Labouring the pointe: building the perfect ballet shoe
Making ballerinas’ footwear is a mix of physical labour and nuanced expertise. Anna Winter speaks to shoe experts and principals about the lengths needed to create the dancer’s ‘best friend’
The symbol of a ballerina’s art – the most decidedly non-pedestrian form of movement – is surely the pointe shoe. They’re the means by which ballet’s levitational aspirations are achieved – the skimming bourrée, the buoyant échappé, the precise alignment of an arabesque.
The history of pointework stretches back to the days of the Romantic ballet in the early 19th century. In 1832, Italian ballet master and choreographer Filippo Taglioni unveiled La Sylphide at the Paris Opera as a showcase for his daughter Marie – according to theatre legend, she became the first ballerina to rise beguilingly on to her toes in stiffened slippers, thus enhancing the production’s ethereal aesthetic.
Previously, dancers had achieved a stunt-like semblance of pointework with the help of wires, but Taglioni’s ascent heralded the new dominance of the ballerina as the technical and imaginative centre of the art form. Pointework compounded Romanticism’s preoccupation with weightless spirit-women and ghosts, clad in gauzy white, who proved dangerously tantalising to the earthbound blokes of ballet narrative.
It is said the ‘cult of the ballerina’ reached an oddly pervy climax when a group of ballet enthusiasts bought a pair of Taglioni’s old shoes for 200 roubles and proceeded to cook and eat them in a sauce.
Nowadays, those wanting to snack on a star dancer’s cast-off shoes would likely be gnawing through a long-established ‘paper and paste’ model produced by a company such as Freed or Bloch.
The American company Gaynor Minden is a more recent addition to the market, its unique selling point being a more durable and flexible shoe containing plastic. At the Freed factory in London, shoes are handmade using the traditional turn-shoe method, constructed inside-out around a last or mould.
Bespoke shoes are created for individual dancers according to the unique shape and width of their feet – part of the company’s ethos since it was founded by cobbler Frederick Freed in 1929.
The hardened toe block is built up using a combination of hessian, card and paper that’s solidified with a paste – a dingy brown-grey slop reminiscent of a casserole. The process is one of physical labour and nuanced expertise; at each station the makers pin, bash and sculpt the shoe, hammering at particular angles to ensure the performer’s preferences are met.
An individual’s shoes can be made by the same person for decades – along the course of her career, tiny adjustments may be tried and tested as the feet change due to the amount they dance (as well as down to injury or pregnancy). On the sole, the craftsman places a singular identifying stamp, a symbol of his work, such as an anchor, butterfly or shield.
After being baked at a low temperature, the shoes go to a separate binding room, where they’re checked, measured and cut, before being shipped out to ballet companies and dancewear shops, as generic stock, around the world. At Birmingham Royal Ballet, pointes are organised by company shoe master Michael Clifford, who’s in charge of stocking, dying and shipping them overseas for tours.
‘Principals and soloists tend to have meaty feet, like a builder has meaty hands’
While a corps de ballet dancer might get through 10 pairs a month, Clifford notes there’s “no limit” to the number a principal dancer might require, especially as her feet can change. A newly graduated dancer will often find that “after her first season as a full-time dancer she’s gone up a width”.
Clifford holds a shoe clinic at the beginning of a season with rehabilitation coach Jennifer Bintley, herself a former dancer, and a fittings manager from Freed to check that dancers are wearing the optimum shoe (though not all the dancers wear Freeds). “Every eighth of an inch is crucial,” she says.
Fresh from the factory, each shoe, not distinguished into left or right, is shiny and stiff. Not for long. As well as sewing on ribbons and elastics, every dancer has a method of ‘breaking in’ her pointes, often involving sharp and blunt instruments.
Scottish Ballet principal Constance Devernay notes that “if you look in a ballerina’s bag, you’ll see we have lots of hammers and Stanley knives. I scrape them so I can feel the floor and hit the box to make it quieter and softer”. Her colleague Bethany Kingsley-Garner adds: “Once you get warm and sweaty, they start to mould – when you have the perfect shoe, it’s like a glove.”
Royal Ballet soloist Anna Rose O’Sullivan estimates that it’s an hour-long process to prepare each pair of her Bloch shoes, which includes darning around the tips. “Even though it’s time-consuming, I try to take care with the way I finish them: they’re my responsibility, part of my personal production as a dancer.” If she likes the feeling of a particular pair, she’ll harden the inside with shellac to preserve them for longer.
What about pain? It’s part of ballet’s mystique, cemented in the mainstream by films such as Black Swan, that a dancer faces suffering and sacrifice. While a ballerina isn’t likely to win a barefoot modelling contract for Birkenstock, her feet aren’t exactly bloodied, quivering nubs either. “Principals and soloists tend to have meaty feet, like a builder has meaty hands,” says Bintley. “They have lots of well-developed muscles.”
A gnarled appearance is part of the toughness. “Every time your toenail splits it builds resistance. Now I appreciate them; they’re a buffering block between the floor and my shoe,” Kingsley-Garner says. Royal Ballet soloist Olivia Cowley, who wears Gaynor Mindens, notes “every toenail is bruised and mangled. They don’t look very nice, but I don’t get too much pain”, adding that as a student she hardened her feet in TCP. During runs of big classical works such as Swan Lake, the smell of Anusol might waft around backstage, as dancers apply haemorrhoid cream to numb sore feet. Both Cowley and O’Sullivan wear toe separators to guard against bunions.
Bunions can happen when a child goes en pointe too early, says Bintley, “before the toe joints have lined up”, which leads to “second metatarsal stressing and the big toe joint falling over”. Premature pointework – before 11 or 12 years old – can stunt the growth of the big toe joint, creating “an unstable foot” later on.
When Filippo Taglioni masterminded his daughter’s rise, he probably wasn’t thinking of her metatarsal health and the absorption of axial force. Nowadays, the ballet world is informed by sports science, with anatomical and aesthetic concerns sitting side by side. For Scottish Ballet physiotherapist Martin Lanfear, “70% of my work is lower limb and 70% of that is foot and ankle. The injuries tend to be overuse rather than traumatic”.
He’ll work with dancers on strength and conditioning exercises using intrinsic muscles, mid-foot, short foot and resistance band exercises. In Birmingham, Bintley helps dancers back on to their toes in a swimming pool, progressing to greater weight-bearing on a specially springy Aerofloor.
Lanfear also notes that “in order to dance en pointe safely you need to have good calf capacity. I look for them to perform 30 calf raises in parallel, which is a good barometer of foot and ankle health. We have dancers with fantastic abilities and great aesthetic lines but it’s important that they’re able to control that mobility. You need stability with mobility”.
An extremely arched foot – a sought-after shape and frequently seen on Instagram – is often a sign of a hypermobility (extreme flexibility) that requires diligent control, says Bintley.
“Care needs to be taken that one doesn’t force that bulging instep because it’s more unstable. Images portrayed in photoshoots can be misleading for young dancers.” Muscle control throughout the body and properly fitting shoes are essential, she emphasises – it all comes down to exemplary technique and these satin-covered tools of the trade.
“We have a special relationship with our shoes,” Kingsley-Garner says. “It’s such a personal aspect of your career. Yes, they create callouses and sore toenails but they also create the beauty of ballet – they’re our best friend out there.”
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