Dance Business Weekly

Dance Retail: Selling Basics Is Anything But Basic

On Instagram, Bellissimo Dance Boutique branded its black dancewear as "so far beyond basic, you'll be doing the happy dance." Photo courtesy of Bellissimo

Fashion dancewear (with its frequent refresh) and pointe shoes will undeniably capture the most excitement and attention in a dancewear store—and probably be the price leaders. Basics—the dress-code leotards, tights and slippers that customers buy repeatedly—can easily be taken for granted. Yet they can play a key role in your business' success. Here's why:


  • The market for basics is broad: This is the category that can address clients at diverse stages of their dance lives or at different levels of interest—whether a dancer is an enthusiast taking classes in her off time, or the student enrolled at a studio, or a dance mom on a budget. In fact, basics are probably the first thing a shopper thinks of when she hears the words "dance store."
  • They drive repeat business: You can count on dancers coming in for replacement pieces—often in multiples—as they wear out or grow out of their leos, tights and slippers. This means healthy inventory turnover.
  • Basics can keep sales steady and even robust. "Any dollar you can capture in your store is another that someone else doesn't get online," says Bob Phibbs, CEO of The Retail Doctor, a New York–based consultancy, and author of retaildoc.com/blog. "The more needs your core customer can fill in one place—your place—the better. Create a strategy to sell the category. It won't go magically out the door."

So how does a store build a strategy to make its basics the go-tos in its dance community? Even though basics may be the core items of a dancer's wardrobe—her foundation for working out and sometimes going out—every dancer has many sources for them, particularly online, which can beat you on price. Here, from retail and branding experts, a few ideas on how to most effectively market basics to keep them uniquely on-brand and contributing to a strong bottom line.

Curate and Brand Your Basics

Curate and brand your store's basics collection with your customers and local studios in mind. Attitude Dance Boutique, a College Station, TX, destination for high-quality fashion items and the newest on-trend styles positions its basics this way, says owner Emily Mayerhoff—"for the customers who are more budget-conscious but are still looking for high quality."

When you consciously make basics part of your brand story, you give customers a reason to return to your store, and yours alone. Here's how a fashion apparel maker described one of its basic pieces to Business of Fashion, "[it] is not a basic plain-black sweater, but a basic plain-black sweater with our DNA." You can send the same message for your basics collection. "Because our boutique focuses more on fashion than the basics, it is important that even our basics be fashion-forward," says Patrice Powell, co-owner with Kelley Descher of Bellissimo Dance Boutique in Franklin, TN. "Our basics can be described as 'anything but basic.' Style always influences our choices."

Retail consultant Georganne Bender suggests another branding tactic: Add your store name or private label to the basics you sell. "If the vendor won't do it for you, then add your own sticker or alter the packaging—so the customer always remembers where they bought that particular item."

So how do you choose the basics lines you're going to stock? A good rule of thumb is to source quality basics from manufacturers your customers know, and price them only slightly lower than your fashion items; customers are conditioned to understand this distinction from shopping mainstream apparel companies, such as Brooks Brothers and Everlane, department stores such as Nordstrom, or big-box stores with private labels, such as Target.

You might carry several tiers of basics: a good and a better, or a better and a best, depending on which brands are your top performers in fashion categories. "You want your basics to be a good value, but you also need to offer a basic at different price points," says Joy Ellis, owner of Footlights Dance & Theatre Boutique, in Silver Spring and Frederick, MD, and Alexandria, VA.

Try Variations on Studio Themes

Of course, curation is informed by dance studios' lists. "We offer lots of choices, but the individual studio teachers determine what they consider 'basic,'" says Ellis. Even when your store incorporates the dress-code must-haves of nearby studios, that can be a moving target. "In the last few years, tap, jazz and hip hop have moved away from your classic dancewear into a more casual style of dress, and we have seen the market switch to more tops and bottoms or even streetwear," says Ellis. It can be a challenge to keep up.

Various brands of leotards populate the racks at Footlights Dance & Theatre Boutique. "Individual studio teachers determine what they consider 'basic,'" says owner Joy Ellis, but the store's goal is to also offer customers lots of choice. Photo by Bill Adkins.

Typically, studio requirements apply only to color, however, which affords some flexibility in the customers' purchases and, consequently, your buying. These choices separate you from your competition, particularly the lower-priced competition online, and give you the opportunity to stamp basics at your store with your signature. Because a dancer will never be satisfied if she perceives basics as bland or generic. With standard core pieces, "the danger is allowing it to look like what everyone else has," says Phibbs. "You've got to make it look better, different, unique."

Communicate Your Basics Branding

Beyond the pieces you choose, think about how you'd characterize your basics collection to a customer—and train your staff use that same language. Even the words you'd use to describe a basic leo's winning features will help achieve this. Adds Bender: "We live in a fast-fashion world where updating and changing your product mix is no longer a luxury. It's mandatory. Stock the most beloved basics, but don't be afraid to try new renditions on those items. Let customers vote with their dollars."

