Off on the right foot Methodical, step-by-step process to size, break in and maintain dancers’ pointe shoes is the foundation ballet is built upon

An X-acto knife. Super glue. Dental floss. Liquid makeup.

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An X-acto knife. Super glue. Dental floss. Liquid makeup.

These are the tools of a very particular trade.

It’s a November afternoon at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s studios on Graham Avenue, and five dancers have finished their last rehearsal before they take Nutcracker on the road. They are breaking in pointe shoes.

The room is silent as principal artist Alanna McAdie peels back the heel of her pointe shoe, exposing the layers of cardboard and glue. She takes her X-acto knife and cuts into it. The dancers have reverence for this process, which is as individual as their feet.

To audiences, those iconic shoes, rendered in satin and pink — not just pink, but ballet pink — represent grace and beauty, effortlessness and impossibility, evoking delicate music-box ballerinas spinning, on one toe, forever.

But to those who actually wear them, pointe shoes are so much more than that. They are both sweaty pieces of athletic equipment and finely honed instruments for artistic expression. “The shoe has always felt kind of like an extension of me,” McAdie says.

Pointe shoes are both a source of mastery and a source of pain, of blood and blisters and bunions. They are a rite of passage for the young ballet student and, later, a ritual for the company dancer.

Pointe shoes have short, hard lives. They are slammed into door jambs and stepped on and ripped up and cut into. They look beautiful and, after a while, smell terrible.

Satin, cardboard, leather, ribbon and glue, holding 33 joints, 26 bones, and hundreds of muscles, tendons and ligaments, all moving with articulation and control. Despite appearances, nothing about a pointe shoe — nor the foot inside — is delicate.

Heather Thorleifson is almost always surrounded by shoes.

As wardrobe administrative co-ordinator at the RWB, Thorleifson works in the Shoe Room — or “the vault,” as it was called — in the wardrobe department, liaising with the shoe assistant and the company stage manager on this most important piece of equipment.

“They’re fascinating,” she says of pointe shoes.

They’re also high-stakes. Pointe shoes need to be expertly fitted and properly maintained. Dancing on spent shoes is dangerous.

“Injury, straight up, is one of the worries about what I do, and why we’re so careful about not giving people dead shoes and warning them if we think a shoe might be getting close to dead,” Thorleifson says.

“Because if a dancer goes up on pointe and their shoe collapses, they can collapse and that can end their career.”

The Shoe Room features a wall of cubbies, each neatly labelled with company dancers’ names and specs. Inside sit shiny new shoes, still pristine in their wrapping.

New shoes have been hard to come by these days. All of the company’s shoes — including non-pointe shoes, such as soft ballet slippers and character shoes worn onstage — come from all over the world. And like most industries, this one was not immune to the supply-chain disruptions created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Wait times on shoes used to be four to eight weeks. Now, they are like five to six months,” Thorleifson says. “I have shoes on order that I’ve been waiting for since last December.”

”If a dancer goes up on pointe and their shoe collapses, they can collapse and that can end their career.”–Heather Thorleifson

Most ballet companies do not have a dedicated “shoe person,” Thorleifson says. And so, over the pandemic, she created a Google spreadsheet that connected all the ballet companies in Canada so they could share any overstock. “We’ve been able to help each other out that way.”

Pointe shoes are highly customizable, but their basic anatomy is the same. Each shoe has a box or block, which is the rigid, squarish part that holds the toes. The platform is the centimetres-wide part of the shoe on which dancers stand en pointe. The shank is the stiff, supportive insole. The vamp covers the foot and toes.

There are two different kinds of pointe shoes: paste and polymer. Paste shoes are the traditional pointe shoes, crafted from leather, cardboard, satin and glue.

“Something like this will usually last a dancer, we estimate, around a pair a week,” Thorleifson says, pulling the layers back on the shank to reveal the construction.

“Now, that is not one pair worn all day for a week. Usually they’ll have two, three, even four pairs of shoes going at the same time. Because you wear them for a few hours, you take them off, you let them dry. And you don’t wear them again until they’re fully dry.”

Polymer shoes are a more recent innovation, and feature a contiguous toe box and shank made from plastic that can mould to a dancer’s foot. Polymer can extend the life — shelf and stage — of a shoe, considerably.

“With a polymer shoe, the lifespan of the shoe is basically until the satin dies,” Thorleifson says. “So we have dancers wearing these shoes who can wear right through the toe — it’s not good, because it’s very slippery — but I’ve had dancers who ended up dancing on the polymer.

“These ones usually get thrown out because the satin gets destroyed or they just smell too bad.”

