Somatic Costumes: from Choreography to Socio-political Acts

By Sally Dean

February 21, 2019, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

“Dance is political not because of its subject matter but because of the way dances are made, how they are structured, and what they show about people relating to each other.” —Stephanie Skura (Politics of Method, Reimagining America)

Balloon Hat Costumes / photo by Luna Pérez Visairas

Costume is a powerful agent for personal and socio-political action and transformation.  How costumes are structured and designed changes our relationship to ourselves, others, and the world around us. This includes how we dance and the choreography we create. If I wear high heels, the shoe affects the experience of my feet, the movement quality of my walk – transforming the character I present to the world, how I act in it, and how I am perceived by it. Our sense of self, even the parameters of our bodies, blend/merge with the costumes we wear. In this way, choosing a costume to wear is a choreography on the body itself. The costume designs us.

For example, the pointe shoe in ballet gives the female dancer a particular relationship to the earth, a small point to balance from as her body posture rises towards the sky. The quality of the movement is informed by it, as well as the structure of the foot. They choreograph each other.

Today I am wearing my Somatic Costume of Lentil Socks. Filled with dry lentils, these socks respond to tiny movements of my feet, like sand, awakening and massaging with their small, hard, smooth texture – they give my feet a sense of weight that fosters connection to the floor. Choosing what I wear is a practice of embodiment and a return to the relationship between the costume and the body. Metaphorically and literally, we move each other.

For the last eight years as somatic practitioner, performer, choreographer and teacher, I’ve investigated how costume can be applied somatically as the starting point of choreographic works. Since 2011, I have led the Somatic Movement, Costume and Performance Project (London, UK), collaborating with costume designers/visual artists Sandra Arroniz Lacunza and Carolina Rieckhof. We design Somatic Costumes to illicit specific psychophysical awareness in the performer through the sense of touch. As in somatic movement practices, the aim is to transform movement patterns and psychophysical habits. Internal experience of the body becomes the design and choreographic starting point, as opposed to the external form of the costume or movement.

Key somatic practices that are integrated in this project are from my background and training: Amerta Movement (Javanese Suprapto Suryodarmo), Skinner Releasing Technique (Joan Skinner), Environmental Movement (Helen Poynor) and Scaravelli Yoga (Giovanni Felicioni).

Tube Costumes / photo courtesy of artist
Tube Costumes / photo courtesy of artist

How do I design a Somatic Costume? Somatic costumes have developed from the somatic practices above and questions that arise in my movement, costume, and performance practices. For example, while training in Poynor’s Environment Movement, I quested to understand personal boundaries and the integration of my inner world (inside the body) with my outer world (outside the body) as a performer. To experience our “skin boundary” between inside/outside, we created the Tube Costume. Constructed from stretchy lycra material, the Tube Costume allows dancers to expand/contract their boundary to explore the space between body and costume skin.

Choreographically, the material reveals/conceals the dancer’s body, accentuating the body’s form, but erasing details of the body such as the face. Aesthetically, dancers become entities that lie between the human form and abstraction – almost amoeba and tube-like. The choreographic material is devised by the costume’s material and the somatic intention that instigated it: boundaries.

Other Somatic Costume designs are: the Balloon Hat, designed to sense the volume and buoyancy of skull (from Skinner Releasing Technique); and Bin Bag Skirt, designed to experience the light-weight pelvis in orientation to sky (from Felicioni’s Scaravelli Yoga approach).

Although costume has been involved in performance across history, time, and cultures, this work proposes a critical re-framing of costume – costume design and costume-based choreography are not generated from the visual effect of the costume, but from its physical and psychological impact through the costume’s touch while wearing it.

This somatic approach, as a design process, has been implemented by cognitive psychologists/neuroscientists, who create costumes to transform body representation through vibrating insoles (biomedical engineer James Collin) to instigate postural alignment in the elderly; and, a full-body neoprene suit (Dr. Grunwald) to reprogram body image and schema in those with anorexia. If costumes transform wearers’ bodily experiences therapeutically, how do we apply them choreographically?

