Editorial: Myth of the pointe shoe

It is probably the ballerina's favorite accessory: the pointe shoe. Feminine, mysterious, sometimes painful. Annette Baumann and Serge Honegger talked to pointe shoe administrator Séverine Ferrolier about this landmark of classical ballet.


Séverine, you must have one of the most unusual professions around: You are a pointe shoe administrator. Very few people can imagine what that means. What exactly is your job?

As a pointe shoe administrator, I take care of the entire organization of the shoes, from consulting to purchasing to budget control. I order pointe shoes from the various manufacturers and advise the dancers if they have any questions, are unsure or experience pain. I can share many of my own years of experience as a dancer here. This is something very personal. The men, of course, do not get pointe shoes, but flats.


You talked about different manufacturers. Is there a special "pointe shoe industry"? How do the shoes differ from each other?

There are indeed very different shoes, depending on the country where they are made. There are brands from England, from Russia, from the USA, from France, some are softer, and some are harder. In America, for example, special pointe shoes are produced that last much longer than conventional ones. They are then made of a different material; you can even wash them in the washing machine.


For people who have never worn a pointe shoe, which is the vast majority of people, how does it feel when you wear it?

First and foremost, a pointe shoe is much more compact, it fits very closely to the foot. At the front, of course, we need a „pointe ", that is a surface so that we can stand on it at all. This surface has a diameter of about 5 cm and is really hard. It is a bit of a squeeze... However, the dancers are used to it right from the start.


Doesn't it hurt terribly when you stand on your toes?

It does hurt at the beginning. We use aids, there is everything from band-aids to kitchen roll to cut-off tennis socks or washcloths.

Each dancer has her own method. Eventually the pain goes away, the feet get used to it. For me, pointe shoes were even the decisive reason why I chose ballet over gymnastics or piano. As a child, I simply wanted to wear pointe shoes; they are so elegant, so refined, so feminine - for me, its pure passion. You forget the pain at some point.


Pointe shoes are a very feminine accessory. What about the men? How long would it take a trained dancer to dance on pointe?

Men's muscles are generally less suited to always pulling themselves up on pointe. Boys and men are trained differently in this aspect, they just don't have the same muscular strength at that point as women. It would probably take quite a long time. But above all, I'm not sure that men would really want to wear pointe shoes every day... (laughs).


And what is a pointe shoe made of?

That varies depending on the manufacturer, they each have their own ingredients and "recipes" which they keep secret. Most shoes are made of a very specific jute-paste-starch mixture for the front part of the foot. It's a bit like papier-mâché. This front box needs to be hard so that it can hold the weight of the body on the top of the foot; also, this material is malleable and adjusts to the particular foot. The rest of the shoe is made of textile and leather.

Each shoe is handmade, many ballerinas even have their own shoemaker. This is very, very much work, each pair is unique.

New (pointe) shoes are waiting for new owners
Pointe shoe administrator Séverine Ferolier keeps track of orders.


What requirements do dancers have for pointe shoes?

The shoes should be used for as many training hours, rehearsals and performances as possible. The dancers always have to prepare the shoes beforehand, and that is time-consuming: the straps and elastics have to be sewn on, the toe is reinforced at the front, and many also cut the inside of the sole to suit their own preferences. This is a lot of work before you can even dance with the shoes and every dancer has her own method.


How long does it take to make a pair?

That also varies. If possible, we always order at least three months in advance so that we get the perfect individual shoes.


And how long does a shoe like that last on average?

Principals need an average of one to two pairs per performance, depending on the production. For a corps de ballet member, they last two or three performances at the most.

However, you can usually use the shoes for rehearsals for a little while longer. And there is a special varnish and superglue that you can use to coat the sole. Then it becomes a bit harder again and the shoes can be worn longer.


There's a big discussion right now about skin color and black- or white-facing in ballet. Is that also an issue with pointe shoes? Are the shoes matched to the skin color?

If we have dancers with darker skin color in the ensemble, we will of course order shoes to match if requested. This has nothing to do with discrimination or racism. It is art and a dancer must feel comfortable.


You look back on a career spanning more than 20 years. How have pointe shoes changed during this time?

I would say that today dancers are much more conscious about shoes. In my early days, there were maybe two or three big brands. Dancers today get much choice and have become much more demanding. They want the shoe that is as perfect for them as possible, and of course they want to avoid injuries. Because if you're on sick leave, you might lose an important role. As a dancer, every minute is precious. The career is so short. And finding the right shoes also has something to do with feeling good, feeling mentally and physically healthy.I think that awareness has definitely changed.


Last question and a very personal one: What do shoes mean to you?

For me, shoes have something to do with being down-to-earth. As an artist, you like to dream yourself into another world, to live in a utopia. Good, fitting shoes have always been a means for me to stay grounded, a connection to reality. At least in everyday life. As for pointe shoes: I've worn them since I was a teenager and all through my career. Today, I no longer wear pointe shoes; now it's the turn of another generation. And that's okay. Although sometimes I do get a bit nostalgic.

 But pointe shoes - despite the pain that has always been associated with them - have something magical.

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