Paper + Glue + Satin = Athletic Equipment

You Can Tell A Lot About A Woman By Her Shoes

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Photo by Soho Images.

Ballet, with its emphasis on gracefulness, classical music and tutus, is subject to a bevy of cultural misunderstandings, one of the most glaring is the conception that ballerinas are fragile dancing fairies, or Queen Faeries, depending upon the role. Not so. Just take a look at their only required equipment: the pointe shoe.

Let’s get this straight: Ballerinas are not nymphs, no matter how they appear in all those layers of twittering tulle. They are physical ninjas, gliding along the stage in endless bourres or whipping around silently in such things as Odile’s legendary 32 fouettes for Swan Lake (and then American Ballet Theatre’s Gillian Murphy insanely mixed it up with additional pirouettes, as if it needed to be more challenging?).

Unlike male dancers, who perform in ballet slippers, ballerinas must perform en pointe in a shoe constructed of little more than paper, glue and satin. In this shoe, she will balance all of her body weight on the tips of her toes, mostly between the big and second toes. She will endure bunions and broken nails, blisters and stress fractures, possible osteoarthritis and tendonitis and any number of wonky injuries to the Achilles tendon complex. She will execute a force up to 10 times her body weight on the platform of the shoe. Why? Because pointe shoes create the illusion of floating, of magic, of a lithesome otherworldly spirit who simply cannot remain earthbound, of the impossible being possible. Thus: ballet.

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To be fair, the early ballerinas, the ones emerging in the dance courts of Catherine de Medici and, later, of the impresario of France’s Royal Academy of Dance, Louis XIV, did not wear pointe shoes. In fact, they wore heels. After the French Revolution, the heels disappeared, but it wasn’t until a pivotal moment in 1795 when Charles Didelot invented a “flying machine” with wires to lift dancers to their toes that the first inklings of en pointe emerged. Audiences responded so strongly that choreographers began to incorporate more toe work into their dances until they and the dancers wanted to be uplifted wire-free.

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Marie Taglioni as Flore in Charles Didelot’s ballet Zephire et Flore. Hand colored lithograph, circa 1831.

Then, it happened.

Marie Taglioni, Italian ballerina extraordinaire, danced La Sylphide in 1832. During parts of her solo, through nothing more than the strength of her feet and legs, she lifted herself to the tips of her satin slippers, exhilarating the audience and causing European ballet-philes to receive her with Beatles-esque verve. So beloved was she of the Russians that they reportedly cooked her slippers and ate them with a sauce. Regardless, she changed ballet forever.

At the end of that century, the late 1800s, the “box” (the sturdy square tip) was added to satin slippers, and the basic pointe shoe design was set. Today, there are several tried-and-true makers of pointe shoes, and most of them make every single pair by hand. Yes, by hand. This attention to craftsmanship means that no two pair of pointe shoes are the same, and each set varies depending on the size and strength of the craftsman’s hands and the amount of glue he or she used. Freed’s of London makes more than 250,000 pairs of pointe shoes a year, each of these constructed individually.

When a ballerina receives a new pair of pointe shoes, the shoes are not yet fit for dancing nor do they come with the ribbons attached. Ballerinas must sew on their ribbons themselves to accommodate their ankles and foot shape, and they must “break in” the shoe, which means softening it just enough for dancing but not too much. Dancers can flex the shoe with their hands, slam the box in a door or pound it with a hammer, and scuff up the platform. However, when the shoe becomes too broken in, it is then “dead,” and the ballerina must use a new set of shoes. Some professional ballerinas may even use several pairs of shoes during one night’s performance. Pittsburgh Ballet Theater notes that a professional ballerina can go through 100 pairs of pointe shoes in one season, and their company spends at least $100,000 on pointe shoes per year. That’s astounding, but not as shocking as London’s Royal Ballet, whose pointe shoe budget averages $400,000 per year for around 8,000 pairs of shoes.

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An afternoon pointe class at the Patel Conservatory. Photo by Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.

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