“I feel like I’m always in a battle with my feet,” says Lauren Lovette, with a sigh. One of New York City Ballet’s principal ballerinas, Lovette has beautifully arched, supple feet, and often, they’re killing her.
After years of sprains and other injuries, she underwent surgery to correct a bone anomaly, but even with physical therapy, daily ankle exercises, ice baths and ointments, the 25-year-old still hasn’t made peace with her feet.
Lovette shares this struggle with many dancers, whose feet take sustained abuse, and in the worst kind of footwear (or none at all). While they may run, jump, squat, leap and pivot like any NBA star, dancers do it without shock absorption, arch support or any foot-comfort features whatsoever. Athletes get to wear shoes that are protective and kind to their feet. Dancers experience no such luxuries as they speed around the stage barefoot, or in heels, or in thin slippers with a flimsy leather sole – or, if they’re ballerinas, in those tight-fitting torture chambers known as pointe shoes.
I had my own flirtation with pointe shoes as a ballet student in my youth, and I’ll never forget my alarm as I slid my feet into my first pair. Little bones I didn’t know I had were suddenly squeezed in a death grip. Pointe shoes may look dainty, but there’s an Elizabethan-corset quality to them, reflecting their seriousness of purpose: equipping the dancer to do what no human is designed to do.
“Pound for pound, dancers are just as strong as football players, if not stronger,” says Lisa M. Schoene, a Chicago podiatrist and athletic trainer who treats dancers and Olympians. “Getting up on pointe is one of the most athletic things you can do. They’re exerting 10 to 12 times their body weight, going up and down on that pointe shoe.”
In anticipation of New York City Ballet’s engagement at the Kennedy Center from June 6 to 11, I’ve been thinking about the incomparable strength of the ballerina, especially when it comes to her toes and what it takes to dance on them.
Dancing on the toes revolutionized ballet in 1832, when Italian ballerina Marie Taglioni caused a sensation in “La Sylphide.” In the title role of a highland fairy, she seemed to briefly trod the air, rising on the tips of her satin slippers, which she had reinforced with darning. As her trick caught on, and choreographers began exploring the airy possibilities of steps en pointe, shoemakers started stiffening ballet slippers from the inside with layers of fabric and glue.
Pointe shoes are still made that way today, with cotton-lined satin, a rigid insole – or shank – and a cupped portion around the toes that is hardened with glue, canvas and paper. Because the shoe and the foot must work together as one, it’s up to each dancer to customize her pointe shoes. Even the most exalted ballerinas sew on their own ankle ribbons and elastics, which secure the shoes, and, like baseball players breaking in new gloves, they all have rituals to make their shoes pliable and quiet. Nothing destroys an atmosphere of lightness and grace like the clop-clop of hard pointe shoes.
Unlike ballplayers, ballerinas in the major companies have to sew and break in new shoes almost every day. A pointe shoe’s life is measured in hours of wear. At a cost of around $100 (usually paid by the company), a pair may last a pro for a full day of class and rehearsal, but if she’s starring in “Swan Lake,” or dancing in a couple of short ballets in an evening, she may go through a few changes of shoes.
Claire Kretzschmar, a member of New York City Ballet’s corps de ballet, lays her new shoes on the ground, sole up, and stomps on them. After that, she pours quick-drying Jet Glue (developed for model airplanes, now a pointe shoe standard) on the tips for extra hardening. To protect her toes, she wraps them in a brown paper towel, the kind you find in public bathrooms. She used to use foam pads but found that the humble paper towel allows her more dexterity.
“Pointe shoes are never comfortable,” says Kretzschmar, 25, “but I didn’t find a dramatic change in pain when I switched to paper towels.”
Lovette bangs her shoes against a wall about 20 times to rid them of clunkiness: “If I feel my shoes are loud, I get self-conscious and I dance in a different way.”
Pointe shoes are an extension of their bodies, an essential tool of expression, and ballerinas get attached not only to their brand – most popular among professionals are Freed (made in England) or Bloch (from Australia) – but also to the individual maker who handcrafts the shoe. It can be traumatic to change makers. Julie Kent, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, panicked when, at the height of her career at American Ballet Theatre, she found out that her maker at Freed was retiring.
“I wrote him a letter,” Kent says, “and sent a photograph of myself in ‘Giselle’ praying, looking very pleading, saying would he consider just making a limited amount of shoes for me a year.” It didn’t work. She eventually asked Bloch to copy an old shoe. While dancing as a guest with the Australian Ballet, Kent went to Bloch’s facility to meet her maker, and they worked out an ideal, bespoke fit.
In such a competitive profession, rest doesn’t come easily. Ballet dancers have a very high pain threshold, says Washington podiatrist Stephen Pribut. It may be a combination of pain resistance and paranoia that gives them the ability – unwise as it may be – to dance through injury. Kretzschmar has been dogged by stress fractures and dances with chronic tendinitis. Lovette discovered an agonizing downside to her foot flexibility. While her ankles bend freely forward – giving her pointed foot a lovely, long line – bending backward, as they must when she lands from jumps, is challenging. She was in constant pain in her early years at NYCB. An X-ray showed she had an extra bone in her left foot, but it took her six years to face surgery.
After that last performance before the operation, “walking out of the theater was scary,” Lovette says. “What if I’m forgotten about? That’s always a dancer’s fear.” That was two years ago. After months of recovery, she returned to the stage, newly promoted to the top rank, her foot problems behind her. That is, until the right one started causing trouble. Lovette says a plant-based diet has helped reduce inflammation, and she sticks to sneakers and combat boots in her time off.
How a ballerina treats her feet off-duty is important, Pribut says. And it’s true for any of us. Our footwear is an essential tool no matter what we do. Some shoes, worn too often, can cause more strain than pointe shoes, the doctor says. Common culprits are flip-flops, high heels and what few dancers would ever wear outside the studio - ballet flats.