End of an era for tiny dancers
By Petula Dvorak,
Let’s talk about dancing some more.
No, no, not the protest dancing at the Jefferson Memorial. I think we’re done with that. The protesters danced; the police didn’t arrest them. Everyone can now go back to more pressing issues, thank you very much.
But I want to talk about the kind that involves pas de bourree, glissade, salsa or swing. The kind where dreams often begin at youth, with recitals and auditions and fancy trim on a leotard.
And even the kind, later on in life when things work out a little differently, that involves pasties.
For more than half a century, ballet, tap and jazz dreams were launched at Artistic Dance Fashions, a purple-painted shop in Bethesda full of glitter and sequins, satin and soft leather.
It’s the place where tiny ballerinas from all over the Washington region got their first tights and returned for their pointe shoes. In the ’60s, it was also the kind of place where Washington’s more exotic dancers got their tiny costumes.
But that period of costume crossover didn’t last long.
“We figured out that the strippers and the ballet dancers don’t really mix,” said Ellen Eanet, the store’s owner.
She is preparing to retire and close her family’s legendary shop June 15 — her 58th birthday.
Her customers are already in mourning as they prepare to lose a touchstone in their lives. The building on Cordell Avenue has been sold and will become a med spa, Eanet said.
Later this summer, Eanet and her husband, Bruce, plan to hop on their Harley for a cross-country ride to visit their son in Los Angeles.
It’s the right time for her to take her final curtain call. Her business was dented, though not decimated, by the online world, Eanet told me as we sat in the back of the store, amid space helmets, floppy nun’s hats, tulle and toe shoe padding.
She maintains that online shopping can’t really replace a small store like hers.
“When it comes to dance supplies, it’s all about fit,” Eanet said. All her employees had to be dancers, so they understood how tight a salsa shoe is supposed to feel or how big a toe shoe can be.
As if to prove her point, our interview was interrupted by a very cute little dancer with a very big problem.
Sophia Jeffery, 3, had a dance recital in three days, and her jazz shoes were just a tad too small. It happens when you’re growing every day.
“The express shipping fee if we bought it online is even more than the shoes themselves,” said her grandmother, Debbie Forish, who drove from Germantown to find the shoes in time for the recital.
Like Olivander in Harry Potter’s wand shop, Eanet looked the girl up and down and began making her assessment.
“They’re going to be snug, jazz shoes . . . a 7? Or 8, maybe? She’s tall . . . ,” she mutters to herself, as she goes to her stacks and stacks of long, thin boxes of shoes.
In came three tall teenagers who needed some tights and a leotard and soft leather ballet shoes. They considered an overstock of purple leotards that Eanet was trying to get rid of.
“Men’s black jazz oxfords?” someone asked her. Eanet pointed to one end of the store: “Yes, over there.”
In between all that, Barbara Korengold, 60, stopped in for pink tights, as she has done for about four decades.
“Ellen’s father came into our class back when I first started, fitted us all for shoes and uniforms right at the school,” said Korengold, who still dances for fun. She later brought her grandchildren to the store for their shoes and uniforms.
“Once Ellen closes, I don’t know what I’ll do,” Korengold said. “I’ll have to stop dancing. I don’t shop online.”
The store opened in 1955 in Washington, after Eanet’s dad, who used to design toe shoes in New York, moved to D.C.
The dance world in the Washington region was fairly small and provincial at the time. Eanet and her sister knew everyone at shows at the Warner Theatre or DAR Constitution Hall, and all the dancers knew them.
Eanet took lessons, but she knew she wasn’t going to be a dancer. The magic for her existed at the shop. Her mother designed costumes, and they created a mail-order catalog. Teenaged Ellen modeled some of the wares in black-and-white pictures.
The store moved to Bethesda in 1970, right next to several dance schools that opened in the neighborhood, which blossomed into a small dance district. Bunheads, as ballet dancers are called, would always be coming and going to class, often dropping into the shop for an extra bobby pin or new tights if something went awry mid-plie.
Susan Jaffe, once called America’s quintessential ballerina, was one of those bunheads.
Jaffe fondly remembers her early dancing milestones at the shop of Mr. Mac, as Eanet’s father was known.
“Mr. Mac was like a father to all of us at the ballet school, and he and his wife and daughter fitted us with our first pointe shoes and tights,” Jaffe said. “One year, I modeled for their costume magazine — and even got a free leotard out of it!
“We loved going there whenever we would get the chance, and Mr. Mac and family always had a warm smile, while showing us the newest style in leotards. Whenever one girl in the school walked into class with a new color leotard, the rest of the class would run to Mr. Mac’s to get the same color,” Jaffe said. “And within two weeks time, the entire school would have that same new color. . . . We will miss them.”
At about the same time, the Kennedy Center opened, drawing huge audiences to dance performances. There, Ellen Eanet looked around and knew almost no one. “That’s when I knew it was getting big here,” she said.
Her sister went on to open her own store in Towson, Md., Artistic Costumes & Dance Fashions, which is still operating.
When her parents retired, Eanet took over the Bethesda store and kept it fresh by spotting dance trends.
When she saw dancers in New York wearing biketards (leotards with bottoms that look like bike shorts), she immediately began stocking those. Gone! Instant hit.
“Bootie shorts. They’re like hot pants, only hotter,” she said, ticking off another item that flew out of the store.
She kept a relationship with the pasties folks, too, selling them 300 tubes of latex body glue twice a year. Just not the pasties.
Business remained good. But all around her, small, independently owned shops in Bethesda were closing as people’s lives changed.
“I think people just don’t have time anymore. It’s all done so fast, like an item on your list, just get it done,” Eanet said. “That ritual of coming in, seeing all the costumes for the first time. The look on a little girl’s face when she sees herself in the mirror. Or when she puts toe shoes on for the first time. That’s magical. You don’t get that moment when you do it on a computer.”