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Kansas City Ballerina Lifts Herself And Others With Gear Designs

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Lisa Choules
Lisa Choules on the production floor of Eleve, her dancewear company.

A dancer who hears "elevé" knows to push herself up onto her toes. In 2010, when retired ballerina Lisa Choules needed an apt name for her fledgling dancewear company, the term sounded just right.

Everyone needed a lift: She was a single mom scouting for a new career; ballerinas needed a better-fitting leotard.

Though she'd worn leotards for dance since she was six, she rarely felt that they fit her in a flattering way. She was thin and her torso was long, and the fabric would make a sort of bubble on her back that she didn’t like.

She knew other dancers felt the same. Despite what some might imagine goes on in a lithe professional dancer’s head, Choules says they’re often self-conscious.

"We spend all day in front of the mirror, and if you're judging yourself, basically in tight-fitting clothing all day, you really see every flaw,” Choules says.

She trained for a year at the San Francisco Ballet School and at 18 began dancing for Ballet West in Utah. Ten years later, she moved to Kansas City, where she spent the last nine years of her career in the Kansas City Ballet.

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Weiferd Watts

Her discomfort in practice gear increased after her two children were born. In order to save money as well as her silhouette, she began shopping for vintage leotards with long bodices that she'd then dissect.

"I would basically cut my pattern, so they were kind of a compression garment, and it was a lot of experimenting, but it was great," she says.

Once she had her pattern right and began wearing her new leotards to rehearsal, her colleagues wanted what she had. She sewed boxes-full that her friends sold for her to domestic and international companies they were part of.

Choules retired from the Kansas City Ballet at the age of 37 in 2009 and founded Elevé the next year. In the beginning, she says she was largely creating for female professionals with similar body types — a one design fits most proposition.

Since then, Elevé has outgrown her home's basement. She now has a 10,000 square-foot workshop and 35 employees and turns out enough product to be carried in more than 100 stores around the world as well as online orders.

She's also expanded to designs for children, men and women who take dance classes for the exercise and don’t fit the mold of a career dancer.

"In a leotard you're almost half naked. It’s very similar to a swimsuit, so you're very exposed. Nothing's better than something that fits well," Choules says.

In December, a New York Times article anointed her "leotard queen." Choules orchestrated two pop-up events in that city’s large dance community last year, and she's in the final stages of negotiating her own retail store in Manhattan's garment district.

She said she wanted to be able to "run with the big boys, the other brands that are bigger, and be available to the market and to the dancers who want to go in and try on the leotard and see how it fits."

Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter, @AnneKniggendorf.

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