Campus & Community

Dancewear storeowner yearns to be footloose

After being in step with metro-Denver dancers for decades, Motions is hanging up its pointe shoes and getting off its feet.

The venerable dancewear store at 2060 S. University Blvd., between Chase Bank and Stick-e-Star, closed its doors Aug. 1 and is up for sale or lease. Asking price: $2.3 million for the 7,500-square-foot property.

“I’ve loved the business, loved being in the area, loved working with the University,” says TheLea “Karen” Gray Brooks, a dancer who stepped out of professional ballet and built a “one-of-a-kind dancewear store” that became an essential stop for raw beginners and seasoned dancers alike.

“If you wanted to do it right, you went to a place like Motions,” says Glenn Giffin, retired classical music and dance critic for The Denver Post.

Nina Marie, who danced professionally in Denver and who now teaches ballet, agrees.

“You got pointe shoes fitted right if you went to Karen,” Marie says. “She was the only person I trusted a pair of feet with.”

Bad fittings can be devastating. Pointe shoes before a dancer is old enough or shoes that aren’t in sync with body alignment risk serious injury to feet, ankles, knees, hips or lower back.

“You can permanently damage feet,” Marie says. “It’s nothing to be taken lightly.”

Gray never did. Herself a victim of hip damage from having danced in pointe shoes at too young an age, Gray — who performed as Karen Allen — resolved to spare other dancers problems through education and a kind of “footwear tough love.”

“I’ve had many little girls in tears here because I’d say, ‘Sorry, you’re not ready.’”

Gray and a partner first opened a dance store in 1974 in a small space behind the Campus Lounge at South University Boulevard and Exposition Avenue. The store prospered but the relationship soured, so Gray opened her own store in Fort Collins, where she cut her teeth in business. Two years later she returned to Exposition Avenue to buy out the partner and run Dancewear Showcase herself.

Gray bought the DU location in 1984 from clothier Max Grassfield, moved Dancewear Showcase into the new spot and named it Motions. Eventually, her dancewear empire grew to seven stores.

“I did a lot of designing of costumes and color consulting, helping people who were coming in to pick out outfits for auditions,” Gray says. “I tried to combine a lot of talents.”

At the time, the metro area boasted more than 100 dance schools in addition to dance programs at public and private schools. The list included the University of Denver, which at one time offered dance through its physical education program but does so now only as a club sport and a handful of courses in the theater department.

For ballet, tap, jazz or ballroom dancers, Motions was an important destination. The shops sold shoes, leotards, dresses, Russian tutus or costumes — whatever was needed — and provided the expertise to go with it.

But the business wasn’t just dance. Gray’s shops offered Halloween revelers costumes and masks when trick-or-treating morphed into a major adult holiday. She dressed hip Denver waitresses in leotards and skirts when the disco scene demanded it. And she answered the call when the exercise revolution was born and women had trouble finding workout gear.

“Men went to Gart Brothers,” she recalls, “but ladies came to stores like mine. I had a lot of exclusive clients. I even had Betty Ford as a customer.”

Even so, Gray never strayed far from ballet, which she began in Ohio at age 6. At age 13, she joined her first company and later danced professionally in New York, Chicago, St. Louis and Miami. She knew many of the ballet greats, such as choreographer George Balanchine, and she danced as a guest artist for the New York City Ballet and the National Ballet in Washington.

When she came to Denver she continued to dance and to study, and she supported the dance community for decades, blending her passion for dance with the rigors of running a business.

“My career was successful because I had another component — education — other than just selling dancewear.”

It is education that beckons Gray — now TheLea Brooks — in retirement. She has footwear education workshops scheduled at the University of Utah and BYU, and she hopes to develop more opportunities. She will keep a toehold in the business by working two days a week in the Boulder store — Boulder Body Wear — that she previously owned.

Until then, she is liquidating dancewear stock while her son, Cameron Gray, who took classes at DU, is trying to sell the building or lease it to a tenant who can “do justice” to the neighborhood.

“This business is how I grew up,” Cameron Gray says. “I don’t know who’s gonna fill the gap.”

Neither does Tricia Stevens, an adjunct professor and costume designer in DU’s theater department.

“I’m gonna miss them like crazy,” Stevens says. “It was a huge asset for the Denver community, the dance community, the theatrical community. And now it’s gone.”

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