s hoe s : p l e a s ur e a n d p a i n
“It lengthens the line of the leg, creating a long, sinuous ‘S’ that starts with the thigh muscle, continues through the calf and finds its final flourish in the high arch of the instep.” Former ballerina Deborah Bull reveals the secrets of that very special shoe, the pointe – and how to make it perfect
Getting to the pointe
f the many questions I was asked over my twenty years as a professional dancer, the vast majority related in some way to that pearly pink symbol of the ballerina’s poise – the pointe shoe. Sometimes it was “how long do they last?” Occasionally, “how much do they cost?” But more often than not, what the interlocutor really wanted to
know was “does it hurt?” I started to dance at the age of seven. Not particularly early and certainly not too late, but it took three years of training to develop the strength, technique and physical maturity that are required before a student can begin to dance on pointe. I still have my first pointe shoes – not much bigger than my adult hand – and looking at them is enough to bring back the sensation of climbing into them for the first time: the scratchy hard block hugging my toes, the unrelenting rigidity of the stiff leather soles, the unfamiliar proximity of toenails to the floor. It’s a strange posture, the foot on pointe, but it’s not unique to dancers. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Degas was fascinated by both the dancer and the horse, as we have something particular in common: we both stand in equine, a fact I discovered when a physician used textbook terminology to request X-rays of my ankle. This extreme position is not an aberration, nor is it dangerous. On pointe, the bones of the lower leg, ankle and foot align exactly, a vertical plumb line on which the body’s weight centres. The shoes provide support and help to retain the all-important alignment, but it’s the strength in the feet and legs, developed over years of training, that allows the dancer to balance, bourrée and flit blithely on the tips of her toes. The shoes I wore throughout my career were Freeds, “handmade in London since 1929”, when Frederick Freed set up his own ballet shoe business in direct competition with his previous employers. Then, as now, they were made inside out using the traditional “turn shoe” method. The maker starts with the box (the hardened part around the toes), building it up layer by layer from triangles of hessian, paper and glue and then pleating the satin using metal pincers, before stitching the sole to the upper with wax thread. Only at this point is the shoe turned the right way and the insole inserted. Finally, the maker puts his mark on the sole, hammering the box into his own signature shape (and, when appropriate, taking into account the specific requests of individual dancers who want a “bit more length” here, or a “bit of give” there). Freed craftsmen create around 50 pairs of ballet shoes every day.
Left: Deborah Bull as Odette/Odile in the Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House, London, 3 October 1995. Photo: Sue Adler/ArenaPAL
V&A Magazine Summer 2015
V&A Magazine, Issue 37, Summer 2015 Style, sex and psychology