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March 21: Empress of Dance

March 20, 2016

16933541_116549822434Estelle Sommers, co-owner of Capezio Ballet Makers and a major supporter of contemporary dance, died at 74 on this date in 1994. Sommers took ballet and tap classes in her youth and was ardently devoted to the art. She transformed her first husband’s Cincinnati fabric store into a dancewear specialty shop, then married Ben Sommers, who ran Capezio Ballet Makers. The company had begun as tiny New York shoe shop founded at the turn of the 20th century by an Italian immigrant cobbler, Salvatore Capezio, at age 17. His shop was located alongside the Metropolitan Opera House, and he gained a reputation for repairing stage shoes and building pointe shoes for ballerinas. (Anna Pavlova endorsed his shoes in 1910 as “indeed the best I ever had.”) Ben Sommers had joined the firm as a teenager, eventually became its president, and founded the Capezio Foundation in 1953, which became a leading arts philanthropy. The company thrived making shoes for ballet as well as for dancers of the Ziegfield Follies, Radio City Music Hall’s Rockettes, and the Broadway stage; eventually, every aspiring dancer wanted Capezios. Estelle Sommers ran the retail side of the company and expanded its line to all kinds of dancewear and activewear, with many design and textile innovations. From 1979 to 1994, she served as U.S. chair of the International Committee for the Dance Library of Israel in Tel Aviv. In 1988, she joined the board of the Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts, which named a studio in honor of the couple. Sommers also assisted the Dance Notation Bureau, the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, the Center for Dance Medicine, the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, the Israeli Dance Institute, and the Yard, a Martha’s Vineyard dance center.

“New York had always been the center of the dance world in the United States, but in the 1970s more children across the nation began studying dance, and more regional dance companies opened. Dance was also made more popular by movies and television shows.... Between 1972 and 1976, Capezio’s sales volume rose by 150 percent.” —FundingUniverse