A woman standing on her toes remains the quintessential representation of classical ballet. We don't know when the pointe, or toe, shoe developed, though some say dancing on the toes originated among the Cossacks or Georgians. Pointe entered the dance would probably around the 1790s or so. An 1821 lithograph of the famed Fanny Bias of the Paris Opera is the first visual record of a ballerina on pointe, but it wasn't until the great Romantic ballerina Marie Taglione premiered "La Sylphide" in Paris in 1832 that pointe work became the rage.
The first toe shoes were makeshift, stiffened with glue or starch and reinforced with ribbons or darning. It wasn't until later in the 19th century that the "modern" pointe shoe developed. Contrary to popular belief, there is no wood, metal, plastic - or concrete - in a toe shoe. Material is pleated behind the toes, the sides of the shoe are reinforced, and the bottom is flattened to provide a base for the toes. This thick, stiffened end of the shoe is known as the "box"
Toe shoess are almost commpletely hand made. Machines are used only to cut the leather and material and do some minimal stitching. At Capezio Ballet Makers the leading U.S.company in this field, every shoe is handlasted twice during the construction process and one shoe maker makes a shoe from start to finish. Most of the cobblers, who come with previous shoemaking experience are Italian and have entered the profession via fathers or uncles. They receive special training, but only one out of 10 becomes a pointe shoe artisan. Eash man can make about 30 pair a day.
The average pointe shoe weighs about 5 ounces. Only cotton and cotton-satin are used for the cloth materials: the shoe must both breathe and absorb. Sizes run two to three sizes smaller than street shoes. Capezio makes 94 different sizes. Most ballerinas order custom shoes and keep their specifications on file with their usual dance-shoe outlet.
The pointe shoe is the typical footwear for the classical ballerina, but there are several other types of shoes for dance. The "soft" ballet slipper, worn by both men and women, is the staple for many types of choreography. Modern dancers can protect their feet and still preserve a barefoot look with a sandasol, a soft leather covering for the ball of the foot that permits the dancer to grip the floor. The common oxford, modified by a small heel and soft sole, becomes a lazz shoe. With a larger metal plated heel, it's a tap shoe. There are also "character," or period shoes square dance shoes, and gymnastic shoes.
New York City Ballet has a company of 93, of which 49 are women. Since George Balanchine's choreography calls for a great deal of pointe work and is especially hard on shoes. City Ballet has a high shoe budget. This demand for pointe shoes, plus soft ballet shoes for men and women and jass oxfords for the men brings NYCB's shoe expenses to $175,00-$200.000 per year. But what keeps this figure so high is Balanchine's belief the dancers should have as many shoes as they think they need. Each female averages about nine or 10 pair a week, or about one pair per performance thouht a ballet like "Coppelia," with difficult solo work, may consume three pairs in one evening. Male dancers may only need a dozen pair of shoes for each season and character shoes can last for several years.
Weekends, between matinee and evening performances "shoe time" at City Ballett, when each dancer can pick up as many shoes as he or she expects to use for the week. Roland Vazquez, a former dancer with the company, is shoemaster. He orders toe shoes on a rotating basis, replenishing each woman's supply as it is diminshed. Usually 25-50 pair will be ordered at a time.
Other companies are not as shoe hungry as City Ballet. American Ballet Theater has more story ballets and uses more character shoes. Furthermore, they restrict their dancers to about five pair of pointe shoes per week, many women use only three. For the approximately 80-member company, the annual budget can rise as high as $250,000 but is often as low as $120,000. The Joffrey Ballet spends about $50,000 on shoes for 45 dancers. However, the 26-member Alvin Ailey troupe, which does not perform as often as some of the larger companies and has several barefoot productions, spends only $7,000 per year on shoes and tights together.
With figures like these, it is easy to understand how the manufacture of dance shoes has become a big business. Capezio, for instance, has grown to a $1 1/4 million annual concern since Salvatore Capezio first began cobbling for Anna Pavlova in 1887. There are now approximately 55 professional ballet and 250 regionaal or civic companies in this country; these companies and individual dancers account for the 890,000 pairs of shoes sold by Capezio last year. Tap shoes, which comprised 20 per cent of orders, are becoming increasingly popular there has been a phenomenal 200 per cent sales growth in the last four years. But even toe shoes, which retail at about $16 a pair, have been increasing in sales at about 10 per cent a year, and make up over 20 per cent of Capezio's business, while soft ballet shoes comprise 50 per cent of sales.
Pointe shoes, despite cost and custom requirements are not always the most troublesome to order. For Balanchine's new Vienna Waltzes an accurate period look was required. "When the girls stand in the shoes," Balanchine said, "I want the dresses to hang right." The heel needed to be low, very tiny, and very far forward.
Designers and choreographers may come to a shoe company with only a sketchy idea of what they want. Judith Weiss and David Schafer at Capezio's often function as practical designers, advising their clients how to adapt stock shoes or best construct new ones. Twyla Tharp uses regular jazz oxfords, but with a satin finish. The Rockettes use a standard tap shoe with and extra large heel (for a louder tap). A new shoe was created for modern dancer Senta Driver when it was discovered that an inside-out gymnastic shoe gave the arch she desired. Now her small company orders intentionally reversed shoes.
Yet even after obtaining custom-made shoes, the dancers further individualize the footwear. Toe shoes may be broken in by slamming the shoe in a locker door or by taking a hammer to the box. The satin will often be cut off the front of the shoe. Half the inside shank may be pulled out or water or alcohol may be applied to shrink or stretch the shoe. This mutilation is designed to give each dancer the ideal shoe, one that is flexible but supports the foot, fits tightly but permits movement, grips the floor but offers no drag.
To prepare a shoe for a role the dancer must sew on a small elastic band over the top of the foot and attach ribbons to wrap around the ankle. To keep the shoe on the foot even more tightly, some dancers will put a drop of glue between the heel of the tights and the shoe. Susan Pillarre of NYCB uses double-edged carpet tape. Finally, a step in the rosin box backstage insures greater grip. Now the dancer is ready to dance. But after all this preparation, shoes may be discarded after only one performance. As soon as the dancer feels her foot rolling over or feels her toes too much in contact with the floor, the box has begun to go and the shoe's brief life is over.
Balletomanes can buy discarded toe shoes autographed by members of the City Ballet. Rosalie Lewis, who manages the gift bar, tries to get as many shoes after each performance as the dancers will part with. "It's a little like collecting eggs from hens," she explains. Principals' shoes sell for $5, soloists' and corps' for $3 and $2 respectively: 125 pair were sold last year, about as many as were offered. Patricia McBride and Suzanne Farrell are the big sellers, but occasionally the fans are finicky. A pair of McBride's shoes was returned last year because the purchaser decided he didn't like Cortege Hongrois, the ballet they were danced in : he asked for a pair from a different ballet. Men's shoes are not usually sold, since the male dancers prefer to "wear their shoes to death," as Lewis puts it.
Remember Moira Shearer putting on that fateful pair of red toe shoes and dancing off a bridge to her death? We knew The Red Shoes were not just equipment for the dance, but symbolized all the passion and fury of her art. Toe shoes have come to represent the romance and glamour of the ballet world, but fantasies aside, they are only one part of a demanding physical and artistic discipline. For despite Moira Shearer's enchanted footwear, it comes down to this: Shoes don't dance, dancers do.