How many pairs of pointe shoes will the company dance through over the course of a season? An October 1989 article in Western Living, reported that, over the 1988-89 season, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet company went through a staggering 2,038 pairs of pointe shoes. That’s no longer the case.

“The way that they make pointe shoes, even paste pointe shoes, has gotten better,” Thorleifson says. “I would say we probably go through 400 to 500 — which is still a lot, but not 2,000.”

It also depends on the role. Vanessa Léonard (née Lawson), former RWB principal dancer and director of the RWB School’s Anna McCowan-Johnson Aspirant Program, says that when she would dance the notoriously demanding role of Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, she could go through a pair a day. She would spend almost an hour every single night preparing her shoes.

Pointe shoes, then, are not an insignificant line item in the ballet’s budget. Depending on brand and construction, a pair of polymer pointe shoes — for which New York City’s Gaynor Minden is the gold-standard, Thorleifson says — might cost between $150-200 retail, with wholesale prices being slightly less. Paste shoes will be about $100-125.

“A very, very old and very famous pointe shoe brand, of course, is Freed of London,” Thorleifson says. “They actually just got listed in the U.K. as a heritage craft, they are a protected craft in the U.K.”

And right now, it’s not just the handcrafted, time-tested quality that keeps the RWB company in Freeds; it’s also the weak British pound.

Tacked above a worktable is an old chart of foot shapes. On “Egyptian” feet, the big toe is the largest and the rest taper off. On “Roman” feet, the first two or three toes are the same length, and the rest taper off. On “Greek” feet, the second toe is longer than the big toe and the rest taper off, which is slightly different from “Celtic” feet, on which the last three toes are the same length. On “Germanic” feet, all toes are roughly the same length.

“In terms of where they’re from in the world, I don’t know how accurate it is,” Thorleifson says. “But in terms of actual foot shapes, it’s useful as a shorthand.”

It is, after all, a dancer’s foot that determines the shoe. Heel height, vamp length, platform width — all can be tailored to the dancer’s specifications.

“We used to have a dancer whose shoes were so customized, they were incredible. They had almost nothing on the sides and then like a really high heel. Oh man, they were crazy,” Thorleifson says.

“And then, of course, she would take them and darn them and cut half the shank away and rip out the insole, and do all of the things that I’m sure the dancers will tell you about.”

Prepping a pointe shoe isn’t a task. It’s a brutal, exacting ritual — at least, for the shoe.

“I’m just ripping out part of this extra-hard part,” McAdie explains, as she tears into her shoe. “Especially at the back of the shoe, that’s where you want it to be kind of bendy.

“This is a very hard shoe. So then after I’ve done that, I will stand on (the box). I’ll crush it, then I crush it this way.”

She figures she’d have to wear this pair for a week or two before it’s comfortable.

“I don’t put a pair on and then go on stage. You have to think ahead. These two are ready for performance,” she says, resting her hand on a pair.

“Then this is a really hard pair that is not going to be for any shows coming up. And then these are freshly broken in.”

Corps de ballet member Emilie Lewis points out that newer, harder pointe shoes and older, softer ones can both have a place in the space of a single ballet, using specific dances from Nutcracker as an example.

“So, once the shoes I’ve worn for Waltz (of the Flowers) or Russian (Dance) start to die, I wear them for (Waltz of the Snowflakes) because I like to have a softer shoe for Snow because we’re jumping.”

Fellow corps de ballet member Jenna Burns doesn’t do much to break in her shoes.

“But I do have a very weird way of sewing my shoes. What I like to do is sew the elastic almost down at the bottom of the shoe so it pulls from the bottom. It feels more supportive on my foot.” She also adds a stretchy section to her ribbons. (Lewis, meanwhile, prefers the silk ribbons).

“Jenna, I’m going to steal all of your ideas,” chimes in second soloist Katie Bonnell. “Brilliant.”

Both Bonnell and Burns wear polymer shoes. “We’re twins with our shoes, Jenna,” Bonnell says.

“I’m the same, I need to have the elastic piece in my ribbons, so that it doesn’t dig into my Achilles because I do like my ribbons to be fairly tight, but if there’s no give they just cut in.”

McAdie’s tool kit includes a bottle of liquid foundation. That’s used in the practice of “pancaking,” or using makeup to colour the shoe so it more accurately matches a dancers’ skin tone.

Pancaking is generally used for contemporary ballets — such as The Handmaid’s Tale — in which dancers don’t wear traditional tights or ballet-pink shoes as they would in classical ballets, such as Swan Lake.

