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Ballet-Store Owner’s Expertise Makes ‘The Red Shoes’ Special
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Alice McIntosh, owner of The Red Shoes dance-supply store in South Pasadena. Photo by Henk Friezer

THE Red Shoes is a terpsichorean’s treasure trove.

I’ll save you looking it up. Terpsichorean is another word for dancer, and The Red Shoes is a ballet store in South Pasadena that’s nurtured the dancing dreams of girls and boys for decades now.

The store is named after a 1948 movie about a dancer who joins a company and becomes the lead in a new ballet called The Red Shoes. Alice McIntosh is master of this dancer’s kingdom, and “The Red Shoes” is her favorite movie. She estimates she’s seen it about 50 times.

Four generations have made the pilgrimage to The Red Shoes, first in Pasadena, where it opened in 1976, and then to the small shop on Mission Street that has housed the store since 1988.

Close your eyes and imagine the small store filled with tutus, tights and colorful carriers, along with shoes of all sizes. My eyes were awash with visions of all things ballet.

And I’m not alone falling under the spell of the shop and its 80-year-old owner.

“I love when mothers and daughters come in,’’ Alice said recently. “They are like family. One time, a woman came in to buy shoes for her granddaughter. The grandmother, mother and daughter had all shopped at The Red Shoes.

“Every 10 years or so, I see a new group of people.’’

Sally McKissick knows what Alice is talking about. She was about 10 years old when her mother enrolled her in ballet — she wanted to do tap — and took her to The Red Shoes when it was located in Pasadena.

Now she takes her two daughters to the South Pasadena store. Her 14-year-old daughter is the dancer, who studies at the Colburn School, and mom says she has always gravitated to the store. Her 9-year-old tags along to listen to Alice’s stories.

“She (Alice) knows how to support the young dancer by helping them find the best equipment and tools for their art,’’ McKissick said.

Some girls come in as early as 3 years old. By 13, many of those same youngsters have moved on to other interests, or realized that their dreams of becoming a prima ballerina just weren’t practical.

Alice remembers the allure that ballet held for her as a child, and she knows how hard it is to hold on to that dream.

Alice had that balletic dream punctured because she had flat feet, but she went on to a career in tap and dancing in musical comedy productions, and teaching tap until about five years ago. She still does ballet for her own enjoyment.

Of all the girls and boys who came in the door of The Red Shoes, Alice estimates that about a half dozen went on to perform in a major company.

One of whose girls who first walked in at the age of 5 and whose heart has never left is Stella Abrera, who has been a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater for the past 23 years.

The South Pasadena native even had her first job at the store during her sophomore and junior years at South Pasadena High School, before moving to New York at age 17.

“After I started taking ballet lessons at age 5, I went to The Red Shoes to get my ballet shoes. It has always been a part of my ballet experience,” Abrera said in a phone interview from New York City.

Abrera still visits when she returns home, and keeps in regular touch with Alice.

“I have the same feeling every time I go into the store that I had when I was 5,” Abrera said, admitting that although the ballet company may provide most of her needs, she still finds herself occasionally walking out with something she likes. “Sometimes I go in and can’t help but go shopping.’’

Alice’s daughter was a professional dancer, and mom had to buy her pointe toe shoes, which sometimes cost up to $90. And pointe toe shoes on the feet of a professional dancer might be worn out in a week, since they are really mostly made of hardened glue. It may take a half hour to fit a pair, depending on the ballerina’s feet.

But The Red Shoes sells more than just ballet shoes.

While I was there, Prof. Cherry Rhodes from the USC Thornton School of Music came in to look for shoes for her students who play the pipe organ. She needs a shoe with a high heel, called a character shoe. They are the shoes actors might wear on stage to perform.

If you add taps, you can be a tap dancer. Pipe-organ players use them because of their leather soles and because they need a high heel for the heel and toe movement required of a pipe- organ performer.

She comes in to probe Alice’s knowledge of what’s available to her. That knowledge and Alice’s ability to put that knowledge into practice is what separates her from her online competition.

Alas, the online low prices have taken a toll on Alice’s business. She has had to cut the number of employees, and she has put a sign on her front door asking people not to come in to try something and then leave to buy a similar item online.

But Amazon doesn’t have Alice — or her employees — and that’s what her customers treasure.

“The Red Shoes is such a quaint store,’’ Abrera said. “I love it so much. I hope it continues as the establishment it has always been — a place where the dance community can connect. Alice knows everything there is about dance equipment, and she is not clinical in talking about it. She takes great care in curating these unique things.’’

Both Abrera and McKissick say that it is Alice that makes the shop special.

When I asked McKissick to close her eyes and come up with an image of the store, she quickly e-mailed back that it was Alice who immediately came to mind.

“She’s awesome,’’ Abrera said.

My email is ALippman@gavilanmedia.com. Please write if you have any story ideas about people, places or things of interest to South Pasadena residents.

Andy Lippman

A former Los Angeles bureau chief for the Associated Press, Lippman writes weekly about some South Pasadena person, business, issue or trend.

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