Judith Hansen has spent more than 30 years designing costumes for dancers. That's a lot of tulle. A lot of pink. And . . .
“A lot of body fluid,” Hansen says, laughing. Her custom-made tutus, tunics and trousers wind up ravaged by sweat. “They’re drenched. And I’m covered by it, too, on a regular basis.”
Full-skirted gowns in amber silk that she created for a recent production by Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company hang in Hansen’s basement workshop in Silver Spring, Md., waiting to be cleaned. A dressmaker form stands guard in a corner, attired in a strawberry-pink Sugar Plum Fairy tutu. (“The Nutcracker” looms.) Racks of luxurious dance dresses, shelves full of trimmings and cones of colorful thread line the walls.
What seems floaty and ethereal onstage looks vastly more lush here in this intimate space, where Hansen is a keeper of secrets.
Tall, with a warm smile, she has the calm, seen-it-all demeanor of someone who makes her living putting naked people at ease. Audiences see only the glamorous outside of her creations. The inside is more personal. Hansen employs a range of tricks to soak up sweat — linings, bespoke undergarments. And, because in her line of work she can’t take any chances, she always sews in a bit of magic. She grabs a purple tutu and pulls down the neckline to show the nickel-size Saint Joan medal inside. She stitches one into every bodice, as a symbol of female strength and courage.
Dancers often have requests of their own: lucky charms, jewelry, pressed flowers. Hansen will sew in anything they bring her. She knows that the connection between a dancer and her costume can border on the spiritual.
“I can’t tell you the number of times that, after the last show, a dancer will hang the costume up — and kiss the costume,” she says. “They’re very grateful.”
Hansen designs for many local dance companies and for dancers nationwide. She understands the inspiring effect that a carefully made garment can have on a performing artist. She sewed as a child and started her career in the costume shops of the Shakespeare Theatre and the Washington Opera. In the 1980s she began working for Maryland Youth Ballet (where she still designs), crafting tutus alongside the school’s founder, Hortensia Fonseca, herself an accomplished seamstress. That’s when Hansen fell in love with the intricacies of dance costumes, and with making dancers “feel comfortable and beautiful.”
“Costuming for dance is a bigger part of the art form” than in theater or opera, she says. “It’s part of the movement and adds to the lines of the body. It can really create the atmosphere.”
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