Costume’s potential resource as a somatic, choreographic, and socio-political agent became apparent when I was living in Java (2007-8). When I was learning the traditional Javanese/Balinese dances and training in Amerta Movement with Suprapto Suryodarmo, I witnessed a quality of containment in dancers, and in the everyday movement of people, that I could see and sense, but was not able to embody myself until I wore the Javanese traditional dance costume, the kain which is a long cloth tightly wrapped around the legs and pelvis and secured by a stagen, a sash tightly wrapped around the waist between the pelvis and the ribs. This costume restricted the movement of my legs, kinesthetically “containing” my mid to lower body. The costume’s sensorial experience (as opposed to its aesthetic, symbol or meaning) was a portal into new perceptions, changing the felt-sense of my body. It also fostered socio-cultural understanding, specifically the movement quality of containment embodied within the Solonese of Java. This experience evoked the following questions:

How do we design somatic costumes to stimulate new movement vocabulary or qualities that might be missing from a performer’s repertoire?

How can somatic costumes generate choreographic material?

Choreographically, a costume is often an afterthought in contemporary dance and choreographic process and typically applied at the end. What if it were the starting point? What if costume is approached as a co-choreographer and teacher in the creation process? To begin, we might generate choreographic material by “following” the costume through improvisational and somatic techniques. This encourages “tuning-in” to the costume with eyes closed, sensing the costume’s touch, noticing qualities inherent in the physical material of the costume and the effect on the dancer.

solo mover in a costume of garbage bags
Bin Bag Skirt / photo by Luna Pérez Visairas

Dancers can be invited into the costume before a preconceived subject matter, theme, aesthetic is determined. In the choreography of Something’s in the Living Room, the Bin Bag Costume instigated the movement, character, text, sound in the piece ( The site also played an important role in the choreographic process: Something’s in the Living Room journeyed across cultures (Indonesia-UK-Finland-Spain) through traditional performance venues (Theatre Guerra, Spain & Taman Budaya, Solo, Indonesia), to universities (Chester University & Edgehill University, UK), to site-specific venues such as a 15th century living room in Edinburgh (Edinburgh Fringe Festival), a village hall in the south coast of England, to a private home in Helsinki, Finland. These sites became co-choreographers with costume design.

Wearing a Somatic Costume can also uncover new relationships with others, as the audience can become part of the choreography. In a series of Pointy Hat performances (Myth of the Porter’s Mess Room, Here and There, and In Search of Water), the audience is invited into the choreographic experience – dressing up in Pointy Hat costumes and journeying through indoor and outdoor environments. One meter high and constructed from canvas and bamboo, Pointy Hats alter how the audience experiences their heads, but also how they move their bodies – adapting their body positions to navigate doorways, corridors or low tree branches.

The audience’s relationships to the environment became connected to what they wore.

Tall trees, a white obelisk and poles, similar to the verticality of the Pointy Hat, were places that the audience felt akin or drawn to. Wearing uniform costumes also connected participants to one another with a sense of group solidarity and security. Wearing sometimes evoked vulnerability, as when passersby respond to Pointy Hats with: “Dunce Cap,” “Klu Klux Klan,” “Dick Heads.” Although originally designed to kinesthetically sense the axis of the spine out through the top of the head, the visual can create strong social-political associations.

As the Skura quote states at the beginning of the article, the socio-political is endemic in how dances are made and the relationships we create. It’s critical during a creative process to consider all relationships involved (dancers, costumes, site, audience, etc.). It’s also important to recognize that the non-verbal touch of the Somatic Costume can be as equally powerful as verbal and visual expression. As a somatic resource, costumes harbor within them the potential for awareness and transformation in both choreographic and socio-political contexts.

Experience Somatic Costumes in Improvisation and Performance as part of To Be Free: CounterPulse Festival 2019.

This article appeared in the March 2019 issue of In Dance.

Based in London, Sally E. Dean (USA/UK), is an interdisciplinary performer, choreographer, teacher and writer with over 20 years experience in university, professional and community settings across Europe, Asia and the USA. Her teaching and performance work is informed by somatic-based practices, her cross-cultural projects in Asia and her background in dance/theatre – integrating site, costume and object. She is an MPhil candidate at Royal Holloway University, UK.