He looks over at me with that twinkle in his eyes, and I see the mischievous 7-year-old boy gleam through my husband’s 32-year-old self.
“Come on babe… just do it. Just show them your feet… please?” and turning toward his friends – okay more like acquaintances… practical strangers to me – he proudly says, “You guys have gotta see these things…”
I shoot a half glance-half glare back at him and he knows exactly my train of thought. But how can I be mad at him when he’s looking at me like that? When he’s so proud of them for me? How can I really be that embarrassed by my “worker tools,” as he puts it? After all, that is what they are, callouses and all… And it could be worse… He could ask me to put my leg over my head, or have them guess my weight.
I meekly slip off my loafers and hesitantly raise my gaze to meet their slightly horrified faces.
“Um…. Wow. Aghh… Yeah. So do they hurt? Because they look like they hurt.”
That’s the typical reaction I get whenever pedestrians (non-dancers, that is) see my very ugly ballerina feet – and they are very ugly. Our physical therapist, Boyd Bender, actually keeps a photo of them on his iPhone to show any of his clients who might feel self-conscious about their own toes…
And ever since Center Stage and that scene where Jody Sawyer takes off her pointe shoes to show a very bloody blister (you know the one…), it has been a point of fascination – pun slightly intended.
The funny thing, I find, is what we consider “pretty feet” in the dance world has nothing to do with how pristine they look in flip-flops… That’s relatively easy to accomplish: buff down those callouses and shellac a bit of red nail polish and voila! You’re good to go… ish.
There’s only so much you can do for those bunions…
The hard part is getting those feet to look pretty in pointe shoes… harder still to get the pointe shoe to cooperate with you. To conjure the effect of weightless, effortless floating; balancing or turning on a dime – these are hallmarks of ballet and yet not easy feats by any means. I can’t always blame every problem I have on the shoes, but sometimes they really do have a mind of their own!
Well after 19 years of wearing these mini instruments of torture I’ve learned a few tricks to making them work for me, instead of the other way around…
At PNB we’re blessed to have access to beautifully made shoes. Most of us have special order shoes hand crafted by the skilled cobblers at Freed of London and customized to our exact specifications. So fortunately I don’t have to do as much “doctoring” to them as I used to… Which really is a blessing for me because, I’ll admit it, I’m quite lazy when it comes to sewing new shoes…
Breaking the Pointe Shoes
I start off by “breaking” my shoes. This part is always the most shocking. It was especially so for my mom. Seeing me tear up the shoes she had just spent a chunk of money on… well it was a little hard for her to stomach.
I peel back the shank of the shoe from the satin and I actually tear and/or cut off the shank at about the mid-way point. Some people call this ¾ shanking their shoes but mine are, well kind of half-shanked. Each person’s arch is going to be different. You want it to hit a little below your arch when your foot is pointed in the shoe.
There are a couple reasons I do this: one, because it makes it a whole lot easier to point my feet in the shoes; two, it enables me to get over my foot when I’m on pointe. I don’t have to struggle to get up (or stay up) onto pointe and have a better chance of being on my leg.
Some dancers choose to simply bend the shank where their arch is instead of cutting it off altogether – this can prevent the dreaded under the foot blister that’s nearly impossible to cushion. I find that’s not enough for my foot. Just bending doesn’t allow me to get all the way over my foot, so I just cut it out. If I feel the shank digging in I’ll either remove the sole lining and cover it all with duct tape or I’ll very carefully shave the edge of the shank down to a 45˚ angle with a box cutter.
I step on the top of the box to flatten it out a bit and I also pop the tip of each shoe. This releases the shank at the very tip so I can more easily point my toes. This can be a bit tricky to accomplish depending on how much paste they use in the shoe.
I put the ball of the shoe (where the ball of the foot would be) over the edge of a barre or a bench and press downward on the tip of the box. A nice big “pop” sound should follow. Some shoes need this — others don’t.
I find that this also helps keep the shoes from “bubbling” – my term for when a broken-in shoe decides it wants to be on demi-pointe and starts to bubble out at the ball of the foot instead of being one long line from toe to arch.