“There’s a type of Maybelline foundation that we use — an oil-free foundation,” Thorleifson says. “And it’s great because it means we can just accurately match skin tone. I have a bin of them in my office and we keep a list on file of what colour number everyone is.”

For many dancers of colour, meanwhile, pancaking pointe shoes was, for too long, a matter of course. Pink pointe shoes, rooted in classical European ballet esthetics, are meant to extend the leg line of (white) ballet dancers.

In 2017, Gaynor Minden finally came out with a line of more inclusive satin finishes in a diverse range of flesh tones and Freed followed suit.

Sometimes, costuming requires performance pointe shoes to be in bright, crayon-box colours — as with Dorothy’s ruby-red slippers in The Wizard of Oz. That’s typically done with bridal satin dye, the kind used to make a pair of satin pumps match a bridesmaid or prom dress.

Shoes near the end of their usefulness can get a slight new lease on life with Bunhead’s Jet Glue, a quick-drying liquid adhesive that can firm up a soft toe box or revive a shank.

And the dental floss?

“I use it as my thread — I find it’s a bit stronger,” Lewis says. “I don’t think I have mint, I think this is just the regular stuff.”

The tips, tricks and hacks have evolved over the years — even over the course of RWB associate artistic director Tara Birtwhistle’s 20-year career as company dancer.

“We had two companies that made shoes, you didn’t have much choice, there was nothing fancy to put in the shoes,” she says.

“So we would use hockey tape to tape our toes. And we would use lamb’s wool to put on the end of the pointe shoe so that there was a little bit of a softness… ish,” she adds.

But as Birtwhistle points out, dancing on pointe isn’t just about the shoes. It’s also about technique, strength and endurance.

“As you become stronger on pointe, you’re not sitting in your shoe as much anymore, you’re pulling up out of the shoe,” she explains.

“When you see a dancer on point, they’re not slammed down into the shoe, their legs are so strong that they’re kind of holding themselves up.”

How a ballet dancer prepares their shoes will change over the course of her career. “For me, it’s changed a million times,” McAdie says.

“I’m still trying to figure out what I like with my shoes,” says Taisi Tollasepp, a professional division student in the aspirant program.

“I don’t have super flexible feet, so I like the block to be really sturdy, but like the arch to be more flexible.”

And so, Tollasepp darns the toes of her shoes. “I take like a thick thread, and I go around the box,” she says. “I find Freeds to be kind of wobbly so I find that when I darn them, it creates a flatter surface.”

Anna Pavlova, the pioneering Russian prima ballerina of the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, also famously darned her pointe shoes. Indeed, these are traditions that reach back generations.

Vanessa Léonard still has her first pair of pointe shoes.

“I remember before I went up there, I was incredibly excited that I was given the green light to go in pointe shoes and so excited to get the first pair of shoes,” she says.

“When I actually got up there, you sort of realized that it’s this added bit of pain. It does hurt a bit. That’s why they sort of ease you into it, you know, the half an hour a week and then gradually, gradually start to wear them more.

“But the feeling of being all the way up — you feel light, you feel taller, you feel more elegant, you know, all these nice feelings,” she says. “So it’s very special.”

Before going en pointe — a French term for “on the tips of the toes” — students wear soft ballet slippers and, in preparation for pointe work, might transition to a pre-pointe or demi-pointe shoe that doesn’t have the stiff shank.

Students are generally 11 or 12 years old when they first go on pointe. That’s why, for young students, it’s such a rite of passage, dovetailing with their own adolescence.

“In my class of dancers, I was too small to go on pointe when everybody else was allowed to — that was my studio’s decision, that I needed to wait a year because I wasn’t developed enough,” McAdie says.

“So it was really hard. I was doing pre-pointe while everyone else was in the pointe shoe and I was dying. When I finally got to, it was crazy. I think I blacked out, I was so excited.”

”The feeling of being all the way up… you feel light, you feel taller, you feel more elegant, you know, all these nice feelings. So it’s very special.”–Vanessa Léonard

Lewis recalls being brought into the shoe room — “which was like heaven,” she says — and wearing her pointe shoes around the house, which isn’t what you’re supposed to do. “I remember my first blister to this day.”

Burns remembers arriving to class with all of her ribbons — and even the tiny drawstrings — tied in huge bows because she didn’t know how to do them yet.

“My teacher untied it all and took off my shoe and was stuffing my foot in and showing me how to use the toe pads,” she says with a laugh.

“It’s like a pretty big process, actually,” McAdie says. “Learning how to sew them yourself, learning how to tie them properly. When you first start pointe work, that’s a part of the class.”

