11,000 free pairs of shoes will dance across New York

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11,000 free pairs of shoes will dance across New York
Lisa Nazli, a dancer with Xianix Barrera Flamenco, looks at shoes at Materials for the Arts in Queens, Feb. 21, 2022. The creative reuse center Materials for the Arts is working with the Joyce Theater and Karen Brooks Hopkins, the former Brooklyn Academy of Music president, to distribute dance shoes at no cost. Lila Barth/The New York Times.

by Laura Zornosa

NEW YORK, NY.- Last week, 11,000 pairs of dance shoes made a long trek, all the way from Rhode Island to Queens. They arrived on busy Northern Boulevard in a 56-foot tractor-trailer full of 20 pallets, each holding 500 to 600 pairs. Their worth was estimated at around $300,000. But you can’t pin a price on dance.

On Tuesday, a city-run program, Materials for the Arts — in partnership with the Joyce Theater and the former Brooklyn Academy of Music president Karen Brooks Hopkins — held the first part of a “great dance shoe giveaway.” Discount retailer Ocean State Job Lot donated the dance shoes, from a toddler’s size 5 to an adult’s size 13, to be made available at no cost to hundreds of New York City-based dancers, dance organizations and public schools.

“It’s a fantastic New York City cultural revival, coming-out-of-the-pandemic story,” Hopkins said in an interview.

Materials for the Arts, a 45-year-old program, is part of New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs. It supplies artists with everything from disco balls and mannequins to buttons and beads.

Step inside its 35,000-square-foot warehouse in Long Island City, Queens, and forests of fabric compete for attention with towers of arts and crafts supplies. But there has never been a shoe department. On Tuesday, at a kickoff donation event, stacks of dance shoe boxes covered in purple polka dots joined the menagerie.

Tap shoes (Mary Janes, character shoes), ballet slippers (single sole, split sole) and jazz boots (T-strap, Oxfords) in black, white and caramel peeked out of the boxes. In a small clearing, pink, tan and gold baby ballet slippers ringed a black lectern.

A string of guests spoke on Tuesday, including a deputy mayor, Maria Torres-Springer, and the deputy commissioner of cultural affairs, Sheelah Feinberg.

“I cannot wait to see these shoes on stages across New York City,” Torres-Springer said.

Performances followed, by Xianix Barrera Flamenco and Calpulli Mexican Dance Company. A dozen flamenco dancers twirled in floor-length red, black and white skirts. Later, one of the dancers, Lisa Nazli, would be among those shopping, picking up jazz shoes for her 15-year-old daughter and tap shoes for herself.

“Flamenco is a special gem in the New York dance community,” Nazli said.

After a ceremonial “golden shoestring cutting,” two Calpulli Mexican Dance Company members would spin and kick in traditional baile folklórico costumes: a whirling red skirt and a black sombrero. The dance company has been sourcing costume items from Materials for the Arts for about 15 years.

“We don’t look at these things as just a pair of shoes or a set of buttons; we look at these things as something that will become part of our company, part of our community classes for years to come,” Juan Castaño, the executive director of the Calpulli troupe, said in an interview. “Part of the value that we put in them is because we make a lot of our own costuming: We take care of these things that we make ourselves.”

Shoppers — dancers and dance teachers — perused the warehouse floor in hourlong intervals (a COVID-19 capacity protocol). After two main events, on Tuesday and Thursday, distribution will be ongoing until supplies run out. Arts organizations and public schools with dance programming interested in receiving shoes can schedule an appointment online.

Shakiera Daniel, a special-education teacher at the Brooklyn Transition Center, teaches dance — especially her favorite type, step. Her grocery cart was full of ballet shoes, jazz sneakers and jazz clogs for her school’s upcoming musical, “In the Stuy” (a Bed-Stuy twist on “In the Heights”).

“I’m so taken aback by all of this,” Daniel said. “For years, I’ve been buying on my own, trying to fund the program the best I can, so just to have this opportunity is a blessing.”

On the concrete floor, too, stood glittering racks of costumes donated by From Our Hearts to Your Toes, a nonprofit organization founded by Lisa Milberg and her two daughters that collects lightly worn dance costumes. Tara Sansone, the executive director of Materials for the Arts, estimated that they easily had several thousand garments.

“Lisa said, ‘Let me know when you want to come get another truckload of dance costumes,’” Sansone said in an interview. “So we sent a truck out there — we got a truck filled with beautiful tutus and dance costumes from the tiniest to adults.”

Carlotta Wylie, a dance teacher at William A. Butler School in Brooklyn, was thrilled with a set of nine matching green leotards. They would make for perfect forest costumes for an upcoming production of “The Lion King.” Plus, she pointed out, when her students look good, they feel good.

“When I saw the flyer came out, I’m like, ‘I need to come,’ because as teachers, we’re always trying to make things happen, always going in our pockets to provide for our kids,” Wylie said. “But this? I’m so excited, the kids are going to be happy to have all this stuff.”

Ron Brooks, Karen Brooks Hopkins’ brother, is a supervisor and buyer for Ocean State Job Lot. In December, he came across the thousands of shoes and called up his sister, since she worked in the arts in New York City — she would know what to do with them.

From there, said David Sarlitto, executive director of Ocean State Job Lot’s charitable foundation, the project gained momentum. Maneuvering a 56-foot tractor-trailer through New York City is no easy feat. The question became: What partner could receive the shoes, house them (also a herculean task in the city) and distribute them? Enter Materials for the Arts.

“Folks are mesmerized in many cases to see people who have talents that perhaps they don’t possess, but wish they did,” Sarlitto said in an interview. “Those need to be fertilized; that needs to be encouraged.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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