Adopt Smart, Not Rock-Bottom, Pricing

Your basics will sell at a lower price point than fashion and performance items because customers will expect it. You can build this pricing tactic into your business plan, thanks to ordering regularly from the same manufacturers with whom you've established solid relationships. "We want vendors we can count on to have supplies when we need them," says Ellis. "We also look for consistency from year to year, since most studios keep the uniforms pretty much the same. I have been in business for 27 years, and some studios still wear the same uniforms. It helps them build their brand, too."

Basics should have a higher turn rate than most other categories in the store, says Bender, because they are needed most often by customers. "Since they are the lifeblood of a category, manufacturers constantly run production. Shipments of basics are readily available, so you don't need to invest in six months' worth."

Don't Treat Basics as Commodities

To preserve your brand and your bottom line, price cannot be the only driver. Never sacrifice quality just because basics are the most "expendable" apparel items. You've built your reputation on quality, and your customers will expect it from every aspect of your business. Case in point: Gap. It was a leader in well-priced, well-made clothing for the core wardrobe (khakis, the classic white shirt, the colorful tee). This value positioning caused Gap to rise so far in customer confidence that it became the go-to for casual and business apparel in the '90s. Then it took a hit in the last decade as those same customers noticed a decline in quality and left the brand. The same has been reported recently in business journals regarding J.Crew. Once that confidence is lost, it's very hard and costly to recover.

Deliver Dependability By Working With Reliable Vendors

Dependability—for the customer and the retailer—is, in fact, a key business factor when it comes to basics. Customer loyalty, says Bender, depends on merchandise always being in stock. "Can you imagine your favorite grocery store running out of milk?" she says. "You have to be that dependable to build loyalty." To deliver that dependability, seasoned owners look to reliable vendors. For apparel to qualify as basic for Footlights Dance & Theatre Boutique, says Ellis, "We have to be able to reorder year after year." Mayerhoff, who purchases "well-fitting, well-priced basics from some of our top-selling brands" for her store, says she wants to know that "basics are available to restock frequently, especially during back-to-dance season."

Dependability is a building block of a store's brand, too. From Bellissimo Dance Boutique's top-selling fashion and athleisurewear to its studio basics, says Powell, "we strive to only carry brands that are consistently dependable. We want our customers to trust us."

Let Customers Know You've Got Their Back

One way to avoid treating basics like a tossaway, suggests Phibbs, is to "create something in the sales process that lets customers know you've got their back." In addition to devoting an area of the store to basic tights and leos, consider placing some near the cash wrap. Then as customers are checking out, you can ask them if they need basics such as tights; often they'll remember at that point and stock up on a couple pairs. This tactic presents an opportunity for loyalty clubs, too. "Buy 12 pairs of tights; get the next pair free" offers are still popular with customers. "Shoppers love programs that allow them to earn points toward future purchases," says Bender. "This will also appeal to people who prefer online shopping."

Merchandise for the Upsell

Take a lesson from the merchandising of national brands such as Brooks Brothers and Gap. These experienced merchants employ basics as their capsule wardrobe, a foundation on which they layer fashion and accessory items, to create a natural upsell. "Both of these retailers have worked hard to build and maintain the image of a place to go for fashion items, as well as the basic items shoppers have come to know and love," says Bender. "Every retailer that sells both basic and fashion items should strive to create a similar reputation."


Attitude Dance Boutique's Ballerina Bundle entices customers, who often add on other purchases. Photo courtesy of Attitude Dance Boutique.

Attitude Dance Boutique introduced the "Ballerina Bundle" last year for back-to-dance. "It's been a way for us to promote the well-fitting, high-quality designs that we carry, to get new customers into the store and to combat the discount stores or online shopping," says Mayerhoff. The bundle includes a basic tank leotard, a pair of pink leather ballet shoes and a pair of pink tights for a discounted price from tax-free weekend through Labor Day. "Almost all of these customers will also add a skirt or two, tap shoes or a bag," says Mayerhoff, "so it has been a great tool for upselling, as well."

At Footlights Dance & Theatre Boutique, Ellis merchandises her basics with more fashionable options in the same fabrics and colors to upscale the merchandising: "Shoppers today want choices," she says. "We offer hundreds of black fashion leotards in a wide range of fabrics and styles along with all the basic or standard black ones from all the major vendors."

The Bottom Line

Every dance retailer will have a different point of view about what basics covers, based on a thorough and intimate understanding of her customers and their diverse needs—from entry-point apparel to core wardrobe to studio uniform. And while every dancer is different in regards to their fashion choices and preferences for technique, "generally speaking, most want to stand out and shine no matter where they are or what they are doing," Powell points out. Bellissimo took this positioning to Instagram with the statement: "You were meant to stand out—let us help. Our amazing selection of black dancewear goes so far beyond basic, you'll be doing the happy dance."

These truths hold the same everywhere: Your basics pieces must tell your brand story, reflecting you and your values—committed to quality, dependable and always up-to-date. Stay true to your values, and watch your brand business soar.

Charlotte Barnard is a business writer living in New York who often reports on retail trends, design and branding.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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