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!)
Please welcome Brenda Neville, head of the US Retail Department & NYC Boutique for Freed of London. Ms. Neville is here to talk with us today about her career as a Professional Pointe Shoe Fitter…
What is your background in dance?
I received my early dance training at the Milwaukee Ballet School and went on to graduate from Butler University in Indianapolis with a B.A. in Dance Pedegogy. After graduation, I moved to New York and then spent the next 15 years performing and touring internationally with a variety of companies, choreographer’s, and musical theatre productions in styles ranging from ballet to flamenco to Irish Step dance.
What are you doing now?
Aside from my work at Freed’s, I am the founder and Artistic Director of Neville Dance Theatre, a contemporary ballet company based in New York with annual performance seasons, and teach ballet classes and world dance workshops at The Ailey School, Steps on Broadway, and Covenant Ballet School of Brooklyn, to name a few.
How did you become a Professional Fitter?
When I wasn’t performing or touring, I supplemented my time and income in New York working with pointe shoe manufacturers as a fitter, manager and product tester. It’s now been over 15 years that I’ve been in the business.
What organizations have you worked with in terms of fitting pointe shoes?
Thank you to Brenda R. Neville and Freed of London for the content here today…to SAB student Ashley McAleer for her time, and to Christopher Duggan for his photography…
Making sure your pointe shoes fit properly is of the utmost importance. For all pointe shoes, it is crucial that the length, width, and box fit the foot correctly so that the shoe can provide adequate support and help prevent injury. There should also be enough freedom of movement so that the dancer can perform in them without feeling restricted.
Each pointe shoe manufacturer varies slightly in the way their shoes fit. Freed pointe shoe sizing converts down to about 2.5 sizes below a US Street shoe size. This is a good guideline to begin with—then you should know what to look for in the feel of the shoe once it’s on.
When trying on a Freed pointe shoe, the width should be snug enough so that you feel some resistance across your metatarsal as you push your foot into the block/box. Think of it feeling like a sock–but not pinching, with the ball and sole of the foot able to lie flat on the floor with ease. Freeds will stretch and widen across the box to mold and shape to the dancer’s individual foot. For this reason it is important that the shoes aren’t too wide when purchased.0
In the late 1920’s, Frederick Freed left England’s leading pointe shoe manufacturer (along with his wife and one assistant) to set up shop in a small basement, making shoes of their own. Over time, his reputation for producing quality shoes increased, as did the demand for his shoes. This took the Freed brand to the forefront of the industry where it remains one of the most respected shoes among ballet dancers worldwide. Amazingly, after all these years The Freed of London Shop is still located at the same address.
There is something to be said for tradition.
Today over 250,000 pairs of Freeds are made every year, and they are sold in over 50 countries. Every one of them is hand-crafted by a Professional Pointe Shoe Maker, each of which makes between 30 and 40 pairs daily. Makers shape their shoes in a unique way and they are identified by their own personal stamp on the bottom of the shoe. Symbols include letters, a key, a heart and a Maltese Cross, among others.6
Today I’m pleased to announce that we will be doing a series of posts about Freed pointe shoes in the coming weeks on 4dancers. Brenda Neville is a professional fitter and works in retail management at Freed’s boutique store in New York, and she was kind enough to walk us through some of the history, as well as talk a bit about fitting pointe shoes properly and other pointe-related topics.
I admit to having a certain “soft spot” for Freeds. Although I started with Capezio Pavlova’s back in the day, I always was fascinated by the unusual color of Freed pointe shoes. As soon as I was able, I switched over—and never looked back. Freeds were the shoes I wore for the rest of my time as a ballet dancer. And I loved them.
I can still recall going to have them fitted with my Mom in some old building downtown. We would get into the caged metal elevator and ride up to the level that the store was located on. It always seemed that there were no other people in the building when we were there. Instead of that being a spooky experience, it was almost magical. I always enjoyed going to get new shoes…1