Breaking In Shoes
by Ashley Ellis
You may have heard of dancers referring to their body as their instrument. It is so true, and we must constantly take care of our instrument so that we are able to ‘play our music’ to the best of our ability.
With this said, for a ballerina there is a whole other very important factor that comes into play. Pointe Shoes. Keeping with the same analogy, I’d say that pointe shoes are like the bow to our violin. They go together to create the ‘music’ of a ballet dancer. How she feels in her shoes can greatly affect her dancing experience.
There are a number of pointe shoe brands out there, and a dancer will usually try many different makes and models before settling on one. My very first pair of pointe shoes were Contempora by Capezio (they were pink and very small, hehe). After that I spent a few years in pointe shoes made by Sansha before settling on FREED Studios Professional, which is what I wear to this day.
I will admit though, that I am currently testing out the waters with a new pointe shoe, FREED Classic. They aren’t far from what I am using now but as any ballerina can tell you, once you find your shoe it can be a real challenge to switch brands. The reason for this is that after spending so much time in your chosen pointe shoes they become a part of your foot so to speak; you learn how to articulate and “use” your feet in these shoes.
The biggest difference between what I have been wearing, the ‘studios’, and the new (to me) ‘classics’ is that the studios are what we call a stock shoe and the classics are handmade. The truth is that I could go on and on about the differences between the two, but well, for your sake I won’t bore you with ALL of the details!
Because the FREED classics are handmade they can be custom ordered for the personal needs of individual dancers. This means that they will not only fit better by shaping them around a dancer’s foot, but can also accentuate strengths and give more support or pliability where it’s needed. In fact, the alterations that can be made to these shoes are seemingly endless–it’s really quite remarkable.
Despite all of the wonderful aspects of having a shoe made just for you, it takes time to get it just right, and when it comes down to it you must feel at home in them. As for me, I am still at home in my stock shoes.
It seems that the general thought that comes to mind when thinking of pointe shoes is, “ouch!”. I don’t know how many people have asked me if the box is made of wood (no, not wood, just many layers of fabric and glue). It’s funny because once you reach a certain point in your professional career you wear them so many hours throughout each day that it really isn’t all that painful. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t walking on clouds, but your feet become strong, and do toughen up over time.
That said, most dancers will still create some sort of little barrier between the toes and the actual box of the shoe for protection, some of which include: various kinds of sports tape, masking tape, duct tape, toe pads made of foam, wool, rubber—even gel-filled ones. I wear a simple toe pad made from a thin layer of lamb’s wool. I actually didn’t wear anything in my shoes until about two years ago. My teacher didn’t let us when I started out on pointe so that we would really have to feel the floor and articulate our feet better.
One of the most important things to know is learning how to break-in your pointe shoes. They are not the kind of shoes that you can just slide on your foot and wear. If you do—well—they will feel like wood and cause much more pain than they should. This ritual is yet another aspect of wearing pointe shoes that is individual to each dancer.
How I prepare my shoes:
- Cut the shank.
- Add glue to the middle of the shank where I need the most support.
- Sew the insole back down so it doesn’t roll up under my arch.
- Step on the box, then work it a bit to soften the upper box area.
- Wear them a bit to break them a little more and form them more to my feet.
- Bang them really hard on cement so they are quiet as well as easier to move in.
- Glue the inside upper portion of the box.
- Sew on elastic and ribbons.
Even though there are those days when I get to that 6th hour of rehearsal and my feet are simply swollen and ready to be soaked in a big bucket of ICE, I do truly love dancing on pointe; with the movement qualities that it allows, and illusions that it can create.
Boston Ballet presents Lady of the Camellias, running from February 26th through March 8th. Tickets are available here. See Ashley perform the lead role of Marguerite at the Saturday matinee.
Contributing writer Ashley Ellis is a principal dancer at Boston Ballet. Ellis hails from Torrance, California and she received her dance training at the South Bay Ballet under the direction of Diane Lauridsen. Other instruction included Alicia Head, Mario Nugara, Charles Maple, and Kimberly Olmos.
She began her professional career with American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company and later joined American Ballet Theatre as a company dancer. In 1999, Ellis won the first prize at the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Award, and went on to become the recipient of the Coca Cola scholarship award in 2000 and 2001. She has performed in Spain with Angel Corella’s touring group and joined Corella Ballet in 2008 as a soloist. In 2011, Ellis joined Boston Ballet as a second soloist. She was promoted to soloist in 2012 and principal dancer in 2013.
