Breaking In Shoes
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.
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!)
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
by Emily Starling
Pointe shoes are a type of shoe used by ballerinas across the world and they enable the dancer to dance ‘on their toes’. There are many different makes, some of the most popular being Bloch, Freed and Gaynor Minden. A ballerina chooses the shoe which best suits their foot shape and range of movement of the foot itself.
Like many other types of shoe, pointe shoes must be broken in before they are worn but, rather than for comfort, this is a must for dancers in order for them to be able to perform at their best.
There are many ways of doing this some working better for certain dancers than others but in my opinion there are two stages to this process:
Making the sole flexible.
Manipulation of the toe section.
The sole must be flexible so the ballet dancer can perform all her moves to the best of her ability as well as being aesthetically pleasing to the eye. The toe section must be manipulated so the whole foot can be used with ease.
I personally use my hands to make the sole supple, having had years of experiencing different types of shoe and how the shoe feels on my foot I know to which degree I can bend them in order for me to execute all my movements with precision. This for me is the quickest and easiest method.
Manipulating the toe section is more time consuming and requires the shoe to actually be on the foot. Normally a couple of nights before I will wear them I place them in a warm place such as the airing cupboard. Then the night before I put them on and walk around my house for 15 – 20 minutes on demi pointe and do slow rises until I am happy that I can get from demi pointe to full pointe and back again with ease. The enables my feet to move freely–as close to how they would feel in flat shoes as possible. Finally, I place them back in the airing cupboard overnight so as not to undo the work I have done with them.
About the dancer: Emily Starling is 20 years old from Essex, England. She has recently graduated from Bird College in Kent, with a Diploma in Musical Theatre. Predominantly ballet-trained, Emily has been a member of Chelmsford Ballet Company for 9 years, and has recently become an Associate of the Royal Academy of Dance in London.
Stay tuned for more dancers talking about how they break in their pointe shoes as we continue our “focus on pointe” this month!0
Throughout the month we’ll be hearing a variety of things about pointe shoes–from what they do to the feet, to how they are made. Today we have Emily Kate Long with us to talk about how she breaks in her pointe shoes…
I wear Freed Classic Pro, “Anchor” maker. Since I’m unable to get special order shoes, I do a lot to mine to make them just right.
First things first: ribbons and crisscross elastic go on. I sew the heel ends of the elastics slightly towards the outside of the heel seam so the shoe won’t twist in and sickle. Then the back nail comes out, I bend the shanks and step on each shoe, and they are ready to break in with some releves.
Once the box is a little more pliable, I take a cotton drawstring (stockpiled from when I wore Chacott or borrowed from other dancers; Classic Pro have elastic drawstrings) and twist it into a little rope to sew around the platform of each shoe. I use the wear pattern on the satin to inform the placement of the darning–usually I make it so the stitching pushes me a little farther over the shoe and a little to the inside.
Darning also helps correct any lumps or imperfections on the pleats or platform and quiets the shoes down. I also sew the sides of the shoes down so my foot doesn’t look like it has a turtleneck sweater on. I think pointe shoes should look like a beautiful evening gown, complete with plunging neckline!
Step three: noise control! Loud shoes are my worst nightmare, so I mush up the box more and do lots of changements before I glue them. Then a light coating of glue on the inside, mainly on the pleats and along the shank. Once the glue cures they are ready to go. I usually keep three or four pairs ready: harder for class and classical rehearsals, softer for contemporary work, and one really dead comfy pair for rehearsals that involve a lot of standing around.
About the dancer:
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. Ms Long attended Milwaukee Ballet School’s Summer Intensive on scholarship before being invited to join Milwaukee Ballet II in 2007. She also has spent summers studying at Saratoga Summer Dance Intensive, Miami City Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, Pittsburgh Youth Ballet, and Ballet Chicago.
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 the title role in Courtney Lyon’s Cinderella and the role of Clara in The Nutcracker. Prior to joining Ballet Quad Cities Ms Long performed with Milwaukee Ballet and MBII in Michael Pink’s The Nutcracker and Candide Overture, Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadére, Balanchine’s Who Cares?, Bournonville’s Flower Festival in Genzano and Napoli, and original contemporary and neoclassical works by Tom Teague, Denis Malinkine, Rolando Yanes, and Petr Zaharadnicek. She also collaborated extensively with the Milwaukee Ballet Education Department on the children’s ballet Maria and the Magic Doll Shoppe, which toured to over 20 venues throughout southeastern Wisconsin.
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