At an unassuming spot in Bellingham’s Old Town neighborhood, across the street from the historic Parberry Iron & Metal Company building, you’ll find what’s likely the largest, most well-stocked dancewear business in the entire Pacific Northwest.
For the last decade, Mike and Linda Tilley have been operating Creative Dancewear out of a 4,000 square-foot shop at 705 West Holly Street — one that’s filled with pointe shoes, tights, leotards, and all manner of dance-related footwear.
The Tilleys’ shop supplies virtually every dance studio and program in Whatcom County, plus plenty of patrons throughout Western Washington and those as far away as Alaska. From ballet to ballroom, tap to hip-hop, Creative Dancewear attempts to carry as much variety as they can.
“We support every venue of dance,” says Linda. “It’s a great community.”
Married for 56 years, the Tilleys have run Creative Dancewear for the last 20. The business was originally confined to 600 square feet on the second floor of a strip mall off James Street before expanding to two floors. After a handful of years there, and an additional three in the former Fountain Drug location off Meridian Street, they’ve settled into Old Town quite nicely.
A Family Affair
Linda is in her 70s and Mike recently turned 80. But both bring an enthusiasm to Creative Dancewear that seems to be keeping them spry for the six days a week the shop is open from noon to 5 p.m.
While neither was born here, the Tilleys have spent much of their lives in Whatcom County. The couple raised nine children — two sons and seven daughters — the latter of whom all danced. One daughter is still involved in flamenco dancing and musical theatre in Southern Idaho.
The Tilleys also have 26 grandchildren, and many of them have also given dance of a try. Some have even toured Europe on dance teams. Despite this family legacy, neither Mike nor Linda ever danced. But they appreciate the passion, athleticism, and discipline it instills in people.
This background, however, led to the Tilleys opening their own store. One Sunday while reading the newspaper, Mike saw a classified ad announcing a local dancewear store was selling its entire inventory before closing.
He was in-between work at the time and felt like a dancewear business that came in practically turn-key condition was something he and Linda could do together.
“She didn’t really wanna do it,” he says. “But I talked her into it.”
Two days later, they owned a store’s worth of inventory, along with the previous owner’s entire client list. They had no place to sell the items from until finding the James Street location, but once they did, business steadily took off.
“We weren’t aware that we’d be the local distributor for all the major dance companies,” says Linda.
Creative Dancewear works with every imaginable Whatcom County client, from the Bellingham Circus Guild to Western Washington University’s dance program.
Many customers are girls practicing ballet or other forms of dance, which is why the Tilleys like to offer them gifts when they visit. A small pink garbage can provides bubble bottles and hair scrunchies to younger girls, while older girls can take their pick of jewelry options.
“It’s kind of like [being] grandma and grandpa to most of them,” Mike says. “It’s just so much fun.”
One thing that makes Creative Dancewear stand out to out-of-county customers is the sheer size of the store.
Many similar stores in the Seattle area generally don’t exceed 1,500 square feet, Linda says, and with its extra space, Creative Dancewear offers an impressively comprehensive selection of all major brands and sizes of tights, ballet slippers, dance shoes, and leotards. The Tilleys even have their own brand — Bella Balleto — a name that pays tribute to Linda’s Italian heritage.
In addition to online orders that come in from across the United States, the shop often receives orders from Alaska, since there are no dance supply businesses in the entire state, Linda says.
Mike is also a long-time fitter of ballet pointe shoes — among very few in Western Washington — and ensures a quality fit for customers from Seattle to the San Juans. The precise fit needed for ballet shoes can make it dicey to buy them online, he says. And a bad fit can be more than just uncomfortable: It can be harmful.
“You’re standing on your toes,” he says of ballet. “The shoe is designed in a taper, so that when your foot goes into that shoe, it slips down into the taper, and that taper kind of suspends you in the shoe so you’re only just touching the end of the shoe with your toes.”
Shoes too wide allow feet to travel too far into the toe, while a pair that’s too tight can cause bunions. The personal touch of a custom fitting, Mike says, ensures the proper level of comfort and use. Fittings also extend to leotards, he adds, and customers up to size 3X can be properly fitted in their shop.
In the last two decades, the Tilleys have seen numerous young customers blossom into adults. Some of them, like a man who now lives and dances in Boston, still stay in touch.
Linda says she feels a deep sense of gratitude in running a business where they and their customers often know each other by name.
“It’s almost like a family thing,” Mike says of playing a small part in people’s lives. “It’s been an absolute joy for us.”