by Emily Kate Long
Currently I’m in rehearsals for Cinderella, so the next few installments of Finding Balance will explore a range of topics relevant to that story. For this post, I’ll begin at the bottom with pointe shoes. They are a dancer’s glass slippers, and this is my own personal fairy tale: the search for my most appropriate shoe.
I’ve worn pointe shoes for twelve of my fifteen dancing years. In middle and high school I tried what seemed like almost every shoe out there, then performed surgeries major and minor on the shoes I chose to try to engineer the perfect pair. Darning of toes, slicing of vamps and shanks, re-threading of drawstrings, stitching of sides—so much fuss over footwear! It shouldn’t be that complicated, right?
Towards the end of January I found myself at my first pointe shoe fitting in nearly ten years. After flip-flopping between Freed and Chacott for all that time, I decided to try once again to explore some other options. I had one rule: I wanted to be able to put them on and dance. No fuss, no alterations. After trying on half a dozen or so different styles and brands, I decided to go right back to Chacott Veronese, the very first type of shoe I wore when I started pointe at age 12.
I was nervous! All those things I had been doing to my shoes to “enhance” them had become like security blankets or crutches. I felt like my feet were naked! The reality check was recognizing how much about my pointe work has changed over the past few years and trusting that I no longer need those crutches.
I spent much of my pre-professional training trying to compensate for what I believed were inadequate ballet feet. I wore “farches” (arch pads, like a padded bra for your feet). I stuck my feet under a dresser for twenty minutes each morning (a terrible idea, in case you were wondering). I wore my shoes really soft so I could push far over them and superficially achieve a more curved foot. Yikes!
Placing undue stress on the distal joints of the foot.
The result was that I never knew where my foot was going to be until it rammed into the floor. Slips and falls over the medial corners of my shoes were daily events. Bunions, bruised toenails, chronic ankle pain… I cringe to think of the gambles I took with the health of my feet, knees, and ankles. I believe that ballet is not inherently harmful to the human body. Distortions (even minor ones) cause injuries, and good equipment and good technique prevent them. I was due for an overhaul!
Re-learning pointe technique in my early twenties was confusing and frustrating at first, but patience and persistence have paid off. The changes have made it possible for my feet to be in control of and in harmony with my shoes instead of at their mercy! I learned how keep my toes vertical and allow the arch and instep to do the bending.
Examples of vertical toes with articulated arch
The ankle is designed to do this job because it is a weight-bearing joint. The metatarsals, phalanges, and the dorsal metatarsal and medial collateral ligaments are not. (Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy, 4th ed., plates 527-8)
Working on pointe in a more anatomically correct way has also had a positive effect on the overall muscular shape of my legs and the structure of my feet. Where I used to feel it necessary to fake a good arch, I now feel confident that the shape and articulation of my feet complement my overall line.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter: the importance of finding a shoe that a) fits and functions well and b) aesthetically matches one’s foot/body/leg line. Our style is partly dictated by our function, our function is partly dictated by our structure, and our shoes should complement both of those things.
To illustrate, here’s a bit about some of the shoes I’ve tried:
Chacott Veronese: My very first style of shoe. I loved them always and let myself be talked out of them time and time again. It feels good to be home! I can sew them and go, and their minimal shape complements my slight feet. They are made with a bouncy kind of glue instead of paste, and need some extra glue before wear because of the softness of the box relative to the shank.
Freed Classic and Classic Pro: I chose these partly for aesthetic, partly for the Pro’s 3/4 shank. I loved the minimal-ness of Classic and the U shape vamp but the paste consistently gave out after less than thirty minutes of rehearsal! Eating through pair after pair of shoes was not a good use of my time or my company’s money. They were loud because of the amount of extra glue it took to make them worth it, which was awfully distracting. My preferred makers were also not always available. Pro lasted much longer, but felt like too much stuff on my foot.
Ushi Nagar: These were professional hand me downs. I liked that they had the same bounciness as Chacott, and it felt glamorous to wear somebody else’s special order shoes. They were a shoe of convenience, suitable but not ideal.
For me, this Cinderella story is also has a moral: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! I was born with feet that go with my body—not the “ideal” ballet foot by any stretch, but aesthetically adequate and sufficiently functional. Optimizing their work has refined their appearance. I’ve learned to love and appreciate them for what they are and what they do for me. As good workers, they deserve equipment that helps them out and shows them off!
Assistant Editor Emily Kate Long began her dance education in South Bend, Indiana, with Kimmary Williams and Jacob Rice, and graduated in 2007 from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School’s Schenley Program. She has spent summers studying at Ballet Chicago, Pittsburgh Youth Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, Miami City Ballet, and Saratoga Summer Dance Intensive/Vail Valley Dance Intensive, where she served as Program Assistant. Ms Long attended Milwaukee Ballet School’s Summer Intensive on scholarship before being invited to join Milwaukee Ballet II in 2007.
