Local dance retailers can build a valuable source of repeat business—and a profit center—if they cultivate a reputation for professional pointe shoe fitting. So how do storeowners learn this essential element of becoming the go-to destination for local ballet dancers?
For brick-and-mortar dance retailers, pointe shoes can be the driver of a store’s success and profitability. With their higher price point, they may represent one-third (and sometimes much more) of a store’s revenues—and with a bigger profit margin. Stocking a broad-enough selection to fit various dancers’ feet (and satisfy their teachers) requires a substantial investment in inventory—a single store might stock more than 50 styles from 10 or more manufacturers. But for many retailers, it’s worth it. Pointe shoes are one dancewear product where a brick-and-mortar retailer has an advantage—they must be fitted in person. And a successful first fitting can lay the groundwork for valuable repeat business.
The Skills Storeowners Need
Pointe shoe fitters need precision, right down to knowing various brands, styles and fits, the fine points of padding, how the shoe feels on a dancer’s feet and how it works with her entire body. Poor fitting can damage a young dancer’s feet—and potentially a store’s business. Because pointe shoes are not an “off-the-shelf” product, successful pointe shoe sellers also often have cobbling skills, so they can customize a shoe for an ideal fit: for instance, insert shank supports, tack shanks, put drawstrings in V-vamped shoes, skive shanks, Jet-glue shoes and sew on ribbons.
So how do the owner and staff of a dancewear store gain these pointe shoe fitting skills that are at the heart of developing this profit center for their stores? Mostly, it’s very hands-on, and storeowners never stop learning.
Gaby Martinez, a former ballet dancer and dance teacher who owns The Ballet Boutique Company, has detailed records of 6,000 ballerinas—beginners, amateurs, professionals—she’s fitted: the pointe shoes purchased, features of their feet, what shoes they are using now, what they need next. And she regularly asks manufacturers to send her new pointe shoe models to try, so she can demonstrate them in use for employees. “I love innovation,” she says, citing a recent example, Só Dança’s Elektra, a customizable pointe shoe with an interchangeable shank system. Martinez, who’s been fitting pointe shoes for 30 years, stresses the importance of working with many brands of pointe shoes—and stocking a large inventory—to be able to provide the perfect fit for each individual foot. As she often points out, “It’s a myth that ballet has to cause pain and destroy your feet.”
Here, five local dance retailers share how they learned (and continue to learn) the ever-evolving craft of pointe shoe fitting that is so critical to their store’s business success.
The Dancer’s Pointe, Pittsburgh, PA
My mom, Janet Marie Groom, bought The Dancer’s Pointe in 1998. She learned pointe shoe fitting over many years. She had been fitting and consulting with dancers since the early 1980s. She also has worked as costumier for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre since 1979.
She would bring me to work with her at the store, and I would watch her fit pointe shoes—and learn. By the time I started working there after I graduated from college in 2008, I already had a deep knowledge of pointe shoes and how to properly fit them.
Each year, Freed of London has my mom work with company members of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre to help fit them into their custom pointe shoes. We’ve been working with Freed since 1998. Paul Plesh from Capezio has also come to our store and educated us on its new pointe shoes and proper fitting of them. And we attend the Atlantic Dance Retail trade show, where we have the opportunity to learn more at seminars put on by companies like Suffolk and Só Dança.
I love when studio owners and teachers come to our store with their students to have them fitted, because you get a deeper look at the dancer you are fitting. Over the years, I have learned how to properly fit and what to look for when fitting, but teachers know their students in ways that you don’t and can help you fit by knowing their students’ strengths and weaknesses.
Ballerina Boutique, Colorado Springs, CO
All my fitters are former dancers, as I am, and have had extensive pointe experience. I feel that firsthand experience, when it comes to pointe shoe fitting, is imperative. I train them on little tricks I’ve learned over the years for more difficult feet, show them the signs to look for as far as safety, and the key questions to ask the dancer during the fitting to ensure the fit is correct. Fitting a pointe shoe is very complex and multifaceted, so the training continues as the fitter gains more knowledge with each fitting they do.
We [also] teach every dancer how to sew her ribbons and elastics. So many times young dancers are given no or very little instruction on how to sew and are then trying to figure it out on their own. The sewing is a huge part of the overall fit of the shoe and if not done properly can cause the shoe to not look as aesthetically pleasing or fit as it should.
