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Essay: Ballet slippers

Growth comes through pain and satin

February 11, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST


Photo by Jonathan Stephanoff

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Both pairs of shoes look different from when I first bought them. The white canvas toes are exposed from years of wear. The older pair is soft and pink, discolored in some spots where we used makeup to try and cover up the dirt. They are small, fit for the feet of a child. Bloch Serenades, size 2 ½, width C. Tiny sequins are embedded in the leather sole, no doubt from some long-forgotten costume or set. The other pair is black; the silk is faded and dirty, gone from a crisp onyx into dark gray that whiskers around the heels. The ribbons are still black as ever, but the ends are fraying despite the flame I used to melt them. One of the elastics is held on by a silver safety pin.

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They are virtually unrecognizable from the pair in a slender cardboard box purchased at Madison’s Dancewear. Then, they were bright and pink and clean. The soles and box were stiff, too stiff to dance in, so I started breaking them in right away by banging the shoes on the doorframe. Scraping the bottoms on concrete. Stepping on the stiff box at the toe as hard as I could, just as I had learned to do with my first pair. Halfway through the year, they were perfectly broken in. My feet slipped into them easily, and I could wrap the ribbons around my ankles quickly and absent-mindedly after years of practice. My ankles were strong, and after warming up we went straight into across-the-floor combinations; delicate bourees, deliberate turns, all balanced on the resin box protecting my toes.

I’ve had many pairs of ballet shoes throughout my dance career, but I had waited nine years for the first pair. Dancing en pointe is really hard on the ankles, so very young girls can’t wear them because their growing bones might break too easily. We had to wait until we were at least 12. That fall, I sat on the floor of my ballet class as the owner of the studio, Renee, went down the list of girls who were ready to get their pointe shoes. I couldn’t believe I had actually heard my name—I had glasses and goofy teeth and just started a new school where I didn’t know anyone. But I was going to be a real ballerina.

My mother drove me to Madison’s, and we stepped in the shop, stuffed with a rainbow of leotards. Packets of black, tan and pink tights hung on the wall. The shoes were in the back. I sidled up to the counter and told the saleslady that I was in ballet technique class on Tuesday afternoons, and I needed my first pair of pointe shoes. She was a large woman with large black glasses and short white hair that stood straight up. I sat passively on the bench as she measured my foot. I couldn’t say anything helpful; I didn’t know how they should feel or what was too big or too small or too narrow. My mom browsed through the store as I tried on different pairs, occasionally standing up on the toe and holding on to the small barre intended to recreate a miniature studio space. I knew it would hurt, but I kept my face composed as my weight shifted onto my toes and the pressure built on my untrained ankles. As I stood, the saleslady pinched the fabric at the heels to see if they were too big. She found a pair that fit and ordered my mother not to sew anything on until my teacher, Gretchen, had approved them. I took them, Bloch Serenades, size 2 ½, width C. I took the squishy blue toe pads because she insisted that everyone wore them. I took the mini bottle of baby powder to use if they got too sweaty. I took the little packet of ribbon and elastic that I was not to open. We paid for the shoes, the most expensive pair of shoes I’d ever gotten, and left the store.

Gretchen had to ease us and our feet into the shoes. She was young with short black hair and a dominating voice. Her classes were tough, and she played favorites. We’d do regular ballet for 45 minutes and change into our pointe shoes for 30. Most of these early classes were spent on exercises that stretched out the shoes and let us go en pointe for short periods of time. The barre was attached to the wall on three sides of the room, and the fourth side was all mirrors. We stood at the barre, facing the wall and performing the tedious exercises to recorded piano music. It still hurts, though, no matter how skilled you are, and there were often blisters and sometimes blood.

I learned a lot of things about my body when I was 12. My butt sticks out when my spine is straight. I have almost no natural turnout in my hips. My arches are extremely flat. I didn’t care.

The shoes were gradually broken in; the exercises gradually got easier. The studio was a place I went for hours at a time after school where everything else melted away—school, friends, stress. All I had to focus on was the shoes and molding them to my advantage. My feet were growing so fast I went through two or three pairs a year, much to my mother’s chagrin. She didn’t understand why I couldn’t just wear the old ones. As I got older, the dances grew more difficult. But I was growing as well. Gone were the braces, glasses and debilitating shyness. I was finally 16 with long blond hair and on my high school’s dance team. The older girls taught us how to do our hair and how to put on false eyelashes. I listened intently, determined to leave the little girl in me behind.

I drove to Madison’s with my new driver’s license in the fall to buy the shoes that I would come to love. I picked Bloch Aspirations, size 4 ½, width C. Our class spray painted our ballet shoes black to match our black costumes. After that, I didn’t buy new shoes. My black ones were so perfect, so formed to my feet, so flexible, I didn’t need to. The shoes showed signs of wear more easily because of the black paint; the loss of pigment revealed creases where the shoe bent along with my foot during dances and exercises. I could barely make out the size and model number and the faint palimpsest of my name written on the sole in pen. I was pretty sure at least one of the shanks—the stiff sole made of cardboard and plastic—was broken, if not both, which generally prompts dancers to buy new shoes because of the lack of support. I thought they were perfect.

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