feminine curve. She requests a monochromatic color scheme (they would settle on “fluorescent red”), which helps elongate her petite frame. “There are many tricks,” the dancer confides.

She studies Smart’s emerging outline. “I like when the skirt moves a lot,” Kudryashova says. The designer sketches a ruffled skirt, enhanced with tassels. “If I turn or move my hip, this tassel and this ruffle will turn and add even more movement, you see,” Kudrayashova says, approving.

Kudryashova’s championship title adds extra pressure. “Everyone is critiquing you,” she says. Smart weighs matters such as branding and image. Each couple should have a signature style (along with reflecting the Doré line), Smart explains. “You have to create consistency in your look like you have consistency in your partnership,” she says.

The final design features a velvet applique on the bustline; a mesh body suit covering the midriff; a velvet skirt with a satin chiffon ruffle. Strips of velvet will overlay the mesh and encircle the dancer’s torso, almost like ribs, offering depth and dimension. There will be stones, of course, but in this case they’ll be somewhat understated. The two settled on a hyacinth, a deep red, which will add sparkle but maintain a streamlined look. 


Cutting the pieces

Head seamstress June Pham reviews Smart’s design before taking the first cut of velvet fabric.

The fabric arrived from England in late December. June Pham, the head seamstress, lays the velvet on her expansive cutting table. The material is soft and almost iridescent. The manufacturer’s swatch had identified it as “red,” but the hue shifts in the light, transitioning from cherry to coral depending on the angle from which you view it.

“Velvet is more difficult than regular fabric,” Pham says, carefully pinning pattern pieces and then adding weighted bars to limit its natural tendency to stretch. She alternates between scissors and an electric blade. A passing co-worker calls her a “magician.” The dress’ integrity starts here with the precision of Pham’s cuts.

“Everyone asks me, ‘When are you gonna retire?’” says the seamstress, a native of Vietnam who learned to sew as a teenager and who has worked for Doré for 32 years. “I still love my job. I’m healthy. I don’t want to do nothing.” 


The first stitches

The pieces of velvet and mesh fabric look something like the tangrams from grade school—those geometric shapes that children arrange to create a figure or form. That’s what Pham presents to Jackie Garcia, the seamstress assigned to sew Kudryashova’s dress. There is no pattern or written instruction, just Smart’s sketch and a sheet of Kudryashova’s measurements—some 40 of them ranging from the circumference of her hips to the width of her shoulders. Garcia, a recent college graduate, admits that she at first consulted her notes obsessively, but the process was growing routine. Ballroom dresses emerge from a basic foundation, starting with the bodysuit, and branch off from there.

Garcia starts with a mesh bodysuit.

Within 90 minutes, the young seamstress had transformed pieces of mesh into a double-layered bodysuit. Garcia tugs it onto a mannequin. Her first seams are guidelines. The mannequin (the smallest in the shop, and bound with elastic bands to make it even smaller) approximates Kudryashova’s torso. “She likes her outfits pretty tight,” Garcia says. She pins the bodysuit snugly against the mannequin’s curves, removes it, stitches a new seam and then takes the garment to a “serger,” a machine that simultaneously trims the excess fabric and binds it to keep the finished seam from fraying.


A dress takes shape

Ballroom dresses—in spite of the many variations of lines, shapes, curves and glitz you see on the dance floor—start as humble, tunic-like creations.

Production manager Cecile Pope and Garcia consult before the seamstress begins “shaping” the dress.

That’s what Garcia slips onto the mannequin one January afternoon—a nondescript, knee-length, straight-seamed velvet dress. “Hey, Cecilie!” she calls out. The production manager, Cecilie Pope, emerges to review Garcia’s work and consult before the next, critical steps.

The two study Smart’s design and Garcia’s suggested measurements for various components. “You can curve this down a little bit more,” Pope says of a seam.

Now comes one of Garcia’s favorite steps: shaping the dress. With a piece of tailor’s chalk and an unwavering hand, Garcia sketches the V-neckline, the brassiere-shaped top, the waistline of the skirt, and then goes over her outline with wide white stitches to mark the place where she will cut. The velvet ultimately will be separated into two pieces with the mesh bodysuit in between.

The design, explains Pope, is “an artistic drawing, not a technical blueprint.” “It’s not just cut and sew. Each seamstress has to be a designer, an artist. It’s up to each seamstress to interpret the design to the best of her ability.”


The fitting

Kudryashova meets with Pope and Garcia for a fitting.

Kudryashova gets the benefit of fittings during the process. (For the out-of-town dancers, tweaks can be made at the competition venue.)

In mid-January, just before heading to Asia for a showcase, Kudryashova slips into the unfinished dress and helps Garcia and Pope determine the length of the satin chiffon ruffle and a few needed alterations to the arm openings and neckline.

The dancer reinforces the importance of her outfit: “If I put on something that doesn’t look right on me, you’ll know something is off.”


The final details

The fully stitched garment is a lovely thing to behold—a one-of-a-kind combination of shape and layers—but it lacks the pizazz that is ballroom’s hallmark.

Darlyn Villavincencio and Julia Stern work quickly to glue stones on the dress, giving it dimension, depth and dazzle.

And so a late January afternoon finds Kudryashova’s dress in the stoning department, where embellishers Darlyn Villavincencio and Julia Stern give it its glam. Stern dabs glue around the neckline, and Villavincencio chases her with the stones. She uses a special embellishing tool, a paintbrush-like stick that is topped with a beeswax tip. The sticky wax grabs the stones one by one from their container.

With quiet concentration, the women outline the neck, the skirt, the shoulders, the strips of velvet encircling the torso. They glue stones at the top of each of the 36 tassels (which Stern fashioned by hand on a previous day). All told, the pair affixes 4,200 tiny gems.

Meanwhile, Smart sits in her corner workspace, newly returned from a competition in Nashville. “It’s a cool dress,” she says. “A good dress.” But in truth, she’d already moved on from this creation, which would debut three weeks later at the Superstars Dancesport Championships in St. Petersburg.

On her desk are sketches of two new designs.


Kudryashova models her new dress alongside her husband and dance partner, Nazar Norov, at their studio, DanceLife, in Bonita.


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