Her repertoire includes Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty; Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker; Natalia Makarova’s La Bayadère; Marius Petipa’s Swan Lake; Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse, VIII and Polyphonia; Harald Lander’s Études; Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides; Rudolf Nureyev’s Don Quixote; Christopher Bruce’s Rooster; George Balanchine’s Serenade, Coppélia, Symphony in Three Movements, Symphony in C, and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux; Clark Tippet’s Bruch Violin Concerto; Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room; Stanton Welch’s Clear; Angel Corella’s String Sextet; Wayne McGregor’s Chroma; Jorma Elo’s Awake Only; Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free; Jiří Kylián’s Wings of Wax, Symphony of Psalms, and Petite Mort.
Alabama Ballet company member Nadine Barton on pointe shoes and foot care.
1. What brand and model of pointe shoe do you wear?
2. How long have you worn this model?
For about five years.
3. Why does this model work best for your feet?
I like the way the model shapes to my feet as well as provides support in the right ways. I never liked having space from the floor when I am up on pointe, and, with these, I can always feel the floor.
4. Does anything about the structure of your feet create challenges for pointe work?
by Cara Marie Gary
I began taking pointe classes when I was eight years old. I still have my first pair of Leo’s pointe shoes. They’re so small and narrow I don’t think I could fit my first toe and bunion inside them now! One of my ballet instructors, Anita Pacylowski-Justo, helped me transition to the shoe she wore as a dancer. Every since trying on her Bloch Serenade, my foot “fell in love” with this shoe.
I’ve tried to experiment with other brands like Chacott, Russian Pointe, Gaynor Minden, Sansha, Freed, and Capezio, but I always keep coming back to Bloch Serenade (Style: SO131L Width:D Size:2). I like this shoe because it has a wide, square platform which is good for my peasant foot (meaning that my toes are similar in length). I also like that the shank is strong enough to prevent my foot from going too far over pointe.5
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…9
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.4
by Catherine L. Tully
Pointe shoes have become an integral part of ballet as an art form and, just as each dancer has a unique pair of feet, every ballerina has their own way of preparing these shoes for class or performance. Some slam them in doors to soften them up, while others work on them with little hammers to get the feel “just right”. The break-in method can vary depending on factors such as the brand of shoe and the type of role that is being performed.
We talked a bit at the beginning of the year about these special slippers, and today we’re going in for a closer look…
Rebecca King, corps de ballet dancer with Mimi City Ballet and author of the dance blog Tendus Under A Palm Tree wears Freed pointe shoes. We asked her to share her “secret formula” for getting them ready to wear, and this is what she had to say…
“Preparing a pair of pointe shoes is as much a ritual to a ballerina as it is a necessity. Even though, as professionals, our shoes are shipped to us straight from London, made by hand with love by our chosen “makers” to our exact specifications, many dancers find it necessary to make some extra alterations. It can take dancers years to get their shoes exactly as they want them and some dancers go their entire career in search of the elusive perfect shoe.
A maker hand-builds about 30-40 pairs of shoes at Freed of London every day, each shoe costing around $100. About two-thirds of the shoes produced are created for individual dancer’s specifications. (Find out more about these fascinating pieces of art on Freed’s website.)
I wear a size four, with a double X width, made by my beloved “U” maker. On the bottom of my shoe underneath the width, he stamps his symbol, “U”, as a kind of signature; laying claim to his craftsmanship. The thing I love most about Mr. U is how aesthetically beautiful his shoes are. Something about the way the toe of the shoe is built compliments every wearer’s foot. He is a very important person in my life.
The first thing I do is remove the pesky nail from the heel of the shoe. This nail is meant to secure the paper “shank”, or the inner sole of the shoe, to the outer sole of the shoe. Once it is removed, I cut the paper shank to the shoe’s middle seam, essentially cutting it in half. Because my feet are not very good, this allows the sole of my shoe to bend and lets me point my feet to their full potential. I then glue the end of the shank to the outer sole so it does not move around as I dance.
Next, I put super glue in the tips of the shoes. When the tip of the shoe gets soft, it no longer functions like I need it to; this is my ultimate pointe shoe pet peeve. Mr. U even puts an extra piece of burlap in the tip with extra glue upon my request, but I always apply more glue for good measure.
Then I cut the satin off the top of the shoe and quickly darn around the edges. This gives me a little extra support when my shoes start to die, and also ensures that the freshly cut satin stays in place.
Finally, the ribbon process begins. I use pink ribbons secured over crisscrossed thin pink elastic. I prefer the thin elastic, as I don’t feel a lot of pressure on my ankles, while the crisscross restricts my movement laterally, helping to prevent ankle sprains.
