Without Payless, Where Will Low-Income Dance Students Buy Shoes?

Courtesy Ritzel

Capezio, Bloch, So Dança, Gaynor Minden.

At the top of the line, dancers have plenty of quality footwear options to choose from, and in most metropolitan areas, stores to go try them on. But for many of North America's most economically disadvantaged dance students, there has often been just one option for purchasing footwear in person: Payless ShoeSource.

As of June 28, Payless is no more. The chain filed for bankruptcy in February after losing $68 million in 2018. Going defunct with the formerly ubiquitous low-price shoe store: Payless's 13-year partnership with American Ballet Theatre. (ABT and Ballet Theatre Foundation are both on the list of creditors still seeking money from Payless, according to court documents.)

Since 2006, Payless' 2,100 stores in the U.S. and Canada, as well as some additional international locations, sold a line that included ballet, tap and jazz shoes, in sizes for toddlers through adults. The licensing agreement also included ABT accessories, ABT dance bags and tights that featured ABT principal Sarah Lane on the packaging.

Some of the shoes are now for sale on Amazon. Spokespeople for ABT and Payless declined to answer questions about why the shoes are on Amazon, such as whether ABT had any say in the matter and would receive royalties from remaining sales.

What is clear is this: ABT has lost revenue and North American parents have lost their go-to source for dance shoes.

Courtesy Ritzel

"American Ballet Theatre's long partnership with Payless ShoeSource enabled students across the country to have access to affordable dance footwear, " said ABT's executive director Kara Medoff Barnett in a statement. "We are grateful to Payless for helping us to fulfill our mission of reaching the widest possible audience."

Members of ABT's artistic team helped consult on shoe designs, says ABT spokeswoman Kelly Ryan. Most shoes sold for under $25, and could be coupled with various BOGO-type deals. For a parent whose growing child needed two pairs of dance shoes each year, the savings could be substantial. (In the months leading up to final closings, most shoes were available for just a few dollars.) They were also an easy alternative for families new to dance, who may have found shopping online for dance shoes—with their myriad sizing schemes—intimidating.

Courtesy Ritzel

Several studios we contacted voiced concern about students not being fitted properly at Payless, as they would be at a specialty dance store. Yet they also understood that for some families, especially those new to dance, the low-price points and accessibility of a Payless made the shoes popular.

"I know that some parents go that route, and I don't blame them," said Karen Muccioli, owner of Rage Box Dance Center in semi-rural Forest Hill, Maryland, where there was a Payless in the county's only mall until last month.

The dancers Muccioli thinks will be most negatively affected by Payless closing: Those in non-studio settings, such as after-school programs, community parks and recreation centers.

As part of the licensing agreement, Payless sponsored ABT's annual Family Day, with free performances and special events, and was also a lead corporate sponsor of its diversity initiative Project Plié, Ryan said. Payless's former CEO Matt Rubel joined ABT's board in 2007 and remains a trustee for the dance company.

Scroll through the Amazon shopper comments, and you'll find the shoes still have many fans. As one parent wrote in her recent review, "These are great little ballet shoes. They held up very well for a year, but my daughter outgrew them. I was happy to find them on Amazon since Payless is gone."

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