What inspired you to open your store?
The reason I opened the store was for dancers to have the experience of trying on a pointe shoe rather than ordering through the mail or traveling a long distance for them. When I moved into the neighborhood, Joel Hall (dance studio) was right across the street and I started teaching and taking classes again, and realized my dance stuff was old and the only place available (at that time) was downtown. Which was not at all convenient. My son at the time was 8 months old and once we got to the location and paid for parking, he was sound asleep and I’d have to wait for him to wake up.
With the dancing community already in the neighborhood, I would imagine it seemed like a perfect opportunity to provide a resource for dance clothes and shoes?
Yes. Exactly. To make sure it was in fact a need, I surveyed the dance community and about 60% shopped online. It was actually more convenient for them, to have a store, especially, a store across from the studio. So, 10 years ago, we opened a 400 sq ft space in the basement of the same building we’re in now. This building used to be a business co-op, with 18 businesses here all sharing the same cash register! Our business just continued to grow and grow. Now we’re on the second floor and still expanding.
Who were your clientele when you first opened?
Initially, we were catering to the younger dancers from across the street (at Joel Hall). We carried all the basic stuff, ballet slippers, tights and leotards. About 2 years later, some older dancers started asking for ballroom shoes. The demand for new shoes and different types of dance wear continued to evolve.
As a classically trained ballet dancer, did you inherently understand what kind of footwear and clothes your store needed to carry?
Not necessarily. Since I opened the store, I started taking classes I wasn’t as familiar with, like tap dance, belly dancing, tango, salsa…so I have product tested. This was part of my research. Hands on dancing. Additionally, with my background as a Physical Therapist, this helped greatly in my business as far as learning the importance of a good pointe shoe and the side effects of wearing the wrong shoe. Pretty shoes are nice by you want the shoe to function well too.
I would imagine your store is like a candy shop for some kids when they first walk in?
It is like a playground for the kids. If I could create my “dream” store I think it would be great to have a studio area where the kids could dance and play in the dresses and tutus. In Buenos Aires, I saw a few stores that had both a store and a studio together. They have tango classes in their store.
Are their kids that take tango classes here?
Kids take American Tango in the Chicago Public Schools. Several schools offer programs to the 4th & 5th graders, to learn tango and eventually compete once a year at the Chicago Cultural Center. About 20 Chicago Public Schools also offer ballroom dance classes, which was inspired by the Mad Hot Ballroom program implemented in the New York City public schools.
What are most kids coming into your store for?
Lots are coming in for ballet, jazz & tap. Occasionally there are younger kids getting into ballroom. Which can be very serious, in that they are now at a competitive level.
Since you’ve been open for 10 years now, I imagine you’ve created some strong relationships with your clientele?
Yes! When we first moved into the neighborhood, I started teaching classes at Joel Hall to kids ranging in age between 3-10 years old. These kids are still coming into my store. Some of them are now in college! I love it! And I am so grateful and appreciative of their support.
In the past year or so, I’ve noticed your facebook page is regularly updated with amazing photos of dancers from all over the city and elsewhere. It feels like this signified a bit of a shift with your business?
It’s a combination of many things coming together. As a child, I was always exposed to photography, since my dad dabbled in it regularly. Then just as a basic need to archive product inventory, I began shooting myself. Around this time, I fell in love with Tango. Really dove into it. At that point, the facebook page had basically been ignored and it just occurred to me one day, either we invest time into it or let it go. Through my passion for tango and love of photography, I quickly learned how to incorporate a way in which to support the dance community, with photos and at the same time connect with my clientele. It’s been amazing! I’m now asked quite often to attend a dance event, all the while taking photos, dancing and have a booth with product. It’s a lot of juggling! In fact, I was just asked to photograph a wedding in California of a young couple that met through tango dancing! It’s all very exciting!
Owner: Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth
Business: Chicago Dance Supply
Address: 5301 N. Clark St. Chicago, IL