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s hoe s : p l e a s ur e a n d p a i n Once the shoes were in my hands, they went through another process of adjustment, a ritual of preparation unique to each dancer. I’d rip out the nail that held together inner and outer soles, fracture the back at a precise spot an inch and a half from the heel, cut away the satin around the toes’ tips, slash the soles to improve grip, attach ribbons and elastics and bash them against a concrete floor to dampen their noise. Only at that point would they be given a chance in the studio to prove they might make it on stage. Each pair was worn for ten minutes, no more, and then hardened with shellac for a second brief outing before I made my decision. On each sole I’d make notes: “good for turns”, “bit soft”, or (rarely) “perfect”. The superstars were stacked in the performance pile and the rest stuffed into a bag marked “rehearsal”. The earliest ballet dancers didn’t have to contend with any of this. They danced in soft slippers, with low heels that limited the complexity and speed of movements. As technique advanced, the heels came off, and then, during the eighteenth century, the idea of dancing on pointe was introduced. No one is quite sure which ballerina was the first, but there is a lovely description of Anna Heinel dancing on “stilt-like tip toe” as early as 1770. Pointe shoes were no more than leather-soled satin slippers with padded toes, but the

technique became more and more widespread over the next 50 years, with the Oxford Dictionary of Dance noting both Geneviève Gosselin and Avdotia Istomina dancing on pointe before 1820. Ballerinas who had mastered the trick travelled from city to city across Europe, and before long they were all doing it. Poised to take flight, on the very tips of their toes, the balletic heroines of the period were the embodiment of the nineteenth-century Romantic ideal: the writing of Goethe and Hoffman, the paintings of Fuseli and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique found their parallels on stage in ballets such as Giselle and La Sylphide. Personally, I’d hesitate to recommend ballet shoes for use outside the studio, but, nevertheless, the ballet “pump” seems to have become ubiquitous over recent years. Perhaps it is “pretty and practical”, as one fashion website claims, or “wear with anything”, as another suggests. Or perhaps it connects back to long-forgotten childhood dreams of tulle, tiaras and fairy tale princes. But I’m not so sure. Ballet dancers are rarely seen flat-footed. Ballet flats are workaday, symbolising earthiness and toil: in the great classical ballets, it’s the peasant folk and villagers who appear in flats. Princesses always dance on pointe, a symbol of their place in the hierarchy and their air of otherworldliness. The beauty of the pointe shoe is that 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 ballerina’s instep. The problem with the ballet pump is that it misses the point. And to that oft-asked question? The answer, mostly, is no. The human body is remarkable – it will take almost anything you throw at it, as long as you throw it systematically and over time. It’s not the answer most people want to hear, but for a professional dancer, with the right training and the right shoes, pointe work is rarely painful. It’s just another part of the job. Deborah Bull danced with the Royal Ballet for twenty years, rising through the ranks to become principal dancer. She has been creative director of the Royal Opera House Executive and in 2012 became director, culture, at King’s College London. She has written and presented extensively for television and radio, including the award-winning The Dancer’s Body and Travels with my Tutu (BBC2), and is author of The Vitality Plan (1998), Dancing Away (1998), The Faber Pocket Guide to Ballet (2005) and The Everyday Dancer (2011). She is currently a member of the Arts & Humanities Research Council. In 1998 Bull was awarded a CBE for her contribution to the arts

V&A Magazine Summer 2015

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V&A Magazine — Issue 37  

V&A Magazine, Issue 37, Summer 2015 Style, sex and psychology

V&A Magazine — Issue 37  

V&A Magazine, Issue 37, Summer 2015 Style, sex and psychology