Though this is my current process, if you check back with me in two years, I am fairly certain I will have a new procedure, as my system is constantly evolving. But as for now, I feel I can dance my best with a half shank, extra super glue, and Mr. U on my side.”
As Ms. King clearly illustrates, ballerinas have a special relationship with their pointe shoes. However, for ballet companies, the costs associated with keeping the ladies on their toes can be astronomical. According to Miami City Ballet’s website, the average pair of pointe shoes typically only last for one performance.
Here is a closer look at what ballet companies across the nation pay to keep the ladies on their toes:
Last year the dancers at Oregon Ballet Theatre used about 1,500 pairs of pointe shoes which added up to $120,000.
Texas Ballet Theatre will spend $80,000 on pointe shoes this year.
Miami City Ballet dancers wear 3,000 pairs of pointe shoes each season for a total cost of $200,000.
Last season Cincinnati Ballet spent $82,000 on pointe shoes for the company.
And New York City Ballet? Their dancers can go through 40 to 50 pairs each performance. This means a staggering total of 8,500+ pairs of pointe shoes each year. I don’t even want to do the math on that one. (But according to this article on The Huffington Post, it adds up to $500,000!)2
At first when I was asked to describe how I break in my pointe shoes and prepare them for the stage I was perplexed. The reality is not much at all! Most ballerinas (including myself up until last year) have a very religious routine to what they do to make the shoe fit perfectly. Each individual dancer’s foot is so unique that no two dancers use the exact same process. Some glue the box and use shellac to make the shoe last longer. Others may darn the tip of the shoe for better balance, break the shank, sew the sides down… the list goes on and on.
I was one of those dancers until I was in New York one summer finding myself at a standstill with my shoes. I just couldn’t seem to find the right pointe shoe for my foot. I was discouraged and unable to find the perfect match. Many shoes may have looked beautiful yet I wasn’t able to perform in them, or they were great to dance in and just didn’t look right. Some died more quickly than I could sew a new pair, had me preparing them daily, hurt my feet, didn’t look as beautiful, or were just the wrong fit.
While in NYC a teacher had told me that I should wear either Freed or Bloch. The only problem with that was every pair of Freeds or Blochs I had ever tried just didn’t do me any justice. Nothing against Freed or Bloch as some of my favorite dancers bring so much life to the stage wearing them. They just did not work for me.
I needed a shoe that not only looked beautiful on my foot aesthetically, but was also comfortable enough to dance in forty hours a week and without dying after one class! I finally came across my match in Gaynor Minden. Some dancers don’t believe that this pointe shoe is any good. In fact, the topic between ballerinas, teachers, and coaches is very controversial.
I agree to disagree; this shoe has changed my career. Gaynor Minden pointe shoes are far from traditional. They are like Mac and PC. They do the same thing in the end but are just different technology. Both are computers and some people prefer one to the other. I happen to be a modern day American ballerina and I feel very proud to have the opportunity to grow in these particular pointe shoes.
The pointe shoe is a ballerina’s tool, and are most important item in my dance bag. I came back from FHL and ATFL surgery on my left ankle in 2010 and needed a shoe that was extremely supportive yet supple enough to help me gain back my flexibility and line. I have fallen in love with wearing Gaynor Minden’s. They offer me everything I need as a ballet dancer. They are consistent and last a long time so I can spend more time perfecting my work and artistry while spending less time worrying about my pointe shoe.
I first started out wearing a stock Gaynor Minden shoe then a few months later they started making me a custom shoe made specifically for my feet and the specs that I needed to have the best line. All I have to do now is un-wrap them, sew on my ribbons, elastic, and I am all set.
Gaynor Minden pointe shoes are not like the traditional pointe shoe. They are a completely new technology and generation of the pointe shoe. If dancers are evolving like they are, then why not the pointe shoe? That’s exactly what Gaynor Minden has done. They were tired of how painful all the pointe shoes were and how they would die so fast. On an average pointe shoe, you get to a place where it is broken in perfectly and that moment lasts for such a short time. With Gaynor Minden, it is always the same. I know what I am getting when I put that shoe on. I love that my shoe has a consistency I can rely on, especially in a career where the rep demands are so diverse.
Gaynor Minden pointe shoes are made of an elastomeric shank and box, cushioned moisture control lining, and a flat free of pleats bottom. They are also made to be extremely quiet with Poron, “an impact shock absorption system”. I cannot say enough amazing things about this shoe. What I love most about the way I prepare my pointe shoes is that it is so minimal which creates less anxiety and more time for fine tuning what matters the most, which is what we bring the the stage.
Thanks to this innovative pointe shoe, few stitches with a needle and thread and I am good to go! Simple, clean and a new take on tradition.1