Will There Be a Back-to-School Shopping Season for Dance?

This is how resourceful local dance retailers are dealing with the unknown.  

Round rack of dance leotards at Footlights Dance & Theatre Boutique, topped by a half mannequin wearing a pale blue tutu, with warm-up booties arranged below.
Dancewear displays at Footlights Dance & Theatre Boutique. Photo by Bill Adkins

Back-to-school shopping typically accounts for some of the year’s biggest sales for dance retailers, but this fall will be different. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown everything off the “typical” track. 

“Right now we’re just hoping that we are able to have a back-to-dance season, as even that is looking a little uncertain right now,” says Amy Manning, co-owner and store manager for Gabie’s Boutique in Newmarket, Ontario. “There is no way to plan, because we have no idea when this will be over and what our new ‘normal’ will look like.” 

Some of the unknowns:

  • Will there be a regular school year for dance in 2020–21?
  • When will social-distancing restrictions designed to keep the virus from spreading be relaxed, and what will new safety protocols look like? 
  • Will local dance studios survive the economic fallout?
  • Will families have discretionary funds to keep their kids in dance and be able to buy them new attire and shoes? 

The uncertainty has been incredibly stressful, even for successful storeowners with decades of experience, like those we interviewed for this story. “We’re just going day by day, week by week, because we don’t know how it’s going to shake out,” says Micki Samson, owner of The Dance Shop in Altoona, PA. “Every store and every county and every state is responding differently. We are not all in the same boat, but we are all in the same storm.”

Evaluating Existing Inventory 

Back-to-school merchandise orders were placed months ago. Items have been inventoried, or stores were in the process of receiving deliveries mid-March when they got the notice to close their doors. “I had to reach out to all of my vendors and put everything else we had—our back orders or anything that hadn’t yet left the warehouse—on hold,” Samson says.

Rosemary Liberto, owner of Ellman’s Dancewear of Richmond, VA, received her entire order for the year in January in order to maximize on discounts and payment terms. “Those orders are on the shelf. There is no sending those back, so we have to sell what we have in the store, and we shut down ordering anything else.”

Footlights Dance & Theatre Boutique, which has locations in Frederick and Silver Spring, MD, and Alexandria, VA, cancelled orders that were due this summer, which included regular refill orders for basics like slippers and tights. “That’s going to impact manufacturers,” owner Joy Ellis says. “It’s not like everyone isn’t getting pinched. It’s a trickle-up effect.”

Gabie’s Boutique placed a handful of fall orders with its larger suppliers before the pandemic hit, and it will evaluate later this summer if it will need to make any adjustments before they ship. “We have to ensure that we are able to sell product and pay bills so that we are still in existence,” Manning says. “If we close, that is a much bigger problem for the [dancewear] companies than if we make adjustments. It’s a fine balancing act of being stocked, taking advantage of discounting and not overstocking.”

Making Difficult Vendor Calls

A lot of merchandise is just sitting and waiting for customers who aren’t able or have no need to shop for it. Invoices can’t be paid right now, which means having some difficult conversations with sales reps at dancewear companies. “It’s a hard call to say, ‘I owe you, but I can’t send you anything. I will, though, as soon as I get it,’” Ellis says. “It’s very humbling, but you just have to make the call. They’re in the same boat, and they understand because their orders have dried up. The whole supply chain is on pause.”

If, as a newer storeowner, you don’t have a long track record to rely on, that makes it even more important to call every single vendor and be up front: “Explain the situation you’re in and come to them with a solid plan,” Manning says. “They are dealing with thousands of accounts, so it makes it easier for them to move forward with or to tweak the plan so it works for both sides.”

Your reps may offer you a discount if you pay off your bill with a credit card, but don’t overextend your credit or your cash reserves. “Cash is king right now,” Samson says. “Conserve your cash and make sure you’re only paying for the things that will keep your business open. We can’t see the end of the road at this point—this is all new, uncharted territory.”

Offering New Products and Ways of Selling

Since the demand for leotards, tights and slippers is at a standstill, some dance retailers have started offering niche products, including Eurotard and Bloch face masks.

Liberto saw a need in her market for portable, PVC-piping barres, which her husband constructs and she sells for $49. “They’ve been a huge hit,” she says. “Our customers are grateful, and their daughters are excited because they don’t have to hold on to dining room chairs and kitchen counters.” 

Samson started holding Facebook Live shopping events and found great success with a clearance sale, moving out items she had paid for a long time ago. And, Ellman’s Dancewear is offering shopping appointments in order to adhere to Virginia’s requirement of only having up to 10 people in the store while maintaining a six-foot distance. There are appointment slots for up to two customers per 30 to 45 minutes, and they have to wear a mask and wash their hands when they arrive. “We have choreographed a pointe-shoe–fitting scenario that requires a little mambo/cha-cha,” Liberto says. “We step forward and place the shoes on a stool, and then step back so the dancer can step forward to get them.” 

Finding Coping Strategies

Ellis cannot remember ever being this exhausted in almost 30 years as a business owner. She believes it’s the stress of not knowing what the future holds. “My husband has been a godsend and keeps me grounded,” she says. “But I’m constantly talking with my son and daughter-in-law [who work in the business], strategizing about social media. I’m checking in with other storeowners to find out what they’re doing. And I’m checking in with my reps every week. I also try to get around to the stores at least once a week, and I’m keeping tabs on my staff to make sure they’re OK. I miss going into the store and the interactions with my customers. It’s who I am.”

One way to foster positivity and creativity right now is to focus on developing relationships with other dance retailers and your customers. Consider joining (or forming) specialty Facebook groups, and get to know other storeowners and tap them for advice, support and inspiration. “I have a few really nice connections and friendships with retailers outside of my city and state, and we’re always on the phone commiserating or bouncing ideas off each other,” Liberto says.

Reach out to your customers through e-mail newsletters or social media. “We use every social-media platform we can think of to get information out, but we don’t want to ‘sell, sell, sell’ right now,” Samson says. “Instead, we’re sharing free classes as Stories, and we have a VIP group for moms where we’re sharing slightly off-color memes that may not be appropriate for the general page. There’s a lot of joking about homeschooling.”

Adapting and Staying Positive

Whatever longstanding back-to-school traditions stores had are now on hold. Instead, it’s all about the ability to react quickly to a changing environment.

Ellis’ three store locations have different reopening protocols in place, so reopening is a little tricky. She is beginning curbside pick-up at the Northern Virginia location, but is still waiting to hear on reopening procedures for the two Maryland stores. She thinks it might be later this month but isn’t sure. “That’s the hardest part—there’s nothing definite, and everything is in constant flux,” she says. “You pray for the best and for the quickest resolution, and then you adapt and go with the flow.”

There’s no doubt it is going to be a long, hard year, but it’s OK if your once great expectations now become good expectations. Manning is optimistic that dance retailers will land on their feet once the pandemic ends. “In our experience, parents always put their kids first and try to keep them in their activities, and I think especially in this case, with everyone having been in quarantine for so long, parents will definitely want their kids back into their programs,” she says. “People will most likely pull back on how many classes their dancer is in and scale back on their budget for dancewear, but they will still need the basics and even splurge on a fashion item, too.”

Last updated May 11, 2020.

Hannah Maria Hayes has an MA in dance education from NYU and has been writing for Dance Media publications since 2008.