From “The Red Shoes” to a Life in Dance - February 29, 2012

"Freed of London, shoemakers to the stars..."

A recent article in the LA Times about Freed of London, the maker of custom ballet shoes, brought back a flood of memories – memories about my many years in association with the world of dance, from studio, to orchestra pit and stage. It’s funny how something as simple and, to most, as mundane as a ballet shoe can bring so much into focus.

You see, Freeds (no one ever uses the name Freed of London) is the quintessential connection to the history of dance – ballet in particular. Generations of professional ballet dancers have danced in Freeds. The Times article is well written and I highly recommend it – just as fascinating reading. It speaks of the history of this company founded in 1929 and of the painstaking manner in which pointe shoes are produced.

The only thing missing in this article is a discussion of the intimate nature of the relationship between individual dancers and the individual craftsmen who make their shoes. Most dancers know their personal craftsmen by a makers mark on the bottom of the shank—an initial, a couple of initials or a symbol. Some star performers have actually gone to London to meet their maker (this is a whole new meaning of the term, one which doesn’t involve dying).  But the memories that return to me most easily are about dancers and their shoes and even the process of my daughter growing, not only into womanhood but into her career as a dancer. She is retired now and teaching at a university, Pilates, of course.  But in my memory, the arc of her life as a dancer can be traced in ballet slippers and pointe shoes. Ah, if those shoes could talk!

As described in the Times article, pointe shoes begin life in a very beautiful way; with skill and artistry and old-world craftsmanship having their way over simple materials to bring to life a thing of beauty and also a vehicle for creating beauty. And there the journey of dancer and the shoe begins. It is not heady or glamorous or even as deadly as “The Red Shoes” would have one believe. It is all about utilitarianism and hard work in support, literally, of a dancer and her art.

The journey for my daughter really began when I had to purchase her first pair of pointe shoes. Having studied with top professionals from the Ballet Russe and New York City Ballet, she was not allowed onto pointe until her technique and her bones had matured to the proper level to support this next phase of her advancement. That was somewhere around age 12, after, at least four or five years of training.

Her first shoes were Capezios, excellent shoes but not in any way custom made. Still, they set me back $50 and lasted less than a month. As her training progressed and her time en pointe increased, the longevity of each shoe decreased. What increased was her need to find the perfect shoe, much like a sax or oboe player finding the perfect reed or a brass player seeking the ideal mouthpiece to match his or her unique embouchure. The shoe must support but give freedom at the same time. This is when a dancer often turns to Freeds and becomes acquainted with a shoe and maker that match the dancer’s needs.

According to the Times: ”Makers have their own stamp — a dollar sign, a key, an anchor — that they put on the bottom of each shoe they complete. When you are young and going into a company, you try all different makers and modifications, and when you get a little bit older, you get attached to your own maker and your own specs." I believe my daughter Jennifer’s maker at Freeds was a Mr. “M”. Though they never met, her notes and the casts of her feet that made their way “Across the Pond” to London became an intimate connection between these two human beings. The shoes would arrive, I would write the checks and then the whole process would begin – a process that would take her into a company at age 15 and a career beyond.

Jennifer’s entrance into a company was also an occasion that I celebrated as ardently as Independence Day. As a company member, a dancer gets a shoe allowance in the form of a stack of shoes that is meant to last the duration of the company’s season of rehearsals and performances. No more 50 bucks a pop for this Pop.

The custom construction of a pointe shoe might seem a vanity for a young dancer, but, for a serious young dancer, it can be a step on the road to success. The Times article puts it this way: “The near-infinite amount of customization available is more than just vanity. Because, pretty as they are, pointe shoes are foremost work shoes. Every part of the shoe — even the ribbon — is there to support the dancer's foot and help her avoid injury”– or him, if the company you are seeing is Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the hilariously skillful, all-male company that performs the likes of “Swan Lake” in drag and en pointe.

I remember, all too well, paying for these little wonders at shorter and shorter intervals. You see, pointe shoes are not used for very long before they are discarded. Prima Ballerinas go through a pair per performance, relegating the used ones to the dumpster after a few additional days as rehearsal shoes. And the abuse these architectural wonders are given in advance of their use in rehearsals and performances is grueling.

The dancer begins with a perfectly good pair of shoes, perhaps from her individual maker, then she sews the ribbons on that lace up the leg, before or after the “curing process.”  Ah, the curing process! Many dancers coat the front half of the shoe with Future floor wax, and then bake them in the oven to harden the box (the front of the shoe). Then there is, often as not, the slamming of the shank between the door jam and a really strong door and the opening and closing of said door to soften the shank. After this torture, the toe of the box can be stuffed with cotton to absorb some of the shock of placing 100 to 118 pounds of muscle on the equivalent of the point of a pencil. The cotton is also useful for soaking up the blood that often accompanies this inhuman feat.

And, that is just what happens to pointe shoes. There are also the many abuses unleashed upon leotards. One buys a beautiful leotard, only to cut as much of it away as one desires to give freedom to the body. And, I don’t mean cutting it away in an artistic manner, while hemming the edge in any way. Dancers always have weapons in their arsenal – I mean dance bag. So, just take a poorly-sharpened pair of scissors (kindergarten craft scissors will do) and hack away.

I know it all might sound frivolous, but this is all part of my attachment to dance and closely associated with my lifelong interest in this ephemeral art form. AND, they are such rich and fond memories in the autumn of my years. Please forgive these few moments.

Besides, next time you see Aspen Santa Fe Ballet or one of the companies that have been brought to the Lensic by the Santa Fe Concert Association,  you might have a whole new take on this exquisite art form.