Ms Long has been a member of Ballet Quad Cities since 2009. She has danced featured roles in Deanna Carter’s Ash to Glass and Dracula, participated in the company’s 2010 tour to New York City, and most recently performed principal roles in Courtney Lyon’s Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Cinderella. She is also on the faculty of Ballet Quad Cities School of Dance, where she teaches ballet, pointe, and repertoire classes.
In honor of the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day holiday (and because one of our themes this quarter is dance shoes) today we’re taking a closer look at shoes for Irish dance. We asked the well-known Chicago-area Irish dance instructor, Sheila Tully Driscoll to share some information about these shoes with us – and she was kind enough to oblige…
What are the main types of shoes are used in Irish step dance?
Irish dancers wear two types of soft shoes called Ghillies & Reel Shoes. Ghillies fit more like ballet slippers and are made of black leather, with a leather sole and a very flexible body. They lace from toe to ankle and do not make sounds against the dance surface. They are worn by female dancers for the light jig, the reel, the single jig, the slip jig, and group dances with two or more people.
The second kind of soft shoe is worn by male dancers – these are called “reel shoes” and are similar to jazz shoes in black leather, with fiberglass heels that can be clicked together while dancing. Some male dancers do not wear fiberglass heels. The men’s steps may be choreographed in a different style to girls’ in order to take advantage of the heels and to avoid feminine movements in steps.
Irish dancers also wear a pair of hard shoes, which are much bulkier and typically have fiberglass tips for a louder sound. dancers often refer to them as “Heavies” or Jig shoes. Both are traditionally made of black leather.
Do the shoes require breaking in, and if so, how is that typically done?
Hard shoes need breaking in by wearing them in as much as possible! Doesn’t matter if you’re walking, running, dancing, skipping – the shoes need to be worn in. Repeatedly bending the shoe also helps soften the leather. Some of the dancers use leather softener like Hot Glove cream.
Additionally, make sure the shoes fit CORRECTLY. Nothing is worse than an ill-fitting shoe! The shoes should have a snug fit at the start, allowing for possible stretching of the leather.
On average, how much do the shoes cost?
Soft shoes are around $90 and hard shoes around $180.
Can you share any interesting information about Irish step dance shoes in terms of their history?
The first hard shoes had wooden taps with metal nails. It was common practice in the 17th and 18th century to hammer nails into the soles of a shoe in order to increase the life of the shoe. Dancers used the sounds created by the nails to create the rhythms that characterize hard shoe dancing.
How important are the shoes to overall performance?
Since Irish dance is focused on rhythm and foot placement, it’s ALL about the shoes.
How young can an Irish Dancer start?
We start dancers around 5 years old although we have had a few younger dancers if they are ready.
What is some advice you would give to new dancers?
Anything new is hard. A lot of practice trains your mind, body and feet to move correctly and helps you practice timing as you learn to step to the beats. Also, you may be sore once you start dancing. Buy Sportscreme (or Flexall, or Icyhot, etc.) – its proven to be a lifesaver for many dancers! A little dab of Sportscreme after you dance takes all the pain away.
About Sheila Tully: As Founder and President of the Tully Academy of Irish Dance, Sheila Tully Driscoll has been teaching Irish Dance lessons for over 45 years. A champion Irish dancer herself, she began teaching Irish Dance in her mother’s basement while she was in college. Sheila received her T.C.R.G. designation (official Irish Dancing Teacher certification) in 1972 and her A.D.C.R.G. designation (official Irish Dancing Adjudication certification) in 1976. Today, she is the longest tenured Irish dancing teacher in the Chicago area and is highly regarded nationally and worldwide. She is a member of An Coimisian Le Rinci Gaelacha, the international governing body of Irish Dancing and adjudication as well as a member of the Irish Dance Teachers Association of North America and the Irish Dance Teachers Association of Mid-America. Taught by Pat Roche, one of the pioneers of Irish Dancing in Chicago, Sheila continues her hands on teaching in the classroom as well as participating as a judge at Irish dancing events.
Sheila’s Irish Dancing Academy, which opened its beautiful new studio in Glenview in 2003, is highly regarded in the Irish Dance community as her programs have produced many champion dancers and winning teams. Tully Dancers have successfully competed in many regional and national competitions as well as the World Irish Dance competition in Ireland. Her dancers have also performed all over North America entertaining a wide variety of audiences.
Visit our Website: www.tullyirishdancers.com
Interesting! I had never before heard of vegan ballet slippers, but I’ve tried them myself and they are terrific! Better still, they are cruelty-free–not made with any animal products! We caught up with Cynthia King who sells these unique shoes and asked a few questions about how all this got started…
1. How did Cynthia King Vegan Ballet Slippers begin?
Knowing animals suffered for ballet shoes takes away from the uplifting and unifying spirit of dance. As a teacher, dancers were asking me for shoe recommendations and there were none I could recommend in good conscience (since they all contained animal products). So I decided to create my own.
