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First pointes: making the coveted shoe work for you.

In Maguy Marin's Cendrillon, a sword-wielding fairy presents two glistering slippers to Cinderella. Flanked by three ballerinas effortless hopping in attitude, Cinderella rises on pointe, takes a tentative step and collapses. Gradually, her careening, awkward movements strengthen and she is poised for "happily ever after."

For many young dancers, donning those coveted satin slippers for the first time is a magical moment that, hopefully, will culminate in a grand adagio center stage. Even if it doesn't, rising on pointe is the reward of technical accomplishment that offers new possibilities along with added responsibilities. Filling (and dancing proficiently in) those new shoes is a challenge for everybody at first, as many a professional dancer will tell you. Dancers of all ranks from across the country recall their first steps on pointe and let us in on how they learned--often through trial and error--to make those stiff new shoes perfect for them.

"It all looked so easy," recalls Pacific Northwest Ballet corps member Stacy Lowenberg. "I thought you could just twirl across the floor, but I could barely releve" At age 12, the Iowa native received a pair of oversized Capezios for Christmas. "I wore them all the time. My teacher let me learn "Cygnets" with the older girls, but I couldn't releve on one foot. I went home and practiced all day. I got it."

Since that fledgling triumph, Lowenberg has learned to attach ribbons (formerly her mom's task) and modify the shanks of her Freeds. "I didn't know anything about that back in Iowa," she says, crediting PNB principal Patricia Barker with sharing her knowledge. "It's great to have a ballerina's advice instead of guessing what to do. Working with my shoes is an ongoing, experimental process."

That process includes determining where to attach ribbons, whether or not to use elastic, how to soften shoes, extend wear, and what padding, if any, best alleviates pressure.

Colorado Ballet's Katherine Gordon, a junior (entry-level) company member, remarks, "You have to discover what works for you." The Australian native sews ribbons near her high arches, discards part of the shanks of her Bloch Serenades, and reduces fabric excess with "Frankenstein" stitches (they look like scars but don't show onstage) on the quarter section. "Initially, I didn't know that a longer vamp would keep me from falling out of my shoes," she says. At age 13, Gordon plunged feet first into professional classes at Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School of Dance in Melbourne and was immediately "thrown on pointe," she says. "I was super-excited because it meant that I was really doing ballet. But I knew nothing about breaking in shoes. When my teacher closed my shoe in a door, I freaked. But, wow, it was a lot softer!"

JASON HADLEY (ALIAS COLETTE ADAE) OF LES BALLETS Trockadero de Monte Carlo, a male company that performs on pointe and in drag (see Kickoff and Reviews, Dance Magazine, November, pages 18 and 82), says, "Watch everyone else's shoes. If you see something you like, try it." For performances, he says, "I pancake my ribbons and apply calamine lotion to my shoes" to lessen their shine, and he uses transparent elastic (purchased in Japan) to create an unbroken line.

At age 19, the Idaho native took pointe class at Ballet West Conservatory to improve his feet. He says, "The greatest feeling is doing four unsupported pirouettes--on your leg, totally center." Boys considering pointe should "get the teacher's permission, wear shoes that fit, and go for it," says Hadley, who initially confiscated castoffs and extended the length. "The day I got my first pair of special-order Freeds was the most joyous of all days," he remembers. "These were my pointe shoes."

Professionals emphasize that shoes must fit correctly. However, at age 15, that perfect fit eluded former New York City Ballet principal Allegra Kent, who mistakenly ordered a shipment with room to grow shortly after she joined the company. "There I was on a European tour, shrinking my shoes in warm water. They dried totally stiff," says Kent, now a private coach and teacher.

At age 11, Kent had enrolled at Bronislava Nijinska's Los Angeles studio (see "Nijinska in Action," Dance Magazine, August, page 34). Within six months, she was told she was ready for her first pair of Capezios. "While most children would be eager, I said, `No, I can't do that. I read in a book that you must study for two years,'" she recalls. Adamant that pointe slippers "should be seen, not heard," Kent says, she tamed hers with rubbing alcohol and then "smacked them against something."

