Seasoned dance retailers can probably agree they are in this business for love. They revel in solving problems for their customers—sourcing the perfect costume, supplying mass quantities of leos, meticulously fitting pointe shoes. Still, the hours are long, the challenges many, and although the relationships are meaningful, they’re time-consuming. Yet it is just this deep, personal connection with dancers’ everyday challenges that can spark an idea that becomes a solution—whether a new product or a service—with some profit potential.
Such was the case with Leslie Roy-Heck shortly after she opened her store, Saratoga Dance, Etc. A former soloist with New York City Ballet, Roy-Heck understood dancers’ needs firsthand. So it was no surprise that, upon retiring from her professional dance career, her next move would be running a retail store for a wide-reaching dance community. What’s a little more unusual is that she went on to create not just a successful dancewear store but several ancillary businesses that made her whole enterprise stronger.
Where Dancers Shop
Roy-Heck had been accepted into New York City Ballet at 17. For 13 years, she danced with the company, performing in more than 80 ballets and traveling throughout the United States and the world. She retired as a soloist in 1989. That was when she relocated to Saratoga Springs, NY, to begin her teaching career at area schools.
Just one year later, in 1990, Roy-Heck opened Saratoga Dance, Etc., a full-service retail dance shop occupying 2,900 square feet in a friendly college town that is also the summer home of City Ballet and a dance mecca in its own right. The store’s tagline—Where Dancers Shop—sums up her vision: to serve professionals as well as students from more than 50 schools in the surrounding area. Roy-Heck attributes the longevity of her business—almost 30 years!—to high-quality merchandise, superb customer service and, above all, pointe shoe fitting expertise. Pointe shoes account for half the store’s business. “We’re fortunate to have dedicated staff, most of whom have danced or continue to dance and teach,” she says. “They all are trained to do custom modifications on pointe shoes to give the dancer the best fit possible.”
Long-term relationships play a primary role, too. Roy-Heck hosts many events to support outreach and education. Until recently a member of the board of directors at the National Museum of Dance, she and husband Michael are patrons of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and actively involved with the local summer intensives. A few years ago, she co-curated an exhibit on pointe shoes.
Birth of a (Business) Idea
In 1996, a few years out of the world of the professional dancer and still in touch with NYCB’s physical therapist, Roy-Heck learned of a wonderful gel. Originally formulated for prosthetics for amputees, it could ease dancers’ discomfort in their shoes much more effectively than other remedies at the time: paper towels or lambswool. With husband Michael, a chemical engineer, she approached the gel company with a concept—creating pads and cushions—and a plan.
Like most first-time product developers, Roy-Heck had no previous manufacturing experience. However, as a dancer, she had focus, discipline and loads of patience. And as a retailer, she understood her customer’s need for products that would solve a problem and still be attractive. Michael’s chemical engineering background helped with understanding how to manufacture the products. “Our different skill sets—me, the artist; he, the scientist—serve us well as a team,” says Roy-Heck.
The couple moved toward the production stage of their new venture, Bunheads, Inc. They researched manufacturers, while they developed the product, and then visited product and packaging trade shows to make contacts. Attending shows is also useful, says Roy-Heck, to get visuals to help envision products and how they can be packaged. Later on, they sought bank financing.
Putting It to the Test
Bunheads products made their debut in the store. Roy-Heck had a display made with a few of the gel products, so she could introduce them to customers who dropped by. “That’s how I tested it. I wanted feedback—and the feedback was phenomenal, so I knew I had something,” she says. She also called friends in the dance business, who placed orders. Then word of mouth got out, and Bunheads took off.
Inventory, initially, was limited. “The very first items were gel products for feet,” says Roy-Heck. “Our Ouch Pouch was most popular, also the toe pads and other accessories for bunions, the spacer, gel products for each toe.” She eventually went on to add other fun and functional accessory products—simple things dancers need daily, like hairnets and hairpins—but the gel products remained the core. Expanding the line also meant adjusting the name, and the business became Bunheads Dance Accessories. “Some nondancers who didn’t get the Bunheads reference thought we were selling baked goods!” says Roy-Heck.
Then Capezio came knocking, and in September 2008, Ballet Makers Inc., worldwide manufacturer of Capezio dance footwear and apparel, acquired Bunheads. Ten years later, it is a leading dance accessories company, serving more than 45 countries around the globe. “Capezio carried Bunheads in a lot of their stores,” says Roy-Heck, “and were one of our best accounts!” At Saratoga Dance, Etc., Bunheads products now reside in the store’s pointe shoe fitting area, a natural placement that allows customers, with the help of fitters, to determine the appropriate products.
To Market, to Market—Again
Buoyed by their success, in 2014 Roy-Heck and her husband turned another of her ideas into a wholesale business: B Plus Printworks (bplusprintworks.com). “After selling Bunheads,” Roy-Heck recalls, “I realized that there were other products, especially gift items, that dancers would want.” The collection comprises mostly gear and accessories for offstage—bags, water bottles, cosmetic bags, as well as a very popular fun line of buttons sporting inspiring and occasionally sassy sayings: “When in Doubt, Turn Out,” “My Feet Hurt,” “Live! Love! Dance!”
Where does the name come from? The phrase “B plus” is thought by some to have originated with George Balanchine and describes the position croisé derrière, indicating a beginning and readiness to perform. “We’ve adopted B Plus to describe a starting point for producing beautiful things that also have a practical purpose,” says Roy-Heck.
With B Plus Printworks, the development track was similar to Bunheads. Somewhat helped by their experience, the couple understood the process, but there remained a learning curve. The couple had worked closely with the gel company to design products for dancers. “In other cases,” says Roy-Heck, “we designed, developed and produced the product ourselves by finding a manufacturer willing to work with a small company. This is more complicated, but it’s very rewarding to see a product through from concept to completion.”
Knowing other retailers from the Bunheads relationship, who were eager to try the new line, helped. On completion of the first round of production, the new B Plus collections went right into the store in a dedicated gift section housed in cubbyholes along a brick wall.
Managing Multiple Brands
Being a retailer is a full-time job in itself. So how does the couple manage their sidelines? The businesses are separate entities, with their own operations. Both retail and B Plus share offices and staff, as needed, and all employees have knowledge of both the retail and wholesale businesses. The store and B Plus each have their own manager; B Plus keeps a warehouse off-site.
The longevity and loyalty of a skilled staff means all businesses keep running smoothly even when Leslie and Michael are not present. The store manager, Patti Hornbach, with Saratoga Dance, Etc. for more than 10 years, knows the business inside and out, says Roy-Heck. Erin Wigzell, with the store for 20-plus years (since she was a young dancer), not only manages B Plus operations but also participates in running the retail shop, including the website and shipping operations. “The staff are an integral part of our product development process,” adds Roy-Heck. “Their feedback—because they are younger and still dancing—helps us keep up with trends.”
She admits that time management can still be challenging, but “having worked in this industry for almost 30 years,” she says, “I have learned the importance of compartmentalizing the businesses.”
Recently, she was invited back to Capezio to provide her expertise once again to product development. “One advantage of owning the retail shop is that it allows me to be up on what is on the market and create products that are needed and not available yet.”
Looking back on nearly three decades in the dance retail world, Roy-Heck reflects on the journey and its various paths. “I just found that I had ideas—and still do—that I’d like to see in our shop and available to dancers. Starting a business enabled us to make that happen!”
Charlotte Barnard is a writer in New York who often reports on retail trends, design and branding.
Photos courtesy of Saratoga Dance, Etc.