Behind the Wardrobe: A Conversation with Smuin’s JoEllen Arntz

        After any given Smuin performance, JoEllen Arntz can be found hand-washing, steaming, or repairing the show’s many costume pieces. After over two decades of working in ballet wardrobing, Arntz has figured out trickslike sewing mic packs into tights, or using cheap vodka to get rid of sweat stainsthat make her job easier.

        Currently in her 21st year at Smuin, Arntz describes herself as the “mom” of the company. As Wardrobe Supervisor and Company Manager, she takes care of all things costume-related in addition to being in charge of Human Resources, budgeting, office administration, and more.

        “When I retired from San Francisco Ballet, the first thing I did was teach ballet,” says Arntz. “Going from dancing full time to teaching, you have a lot more time on your hands. The parents at the school realized I could be useful, and they put me to work in the wardrobe.” Soon after, Arntz joined Smuin as the company’s Wardrobe Supervisor in 1996.

        Having been with Smuin almost since its inception, Arntz possesses a comprehensive knowledge of the Company. She creates books for almost every ballet that Smuin has performed since 1996, filled with costume designs, photos, and inventories of each piece. “I really enjoy learning about fabrics as they get fancier, newer, and more interesting,” she says. “They’ve evolved, along with the designs, since I started working in wardrobe.”

Arntz hand-glues jewels onto the red high heels seen in Santa Baby.

        Arntz is also in charge of the dancers’ shoes, a formidable task given the sheer number of shoes the Company goes through each year. She estimates that the eight women go through about 300 pairs of pointe shoes per season, depending on the program. For Smuin’s annual productions of The Christmas Ballet, there are many pairs of tap shoes, ballet boots, and high heels that must be individually prepared for the stage. “I paint red and white designs onto the tap shoes, sew the ballet boots together, and glue jewels onto the Santa Baby heels by hand,” says Arntz. “Christmas shoes probably take me about an hour per pair.”

        Wardrobe supervision is not without its challenges. Arntz spends every show backstage, there to help with quick changes or on-stage costume mishaps. “Zippers notoriously break or come off the runner, so we have to sew the dancer into the costume and cut them out later,” she explains. “And we have a lot of crotch blowouts.” When pants rip or leotards split open during a performance, Arntz and her assistants are ready in the wings to stitch them back up.

        In addition to her duties as Wardrobe Supervisor and Company Manager, Arntz has performed with Smuin on stage in The Christmas Ballet, moonlighting as a tap-dancing Frosty the Snowman from 1997-2001. “As soon as I stepped out on stage, I could hear kids, because the kids love Frosty. So you’d hear ‘awww!’ and that always made me really happy.” 

       She also designed and costumed Dear Miss Cline along with its choreographer Amy Seiwert. “For Dear Miss Cline, Amy and I went shopping on Haight Street and found 1950s and 60s style dresses for the ladies,” she recalls. “Those became our starting point. From there, we ended up going to Mission Thrift to get vintage shirts for the men. Getting to bow on stage as a designer for that show is one of my fondest memories.”

Arntz and Seiwert went thrift shopping on Mission Street to find inspiration for Dear Miss Cline. 

        One of Arntz’s favorite parts about costuming is being able to build close relationships with the dancers. “I’m in the dressing room with them, I’m backstage, I’m at all the shows. I love being around the dancers in the theatre… it’s a great energy, being around all that excitement.” She also enjoys learning about design, specifically fabric and color choice. “It fascinates me. The things that work on stage need to have a texture or pattern to be interesting. And the detail that designers put into their costumes is incredible.”

Each pair of tap shoes for The Christmas Ballet takes about an hour to paint.

        After over two decades with Smuin, Arntz still gets a “vicarious thrill” out of watching dancers go from initial costume fittings to the stage. From maintaining original designs, such as those seen in The Christmas Ballet, to designing new pieces altogether, working in wardrobe continues to be a learning experience. “There’s so much rigging you can do to make a costume work,” she says. “We get creative.”  

        Once the costumes have been designed and prepared, the baton is passed to the dancers. “The audience should be mesmerized by the movement,” says Arntz. “We will make the dancers look as good as we can. From there, ultimately, it’s about the dancing.”

** Written by Julia Chen, Smuin’s Communications Intern


Smuin’s new season kicks off with Dance Series 01 at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek and San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts this September! Featuring a variety of works showcasing the Company dancers’ strength and versatility, this is a performance you won’t want to miss! Get your tickets today! 


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