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.
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?0
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
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.
Shop Indie Bookstores