Doctoring the Pointe Shoes
There are so many different ways to sew your pointe shoes and I don’t profess to be the expert. Thankfully I’ve never lost a ribbon on stage although I’ve definitely had my close calls before…
I use waxed white dental floss to sew my ribbons and elastics and I double it up (just tie the ends together once threaded through the eye of the needle). I find the wax gives it a little extra strength and grip. And well, it’s pretty cheap and easy to find white dental floss anywhere you go.
When sewing my shoes (a concept so many people don’t get!) I criss-cross my elastics for a little extra support. But I always sew my elastics and ribbons together to avoid the “Grecian sandal” look. You don’t want to distract people from seeing your beautiful arch with all that swirly stuff going on…
The most important part is sewing your ribbons (and elastics if you choose to criss-cross) where your arch is so you’re pulling the shoe flush to your foot. Show off that arch your mama gave ya!
I also used to “sew my shoes down,” also known at PNB as “Frankenstein-ing.” I did this when I wore stock shoes and the satin on the sides seemed to envelop my foot. It doesn’t look the prettiest, hence the nickname, but if you pinch the satin with your fingers and whip-stitch it down, it can show off your arch even more. It’s all about making those feet as pretty as possible!
A lot of dancers will also darn the tips of their boxes… This involves a lot of time and a thimble (or just really hard-core finger tips!) – things I seem to always be lacking. However this technique has been attributed to many a long balance on pointe. If your boxes always seem to be wonky you might want to YouTube the technique and give it a try!
Other Tips and Tricks
Making shoes last.
That’s always the age-old question. Well thankfully they have industrial strength (and probably quite toxic) glue that you can buy – Hot Stuff, Jet Glue… I’m sure you’ve seen it. That stuff is miraculous! Just don’t get in a fight with it… It’ll win. Believe me. My fingers, eyeballs, tights and skirts will tell you so. They have first-hand experience.
Keeping the ribbons in!
There are products that you can buy from dance catalogs/stores, or you can go the total old-school way of sewing them in. I just use a good old band-aid. The cheap brand – the glue is stronger. Just make sure you don’t peel off both sides of the paper backing before you get it slipped through your ribbons or you’ll have a sticky and ineffective mess on your hands.
Dealing with the owies: blisters, bruised toenails, and corns.
Blisters can be super painful and inhibit your ability to dance your best. You just want them to heal – to dry out and be done. I find that drying them out actually is much more painful than it needs to be. Keeping it moist with triple antibiotic ointment (Neosporin, etc.) and cushioned with either a corn pad, a second skin square (NOT New Skin… Ouch!), or fake fat will enable the skin to heal from the inside out. No cracking. Less pain.
And second skin squares or fake fat work wonders for bruised or sore toenails. They were my saving grace during Swan Lake a few years ago. And thankfully Amazon makes them super accessible.
Corns. Oh man. If you get those frequently I’d look at the width of your shoe. It might be too narrow. But if you just happen to have one get it dug out by a professional. If you can’t manage that at the moment, your best friend is going to be Anbesol (tooth numbing agent) and/or cutting a small hole in the box of your shoe. Our old director Francia Russell taught me that trick. It relieves the pressure and you can’t see it from the audience. I’m serious. It WORKS!
I slip my loafers back on and turning to the stranger-aquaintances I politely reply, “Actually, no they don’t hurt… well sometimes, but I’m used to it. Or at least I know how to deal with it.”
Yes, my feet are ugly according to the fashion magazines and well, the general opinion of most people I guess. But they do a lot for me. And all those callouses, knobs, bones and bruises I see are battle scars of a fight well fought. Because ballet is a bit of a fight if I’m honest with myself…
I’m proud of them. Thankful for them. Thankful for my pretty feet.
Pacific Northwest Ballet is currently performing Don Quixote, through February 8th, 2015. You can purchase tickets through the company’s website.
Contributor Jessika Anspach McEliece is from Bellevue, Washington. She received her training at Pacific Northwest Ballet School, beginning with Creative Movement classes and progressing through to the Professional Division.
In 2002, she joined the Suzanne Farrell Ballet as an apprentice. She joined Pacific Northwest Ballet as an apprentice in 2004 and was promoted to corps de ballet in 2005. Ms. Anspach’s writing on dance has been featured in Dance Magazine. She is also a frequent contributor to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s blog.