2. What exactly does it mean to have vegan slippers?
Cynthia King Vegan Ballet Slippers are vegan because, unlike other ballet slippers, they are not made using leather. When dancers wear them, they are not dancing on the skins of dead animals.
3. Was it difficult to get this endeavor up and running?
To start the ballet slipper line, I did a great deal of research in the areas of textiles and manufacturing; I went door-to-door where synthetic textiles were being sold and talked to everyone I could. After a lengthy development process, the first shoes were ready in 2003. Today they come in three colors, sized for children and adults.
4. How have the slippers been received in the dance community?
The reception has been fantastic across the board because so many dancers love animals. The slippers were selected as the required shoe by world-renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for two of the organization’s innovative camps, in 2011 and 2012. We receive orders from dancers and dance studios around the world. The shoes have been embraced by non-vegans and vegans alike. Dancers love our shoes!
5. What has been the high point in all of this for you thus far?
The high point is each time we sell a pair of slippers, knowing another dancer is taking a kind step for the animals.
If you are interested in ordering a pair of these shoes, visit their site today.
Disclosure: 4dancers has been compensated for the ad and post on 4dancers.0
The National Museum of Dance has an exhibit about pointe shoes that dancers and dance-lovers will want to check out…
We reached out to Assistant Director Sarah Hall Weaver to learn more about it and are excited to share some of the details with you here…
Tell readers a bit about your upcoming exhibition, En Pointe!
En Pointe! is an exhibit that explores the pointe shoe from many different angles – how they are made, how they are designed to suit individual feet, how they came to be what they are today, and how they are integrated into the lives of both amateur and professional dancers. We know that the public is fascinated, and even sometimes daunted by these unique shoes. For a lot of people they are the very symbol of everything they love about dance but for others they can be very intimidating if you have never experienced them on your own feet or had someone give you the opportunity to get closer. The exhibit will suit both audiences – we want young dancers to learn more about their shoes, and we want people that know nothing to learn to love them as much as we do!
Where did the idea for this particular exhibition come from?
The idea for this exhibit came from one of our Board of Directors members, Leslie Roy Heck. Leslie is a former soloist of the New York City Ballet and during her time with the company she was privileged to work with George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Peter Martins. Leslie now owns a dance retail store in our city of Saratoga Springs, NY called Saratoga Dance, Etc. where she and her staff fit shoes for students of all ages. She is also the founder of Bunheads Dance Accessories, a product line that was acquired by Ballet Makers Inc., the worldwide distributor of Capezio footwear and apparel. What can I say?…We couldn’t have asked for a better expert to lead this project!
What was the process like of getting the items together for this exhibition?
Every exhibit is its own unique experience, but this one was pretty intense. We worked with six sponsoring pointe shoe companies [Bloch, Capezio, Freed, Gaynor Minden, Grishko, and Suffolk], over ten different dance companies, six individual principal dancers, dozens of national participants in our pointe shoe decorating contest, several fine artists, and a slew of other collaborators. There was a lot of communication and organization back and forth but the overwhelming positive responses we received assured us of how important this project was. If anything, the hardest part was making the decisions of where to draw the line. There is so much to say about these seemingly simple, little, pink objects, we could probably have filled the entire Museum. We just had to keep in mind our mission to explain the essential basics to pointe shoe newcomers, and to present some new ideas to pointe shoe pros.
Would you share some of the highlights of the exhibit?
One of my favorite sections is the interviews from five principal ballerinas from five different American companies. I think it’s really important for pre-professional dancers of all ages and levels to hear from their on-stage heroes. The advice they give can’t be said enough and it is so encouraging for young students to hear that these stars had similar struggles when they were beginning dancers. I also love the section that talks about men dancing en pointe. It’s very forward thinking in terms of strengthening and training, and it is always interesting to see on stage. My favorite thing about the exhibit as a whole though is that the shoes and accessories that are attached to the text boards are there for guests to actually touch. Just being able to feel the texture and strength of the items is a great way for people to become familiar with the strange world of ballet.
Can you share a few of the other exhibitions that you will have coming up this year?
We have a lot coming up for our 2013 season! We will be welcoming an incredible bronze sculpture and pastel exhibit from artist Andrew DeVries, and this year’s Art in the Foyer photography exhibition will be a selection from Jordan Matter’s Dancers Among Us series, which has become a national sensation. Like many other organizations all over the world, we are also joining in on the celebration of the Rite of Spring’s 100th anniversary with a special exhibit spanning the history of Nijinsky’s original ballet and the dozens of choreographers since that have braved Stravinsky’s brilliant score. And perhaps one of our most highly anticipated projects in the last several years is the complete renovation of the Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame. The new space will honor its forty-eight amazing inductees with more video, more images, and more artifacts than ever [though there will be fifty by August as we will be inducting two HUGE dance icons in coming months]. It’s going be an exciting season, and we can’t wait to share it with you!
