The tutu, along with pointe shoes, make ballerinas look like ballerinas. When a little girl goes trick-or-treating as a ballerina, she rarely wears the black leotard and pink tights of the ballet class. No — she wears the pink, sparkly, tulle tutu.
The tutu is an interesting dance costume. It can be incredibly elaborate, or sweetly simple, all the while flattering the dancer's body lines and pose to their best advantage. Tutu, incidentally, is the blurred version of the French word cul-cul. Cul-cul is a sort of baby-talk way of referring to the derriere, rather like "tushy" or "botty-wotty" in English. One can only presume the tutu got the name because one can usually see a dancer's backside in a tutu.
The tutu is usually either called classical or romantic. A classical tutu is the familiar short, pancake-like, many-layered tulle skirt that is sewn extending straight out from the hips. Sometimes, a wire hoop is inserted into the layers to make them fan out even more. The Balanchine classical tutu is a little softer, with short layers that fluff up, rather than stand stiffly out. The classical tutu is seen in ballets such as Swan Lake.
The romantic tutu is more like a gown or dress. Four or five long layers of tulle are sewn from the hip and are allowed to fall naturally in a skirt shape. These tutus are generally less elaborate than the classical and can be seen in the ballet Les Sylphides.
Even though a tutu may be thought to define the ballerina "look," a dancer must become accustomed to one. As mentioned above, most ballerinas practice in a leotard and tights. This enables the teacher to see each line of the body and spot mistakes in class right away. Ballerinas become accustomed to moving their bodies in a particular way, and putting on a tutu changes some of those movements.
Most ballerinas rehearsing for a show will don a plain practice tutu for class and rehearsal. This enables her to get used to dancing in something quite different. It also allows her partner to learn how to do lifts and turns with her, while working around the tutu. This, of course, is especially true with a classical tutu, since the skirt requires the danseur to keep a certain distance from the ballerina.
The same is true for a romantic tutu, only in reverse. A ballerina in a classical tutu may find her arm movements changed, while her leg movements stay the same. In a romantic tutu, nothing impedes the ballerina's arm movement, but the long skirt may change her leg movements somewhat. She still must maintain excellent ballet form, while keeping the skirt out of her way.
Tutus are available from ballet shops and online, or they may be made from patterns. Mostly, they are layers of tulle sewn to a bodysuit. True performance tutus, however, may come in three pieces: the basque, or top part, the skirt, and the knickers underneath. Many ballet companies have exquisitely beaded overlay tops that cover the top of a skirt and transform it into whatever look is required. They then need only a selection of plain tutus in a variety of colors. This enables the company to work with a much smaller costume budget.
Practice tutus start at about $50 US Dollars (USD), with performance tutus beginning at $150 USD for the romantic, and more for the classical, since more tulle and layers are involved. Tutus have been a part of the ballerina's costume for well over 100 years. They are elegant and are the stuff of fantasies.