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Ballet shoes

As sapatilhas

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I have a vague memory of trying on mom’s oversized ballet slippers when I was very little and attempting to go on my tippy toes, but officially speaking, I started pointework when I was eight years old, with a team of eager friends in red headbands. We knew that this would be the year we would finally be introduced to the amazing wonders of pointe shoes, and we could barely contain ourselves.

I remember waiting for my very first pair to arrive; mom had to special order them because they weren't made in my size (I’ve always had such tiny feet). I opened the box and ran my fingers through their satin, wondering what they were even made of. Something resistant, I thought. Like wood, or metal?? I kept that first pair in my wardrobe for many years, as a little souvenir, together with a congratulatory certificate from the ballet school for my induction into pointework.

First day on pointe.

Eight-year-old girls like us are mystified by how ballerinas can balance and turn on the tip of their toes. We couldn't wait to try it out! Our excitement probably lasted the first three lessons before we realised how painful it was to dance on pointe. It felt like I had two small bricks stuck to my feet, but I wanted to be a real ballerina and would endure it if that's what it took. Once I got over the initial shock of blisters and sore toes, I refused to take them off. Suddenly, just doing little bourrées back and forth wasn’t enough. I wanted something more challenging and was very eager to perform on pointe for the first time in our end of year school show.

First performance on pointe - 1996.

There are no rules as to what age one should be introduced to pointework; the timing is quite individual. It is not just about the strength of your feet (the more flexible they are, the prettiest it is for ballet, but the more control you will need). Strength and stability of the knee, hip and spine, and co-ordination of the whole, are prerequisites. There should also be adequate control of turn-out at the hip and understanding of body alignment, altogether working to to rise us onto pointe and not let us sink into our shoes or injure ourselves.

It has been thought for many years that twelve was the year at which a child could start pointework. However to generalise like this is not to take into consideration the type of physique, the stage of physical development, the stage of technical development and the intensity of training. - Howse & McCormack in Anatomy, Dance Technique and Injury Prevention.

After two years having weekly pointe lessons, which in my mind seemed like an eternity, I finally got given a moment to shine at our end of year performance of The Little Mermaid. My little solo as Flounder started with a gallop on pointe and it was all a lot more challenging than I had anticipated, but the excitement of being there, showcasing my abilities, was huge! My teacher (and mom) Marcia Lago was always pushing me beyond my comfort zone. I soon realised that it would take me many, many, many years to build the strength and control needed for a clean pointework, and it is something I have constantly tried to improve over the course of my career.

Flounder in The Little Mermaid.

At eleven years old mom took me to a very peculiar shop in Sao Paulo to get my first pair of 'imported' shoes. Nearly everything inside the shop was purple, from window decorations to little details in the shelves and ballet garments on display. I was mesmerised and wanted to buy everything (though I preferred pink) but was soon woken up from my daydream and guided to a thorough pointe shoe fitting.

I remember an old lady drawing my feet on a piece of white paper, getting the exact measurements and appropriate length and width, and matching them with numerous pairs of French, English, and Japanese shoes. It took me ages to pick one, but I chose them carefully and took very good care of them. In those days, it was very difficult to get a hand on those imported shoes; they were very expensive, I'd only wear them for rehearsals leading up to big performances.

At 11 y-old wearing a new pair of 'Chacotts'.

Along my days as a student and professional dancer, I have switched back and forth from different brands, finally settling for Bloch but never feeling completely satisfied with them. I was quite happy wearing Gaynor Mindens for three years until I moved to Canada and the school asked me to try a couple of different brands they believed were more suited for my age. I guess this was the beginning of my love-hate relationship with my pointe shoes.

After graduation I switched back to Gaynors, only to be told a few weeks into my new job that I would have to get used to wearing something else. In early days, there was a preconception that Gaynor Mindens led to dancers having ‘week feet’ because of their springiness and the way they are made. Truth is, I never found another brand that would feel as comfortable and reliable, but when trying them now, they feel too different; I can't adapt to their peculiarities anymore.

Wearing my everlasting Gaynors.
At school in Canada with Freeds.

When Marie Taglioni first appeared en pointe in 1832, her shoes were nothing more than satin slippers darned at the sides and toes to help hold their shape. Luckily, things have evolved since. Generally speaking, pointe shoes of today are made from layers of paper (not wood) glued together and shaped into a ‘box’ with a flat front. Sometimes they are made of plastic, like Gaynors. Their sole consists of a piece of leather (or plastic) varying in resistance. Pointe shoes usually have a short life cycle, lasting for about a week or so, or even days. Because they are handmade, they are never the same. Some batches may be harder and last longer, others softer.

Professional dancers take their pointe shoes very seriously, experimenting with different brands throughout their careers and customizing them to their needs. One may like the shoe but ask for a higher vamp or a softer shank, take some inches off the side fabric or insert a heel pin… there are endless ways of tailoring them, but every tweak can make a huge difference to how the shoe fits. Choosing the wrong pair can interfere with our dancing as much as an injury would.

Anatomy of a pointe shoe.

During one of our last performances of The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House, where I was dancing the Columbine Doll in Act 1, I thought I had done a mediocre job and, of course, came out of the stage blaming it on my shoes. They were too soft! As soon as I arrived in the changing room, I was going to chuck them in the bin. But before I could make a strike, our ballet mistress came in and said:

‘What shoes were you wearing tonight, Isabella? They look really nice! You should save them for your shows of Clara.’

I started laughing and had to explain that I was about to get rid of them, thinking they were no good. I did try wearing them the following evening, this time as a Mirliton, just to double check that it wasn’t bad luck or me having a bad day, but deep down I knew they didn’t feel right. Sometimes, what looks nice and pretty is not necessarily our safest and most comfortable option.

Preparing shoes for Clara.

Besides a heavy sewing routine of ribbons and elastics and darning, ballerinas like to prepare their shoes very carefully for each role. We may spend hours in front of the mirror auditioning a pile of them for a particular performance. I like mine very soft and quiet, which means I have to bang them against a hard surface (usually a piece of granite in the female dressing room), hitting each side at least 20 times. Some dancers like hammering them, probably a smarter idea.

I shave their backs with a Stanley knife and do a light darning around the tip; once used, I hang them up to dry at the end of the day to help them last longer. I am quite superstitious about my shoes and when I find a pair that I like, I save it for main rehearsals or the stage, getting all the life out of them until they are broken beyond repair.

At the Royal Ballet, we are given as many pairs of pointe shoes as we need to get us through the season. We make trips to the shoe room every couple of days to get new pairs to sew and find our cubby holes refilled with new batches. The shoe department ladies ensure they have been tailored to our needs and chase off any delayed arrivals, checking that our stock doesn't run out. One can find as many as 150 pairs of pointe shoes in the shoe room at one time.

Ballerinas build an intimate relationship with their pointe shoes, and it is a very personal choice. Preparing shoes is a time consuming and very careful process which will ultimately provide comfort and safety, helping us dance and feel our best. We each take on the responsibility of finding whatever suits us best in a particular moment, whether it is a softer shoe for a jumpy variation or a hard pair to support balances, promenades, bourées and turns.

Our feet are used to being on pointe for most of the day, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get blisters, corns or bruised toenails; these are all hazards of the profession. I might have spoiled the magic, but the incredible resilience and strength of ballerina's feet is something that never ceases to amaze me. It is the pointe shoes that allow us to achieve this illusion of a light, ethereal being; bodies who defy gravity.

The Royal Ballet in Swan Lake © ROH

A video on how company dancers prepare their pointe shoes.

An interesting video on 'the foot' by The Australian Ballet.

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