En Pointe! is scheduled to run from March 20, 2012 through November 24, 2013 and is sponsored by Bloch, Capezio, Freed, Gaynor Minden, Grishko, and Suffolk.0
by Dorothy Stephenson
Known as the “melting pot of dances,” Clogging came about when the nation’s Irish, Scottish, English, and Dutch-German ancestors settled in the mountains of Appalachia on the east coast of the United States. As different cultures came together, their native dances began to intertwine signaling the birth of Clogging, an old dance form that continues to grow, evolve, and become more popular everyday. As clogging spread through the nation, other influences, such as Cherokee Indian, African, and Russian, contributed to the newly formed dance style.
I have been Clogging for twenty-three years. Ten years ago, when telling someone I was a “Clogger,” I would have to explain myself and how “Yes, Clogging is similar to what Fred Astaire did,” but “No, it’s not what Michael Flatley does.” Nowadays, when I vocally label myself as a “Clogger,” I usually get a “Wow! I love Clogging!” This dance form has appeared on stages as simple as county fairs all the way up to national television on shows like “So You Think You Can Dance,” “America’s Got Talent,” and “America’s Best Dance Crew.” And the tool that each clogger needs? Their shoes, of course!
Just like Clogging, Clogging shoes have evolved and changed since the dance form’s predecessors began in places like Wales with wooden clogs and Ireland with hard shoes. In the 15th century, dancers replaced the original wooden clog with a leather-topped shoe that had a full wooden sole. By the 16th century, dancers added separate wooden pieces on the heel and toe of the shoe.
These pieces, also called “flats,” are where the term “flatfooting” came from. Flatfooting, an ancestor of today’s American Clogging, is still practiced and respected in the clogging world today. In fact, Clogging competitions have a special solo category devoted specifically to flatfooting, and Cloggers of all ages will gladly clear the dance floor to marvel at dance patriarchs who will shake the dust off of their old flats to perform one more time.
Throughout Clogging’s evolution, dancers added another important element to their shoes – taps. Two “jingle” taps (also known as Steven Stompers) are attached to each shoe – one tap on the heel and one tap on the toe. With a flat stationary tap directly attached to the shoe, a dangling or “jingle” tap hangs slightly from the stationary tap to create a double tap that makes the signature clogging sound, which features just a little more sound than tap shoes.
Regular taps cover only the bottom of the shoe while buck taps have a small metal lip that bends over the toe. Where the regular tap didn’t make sound when a dancer stuck their toe, the buck toe creates sound and provides further support if contemporary dancers are executing toe stands. Present-day clogging shoes are usually black and white though some teams will occasionally branch out taking the stage with silver, red, or other colored shoes.
When original Appalachian Clogging began, it was an individual form of dance where the dancer used their feet to turn out rhythmic percussive sounds to accompany music that was most likely bluegrass. Today, more complicated steps and more influences of different dances, such as hip hop and pointe, have dribbled into Clogging and have further urged the evolution of Clogging shoes. With steps, such as toe stands (where Cloggers balance on their toes), increasingly complicated choreography is made easier with a more flexible shoe. Clogging shoes with split-soles have emerged. Some feature a full sole with a soft leather upper, such as the Director’s Cut shoe, while others, such as Signatures Split Soles, have a complete split sole with hard leather on the toe and ball of the foot and the traditional heel block. There is no sole to support the arch of the foot, only leather.
As more intricate steps developed, the full sole shoe restricted the movement of a dancer’s toes making it difficult and sometimes impossible to execute new steps. Split-sole shoes make it much easier for a dancer to bend their foot to achieve optimum sound and execute toe work.
Whether it was in the 15th century or the 21st century, Clogging shoes have always been used the same way – by striking the heel, the toe, or both against the floor to create rhythmic sounds usually to the downbeat of the music. If you haven’t seen Clogging, check it out. It is truly a dance form that has something for every personality – young, old, city, country, traditional, contemporary – and Clogging choreography can accompany a wide variety of music ranging from country and bluegrass to 1940’s swing and big band to jazz, hip hop, and even rap. The sky is the limit.
Want to see some cloggers in action? Here’s a video of Rhythmic Alliance competing with their Line Formations routine:
Dorothy Stephenson began her clogging career in 1990 when her mother enrolled her with the Little Switzerland Cloggers. Today, she leads Little Switzerland along with two other groups – Rhythmic Alliance, a competitive team, and Sundance Express, a professional performance troupe.
She also owns Sundance Studios & Productions Company, a dance studio and productions company specializing in clogging instruction and performance.0