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Looks count on TV dance shows

Costumes are character-driven on 'So You Think You Can Dance.' On 'Dancing With the Stars,' it's all about the glitz. Designers share their secrets.

January 17, 2010|By Vincent Boucher

Right about now, in January, as the holiday glow fades and winter boredom sets in, die-hard fans of ballroom, hip-hop, tango and salsa may have a dawning realization: "So You Think You Can Dance" had its season finale the week before Christmas.

And "Dancing With the Stars" won't be back till March.

We'll miss the shows too -- as much for the highly inventive, undeniably glamorous costumes as for the riveting quick steps and rumbas.

The January lull gives us time to ponder and appreciate the work of designers who build the "looks" for both shows from the ground up, in the scant few days between one week's result show and the next week's competition -- with little to go on but a piece of music, a hunch and a ton of Swarovski crystals.

Costume designer Soyon An won an Emmy in 2009 for "So You Think" for doing something that had never occurred to her as a student of fashion design at the Otis College of Art and Design and the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. "I thought I was just going to work in a cubicle somewhere," she said.

But the South Korean native, whose family moved to Los Angeles when she was 3, found a different path when she started doing background extra work and "got to see what costume designers were doing backstage." Then a stint assisting celebrity stylist Jessica Paster with her red-carpet clients gave her an extra push.

An, a veteran at 19 Entertainment (the production company behind "So You Think" and "American Idol"), took the lead design job at the show during last summer's Season 5, finished fall's Season 6 in December and will be back for Season 7 once a start date is set. In the meantime, she will be the women's costumer for "American Idol" for the season that began Tuesday.

When "So You Think" is in production, she starts her almost never-ending work week by hearing the music for each routine in meetings with the choreographers and picking a color scheme for each performing couple or group number.

"Colors just pop into my head while I'm listening to the song," she said, adding that because the choreography is still in the works, she never gets to see it until after she has finished her designs -- and then only once at the dress rehearsal a day before the show.

"I don't think fashion trends really influence my work; my thing is called deconstruction. I like to believe I know what's going on, but I also believe I'm a trendsetter," she said, citing influences as varied as cholo street style, Japanese cute, lots and lots of magazines, the Discovery Channel and her own travels.

As the dances encompass hip-hop, ballroom and just about everything in between, any show can find her creating a colorful "little cupcake" mini, a slinky ombré disco dress and camo-print beaded fatigues. For the judges, "character" is the holy grail of the show, as the professional dancers try to disappear into the roles demanded by the set. Costumes can help make or break a routine as viewed from the proscenium stage.

"The costumes affect the way America sees the performance," said one of the show's judges, producer/director Adam Shankman. He cited contestant Karen Hauer's hip-hop turn wearing a bold yellow mechanic's uniform that obliterated her image as a ballroom dancer as well as modern dancer Noelle Marsh's gowned transformation for a fox trot.

Meanwhile, "Dancing With the Stars" -- which returns to the schedule in the spring -- is a celebrity-driven spectacle of barely there bodices flaunting spray-tanned cleavage, floaty fabric panels that dip and swirl along with the dancer's moves and campy touches such as plopping a Day-Glo green wig on contestant Kelly Osbourne to finish off a '60s look. Women aren't the only ones who put on a show: The professional partners and in-shape male stars bare arms and more in sheer beaded shirts, and they often sport biceps-friendly stand-alone vests. In one notable instance last season, dancer Derek Hough discarded his shirt altogether for just a wide sash in a steamy salsa number.

It's all entertainment, said costume designer Randall Christensen, also an Emmy winner and a former dancer. "I'm lucky to have an Edyta Sliwinska, who can wear a quarter-yard of fabric and get away with it."

As each season progresses, he added, the celeb women ask for briefer and briefer costumes as they get in fighting shape. "We like to push it, and they're proud of their bodies," he said, "so why not show it?"

Christensen knows from his own experience the importance of costumes to a dancer: "I learned years ago that when you take the dance floor, they start judging you that minute, and the costumes are a huge part of that."

Ideas come from favorite designers such as Gaultier and Cavalli but also from "the classics," such as Ralph Lauren and Chanel. But because he grew up watching the "Sonny and Cher" and "Carol Burnett" TV shows, his biggest inspiration is Bob Mackie, because, he said, it was such "huge fun" to see what the designer would come up with every week.

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