Because George Balanchine requested silent pointes, psychologist Linda Hamilton, formerly a NYCB corps member, switched to Freeds for their softer boxes and says she broke a few wooden doors by crushing her shoes in them. She enrolled at the School of American Ballet at age 8 and says her first pair of Capezios signified "a rite of passage." Hamilton, who favored Fabulon, a wood-floor finish, for tip reinforcement and paper towels for padding, adds, "Dancers develop a relationship with their shoes. I continued to think about mine up until the moment I retired. Then I threw them out."

STUDENTS ANTICIPATE THAT POINTE WORK IS GOING to hurt. Veterans claim that this fear is exaggerated. However, grueling rehearsals and choreography that overuses one foot can be painful. After taking class and rehearsing Coppelia without a break in between, Houston Ballet principal Lauren Anderson removes her Capezios and remarks, "My toes hurt." The HB School alumna started pointe work at age 11. "I wanted to do turns--chaines. That was the coolest thing," she says. Putting on her first pair of Freeds she recalls thinking, "God, these are heavy!" Opting for Second Skin and Band-Aids, she says, "My feet are a mess." Anderson may shun sandals, but she still adores pointe "for the perfect balance of it and the ability to hover like an angel."

Evelyn Cisneros, a former San Francisco Ballet principal, also began pointe work at age 11. But those black, suede-toed Capezios remained in her teacher's custody. Following a performance, "our fathers presented the shoes with flowers. It was such a special moment," says Cisneros, now SFB's ballet education coordinator and an online expert columnist for Dance Magazine. During her career, she darned the tips, applied acrylic cement to extend wear, sewed elastic across the vamps, flattened the boxes, and cut the shanks of her Freeds. "I learned to cobble my own shoes," Cisneros says. "That's part of the art."

RELATED ARTICLE: Pointe shoe particulars.

Santa Claus is not the recommended purveyor of pointe shoes. Carol Beevers, manager of The Shoe Room at the National Ballet School in Toronto, Canada (see "Footwear and Foot Care," Dance Magazine, August, page 37), stresses that shoes require expert fitting, since "every pair of feet differs from every other." Better to get burgeoning ballerinas gift certificates along with prearranged appointments with a qualified fitter, or educational videos, such as Patricia Barker on Pointe Shoes. Beevers also suggests key chains with satin miniatures attached and informative literature about pointe shoes.

"That first fitting should be an enjoyable experience," says Beevers, who encourages parents to take videos and photos. "It's such an exciting time for the dancer."

Prior to the fitting, toenails should be shortened and clipped straight across. Fitters need to evaluate bare feet for foot and arch type, width differences, toe length and shape, and emerging bunions. The dancer must try on slippers wearing the tights worn for class and know their teacher's policy on padding and shoe flexibility.

The shoes should fit snugly and offer support. They must cradle but not compress the foot; cover the toe joints; accommodate length and width without gaps; and permit multiple-position mobility.

"Worn several times a week for fifteen minutes at the end of class, the shoes may last an entire school year," says Beevers, a fitter of children and adults for thirty-five years. Most youngsters outgrow them before they are expended. Subsequent pairs should be properly fitted to ensure correct sizing.

Expert fitters can be found at some professional ballet schools and some dancewear retail outlets; teachers should be able to recommend where to go for that all-important first fitting.

Pointe shoe prices vary. But the initial investment for shoes, padding, and ribbon (excluding tax) is approximately $76 U.S. Outside of the U.S., Beevers says, the average price is about $130 Canadian. --Karen Dacko

Karen Dacko is a contributing dance editor of Pittsburgh Magazine.
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Author:Dacko, Karen
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Dec 1, 2002
Words:1415
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