Ellman’s Dancewear, Richmond, VA
I started working at Ellman’s, which I now own, when I was in high school. At the time, I learned everything from the managers at the store. Back then, we only had Capezio and Freed pointe shoes. Capezio had three or four models and Freed had one, so options for fittings then were very different from what they are now. Over the last 35-plus years, the technology of pointe shoes, the manufacturers, the models and the construction have become so advanced that it does take a lot longer to do a fitting, because you have more precise shoes and a variety of padding, not just loose lambswool.
It’s not just about fitting the shoe. It’s understanding how the foot, the ankle, the legs and the body work as a whole.
For me, fitting has always been a matter of working with the manufacturers and talking to other retailers, and I was a dance major at VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University). It’s not just about fitting the shoe. It’s understanding how the foot, the ankle, the legs and the body work as a whole. I’ve found that some of the best insight about good fitting comes from experienced dancers themselves. Their ability to articulate what isn’t working with the shoes helps me understand how we need to move forward in a fitting.
Even after all these years, I am still learning. When I talk with other dance retailers, there may be certain aspects of a shoe that they are looking at that I might not have seen. Also, when dance teachers come in and take part in the fittings, they can give feedback based on how the individual dancers are performing in class.
Many of us do cobbling now, actually taking the insole [of a pointe shoe] out, popping out the tacks and either making the shoe softer for the dancer or making it stronger. If you are really considering yourself to be a top retailer for pointe shoes—there are a lot of things that we [retailers] are doing on our own to help the dancer enhance their shoes.
The Ballet Boutique Company, South Miami and Doral, FL
As storeowners, to do a professional fitting we need to have the experience and knowledge. But I also need to have all the pointe shoes in stock to provide the right fit. That means researching and getting to know all the brands of pointe shoes. No one can certify you as a master pointe shoe fitter. What’s referred to as a master fitter from a particular company is an expert in that particular brand. For Ballet Boutique, I am a master fitter in all brands, so that I can give each dancer the right shoe for her. This leads to the store having a healthy balance among different brands.
[To stay current], I’m in touch with all the vendors, and I am all in for innovation. Of course, you have to be careful. In order to carry the Elektra, for example, you need to have a sampler display, which requires a little more space in the store. And dance teachers approve pointe shoes for their students. So when bringing in anything new, you have to wait to see if the demand is there before you dedicate the space.
Pointe shoe manufacturers usually send me new shoes in my size for me to test out. I feel the shoe, I try it on, I wear the shoe in one or two classes and I describe the performance of the shoe from my own experience. And then, when it comes to training, I let my staff see the performance of the shoe firsthand.
Boulder Body Wear, Lafayette, CO
While in college at CU Boulder, I began working at Boulder Body Wear the first year it began. Having danced ballet, jazz, modern and hip hop, I quickly became interested in learning to fit pointe shoes. In the late ’80s, we carried only Capezio pointe shoes (Nicolini, Contempora, Infinita and Pavlova). By the early ’90s we were looking for new styles and had ideas about what our dancers’ feet needed, which led us to Bloch and Grishko. From there we continued learning. Training by manufacturers is quickly becoming a standard in the industry. We’ve invited Suffolk, Bloch and Freed for fitting days in our store, using this time to also learn more about products and the fitting techniques they endorse. Bloch, Capezio, Suffolk, Gaynor Minden and Russian Pointe have also had seminars we have attended for fitting education.
We also invite teachers to view our stock and go over sizing, fitting and padding. This not only helps fitters and teachers be on the same page, but it also gives us insight into holes in our inventory, as well as where we need to buy deeper. I’ve learned so much working closely with area dance instructors.
The Bottom Line
Pointe shoe customers are serious dancers, not only buying multiple pairs of pointe shoes a year, but also shopping the rest of your store. Storeowners develop their pointe-shoe-fitting skills from their own backgrounds in dance and from dance teachers at local studios, from mentors and through vendor education on new manufacturing techniques and design. Then they hone those skills with the trial-and-error of hands-on fitting experience. By investing in a large inventory and trained fitters, a dance retailer will have a very loyal and large customer base, and a solid foundation for a profitable dancewear business.
Last updated October 15, 2019
Tina Benitez-Eves, who contributed regularly to Dance Retailer News, has also written for Billboard, Men’s Journal, Wine Spectator and other national publications.