But before all of that can happen, dancers must be properly fitted for their pointe shoes — a process that is constant, says Heather Thorleifson.

“Some dancers, once they are an adult, then they’re set — though we have had to refit dancers after they’ve had children because their feet will change shape or size,” she says.

“But we also do all the shoes for the school, so that means we are doing fittings all the time.”

A school fitting starts with Thorleifson and shoe assistant Diana Miller looking at the students’ feet, discerning the shape and figuring out their size.

“Diana and I have both gotten very good at estimating sizes by looking at feet,” Thorleifson says with a laugh.

Students then put on the shoes and stand in various ways, including going up on pointe. A teacher is always present.

“You have to make sure when they go up on pointe that (the shoes) are not sinking, they’re not binding,” Thorleifson says. “Because the thing is, a lot of people think that the shoes just have to be really tight and that’s actually very not true.

”I think we’ve all probably lost a toenail. We’ve all probably all had blisters and corns.”–Alanna McAdie

“They can’t be loose, and you can’t give yourself room to grow, which is really hard for most parents to understand — because I know for me, I always give my kids extra space. But with pointe shoes, you cannot do that. It needs to fit perfectly right.”

“I find that if you’re suffering a lot, you’re possibly in the wrong shoe,” McAdie says. “But again, it’s really individual. Some people have very angled feet, or their big toe is very long and that is a harder foot to put in a shoe.

“But I tend to believe that if you’re really getting a lot of foot problems, bruised toenails, blisters, then there’s probably a solution. But I think we’ve all probably lost a toenail. We’ve all probably all had blisters and corns.”

Which brings us to the less glamorous part of this story. Pointe shoes and dancing on pointe are famously hard on the feet.

“I have some gnarly bunions,” Burns says with a laugh. “So I had physio actually make me a toe spacer specifically for myself and I wear it literally 24-7.”

“I have horrendous bunions,” Bonnell says with a laugh. “I am genetically going to get them anyway, they run in my family. So, add pointe shoes to the mix and my poor feet had no hope. But definitely a big part of the pointe shoe journey was finding shoes that didn’t aggravate them.”

There is, in the shoe room, a medieval-looking contraption called a Bunion Buster, rumoured to have been invented for former RWB principal dancer and Canadian ballet icon Evelyn Hart.

“I know, it looks really mean,” Thorleifson says as she lifts it from the tool box. It pushes out the box of paste shoes exactly where the bunion is.

When one thinks of “ballet feet” they are as likely to think of bloody damage as they are of beautiful arches. But McAdie thinks that is an antiquated idea.

“Pointe shoes have come a long way, so this idea that our feet are the most hideous things is a little bit outdated,” she says.

“Many years ago, there were only like two kinds of shoes. They were very hard, generally. So I think maybe there was a little bit more suffering.”

“And we really do take such good care,” Lewis adds.

“I soak my feet. I try really hard to file my nails and make sure my calluses are moisturized. I can’t really fit my foot into a sandals ideal, but I’m OK with it.”

So, what do ballerinas wear when they’re off duty?

“Runners,” they answer, practically in unison.

Some dancers are sentimental about their old shoes. Others are not. There are too many to keep them all. Some dead shoes find new life at Ballet in the Park, where little kids use them for crafts.

The memories live in the feet.

“I’ll tell you, after retiring, it took about two years for them to get back to what I would say is somewhat normal,” Léonard says with a laugh.

There’s a first time putting on pointe shoes. And then there’s a last time.

Birtwhistle’s final performance as a principal dancer was in 2011, as the title character in The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.

“I was pretty happy,” Birtwhistle says. “Because at some point, your body physically doesn’t do it anymore.

“I was lucky enough that I got to choose to stop before something forced me to stop. I still felt pretty good but not enough that I wanted to keep dancing.

“I remember very distinctly on stage, looking around at everyone. I still remember the motion as I looked at every single person.

“It’s seared in my mind, because I chose to do that at that moment. But I was pretty happy to take the pointe shoes off.”

Toward the end of her dance career, Léonard developed arthritis in her mid foot and pointe shoes became intolerably painful.

There is a photo from Léonard’s last time wearing pointe shoes on the Centennial Concert Hall stage, in a 2013 performance of Moulin Rouge.

One foot is suspended in a battered pointe shoe.

The other foot is bare, temporarily scarred by the deep indentations left by the elastics and ribbons, each bone and ligament still forming that iconic shape.

“I miss dancing very much, of course,” Léonard says.

“But the pain of the pointe shoes is the one thing that I really don’t miss at all.”

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Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.

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