November 15, 2019
Who else loves ballet? A beautiful form of dance that is superb for adding elegance and wonder to an event, we’ve never previously thought about the pointe shoes that ballerinas wear. How many do they have? What is the budget for shoes each year? How quickly will a ballerina go through a pair? Read on dear reader because this is the most fascinating blog we’ve written in a while.
Pointe shoes are the shoes that all ballet performers wear and you may be surprised to find that at professional levels, they are one or two-time use only. That’s it. After two performances, the canvas holding them together is too worn out for ballerinas to dance comfortably; some allegedly go through 3 pairs per show! At a non-professional level, you are still likely to go through a pair in a couple of weeks and when you consider the worst brands will set you back $50 a pair, the costs really do start to add up.
With this in mind, the New York City Ballet has an annual shoe budget of $780,000 with ballet performers getting through up to 11,000 pairs of shoes a year. They actually have 6,000 pairs in stock for company members to search for their perfect fit and each dancer has their own column where there spares shoes can be found. Some newer members to the team are constantly tweaking their shoe order whilst those who have been doing it for years already know their perfect fit. It’s all a bit of trial and error.
Each pair of ballet shoes is handmade with almost all performers wearing Freed of London or ‘Freeds’, which is a company that has been going since 1929. The fact they are handmade means that each artisan of shoes has their own symbol – a crown, a Maltese cross or an ‘L’ are just some examples – and the dancers naturally have their favourite. When ‘L’ recently got ill, five New York ballet performers were suddenly without shoes! Upon delivery, each pair of shoes is kept in their own plastic bag because pointe shoe bugs will otherwise feed on them – it really is a whole world that we’d never even have thought about!
So which show results in the most shoes being used? Fascinatingly the ballet performers will go through 500-800 pairs when performing The Nutcracker over six weeks and that isn’t even the most demanding! Just two weeks of Swan Lake will see more pairs being used because the show is so demanding on the feet with virtually every dancer on pointe throughout.
Why do they wear out so quickly? Because pointe shoes are only made out of canvas and glue and dancers put their whole weight upon them. Although there are more sustainable shoes being made today, they push the feet into a different position on pointe than ballerinas may be used to, and some dancers may not be able to adjust. Although there are some looking into how to use sturdier materials and keep the foot in the usual position, it’s not an easy problem to solve; pointe shoes need to be flexible, soft and be able to deal with a range of motions, all the while carrying a certain aesthetic. Certainly not an easy problem to solve. As one reddit user put it, ‘You would need a material that is stronger but not stiffer, that deforms the same as a nonlinear failing material while staying in a linear elastic range and not failing. That may well be infeasible, as it is a paradoxical request on the face of it.’
Since ballerinas always need to be comfortable in their new shoes immediately, they also take the time to customise them and break them in immediately, which naturally means less shelf life for the shoe. Some of the methods employed? Whacking walls, hammering them, using a razor blade, shutting heavy doors on them… The list goes on!
Who knew that the shoes of the New York City Ballet could be so fascinating? Certainly not us but we hope you enjoyed this interesting look into pointe shoes.
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By Henry Fosdike