Pink satin and ribbons. The look of the pointe shoe has remained steady for decades. Still, designers are always searching for ways to improve its construction. Leo’s Dancewear came out with a split-sole pointe shoe. Prima Soft has created the “perfect placement toe box.” Components have been added to aid in noise reduction. But even with the assistance of modern machinery and materials, most pointe shoes are still entirely handmade. The process isn’t easy, either. The people responsible for the shoes are highly-skilled craftsmen, injection-mold specialists, or masters in stitchery. The work is physically demanding. Cobblers have suffered repetitive stress injuries, back and neck pain, cuts and bruises. Some work six days a week. Often ignored, cobblers tend to be approached only when a dancer is unhappy with her shoe.
Few things are more important to a ballerina than how her shoe fits. Nothing is more important to a cobbler or shoe designer. Like a dancer developing her technique, cobblers spend hours, even years perfecting their craft. Some say that ballerinas and their cobblers, or “makers,” have a symbiotic relationship. Though it’s rare for a shoe to be made from start to finish by one person, chances are you know a dancer who only wears shoes by her maker. She knows him simply by number, letter, or symbol-markings originally devised by manufacturers as a way to maintain quality and keep track of the product. Clever dancers took note.
There are two sides to every story. We thought it would be fun to hear from both so we spoke with seven ballerinas and their cobblers and craftsmen about the satin-covered creations their careers depend on.
The History of Us
Boston Ballet principal Pollyana Ribeiro’s loyalty to Karl-Heinz Martin Klassische Ballettschuhe GmbH’s “Eva” model spans her entire career. It’s a history she recognizes as rare. “The first shoe I put on is the shoe I order now,” says Ribeiro. “I can’t imagine dancing in anything else. Eva’s “A” maker, Artur Fuchs, followed his grandfather’s lead and began crafting pointe shoes in 1978 at the age of 18. Now, with help from an assistant and seamstresses, Fuchs produces 40-43 pairs a day. The ones that are size 3 1/2 wide with a long vamp, double hard sole and flat heel, are destined for Ribeiro.
Though she says the shoes fit so well they feel like slippers, Ribeiro modifies them slightly. “I bang them on the floor, squeeze the front and side, 3/4 the shank [cut the heel portion of the shank off to make it softer and more supple] and cut the tip of the satin,” she says. Depending on her schedule, Ribeiro goes through up to four pairs a week, each one getting a pre-performance kiss. “I love them,” she says. Artur Fuchs is delighted to help. “I’m proud to be part of such a wonderful event,” he says.
Laura Tong, Australian Ballet corps member, was concerned about finding a pointe shoe that fit properly. Having overcome an injury caused, in part, by dancing in a shoe too small, she anticipated a difficult process. Then she met Bloch’s “Ace of Spades,” Ron Boorman. “I pointed out things I wasn’t happy about, and he fixed them,” she says. “It made a big difference.” Inside her shoes (5 1/2 XXX, with a not too heavy block) Tong wears a Jelly Toe for padding if she has a bruised toenail or blister. Otherwise, she says, “I just put them on and start working.” For Boorman, being a cobbler is a happy accident. After taking a temporary job with another pointe shoe company 26 years ago, he soon became fulltime and now churns out 25-35 pairs of shoes a day. Quality is his goal. “I add a bit of TLC to the shoes,” he says.
If Ron retired? “It would be a year of trying to find another shoe,” says Tong.
Looks Good and Feels great
“I have long and narrow toes.” says Silja Schandorff, Royal Danish Ballet principal. “They’re difficult.” Even so, how her shoe fit wasn’t Schandorff’s first priority—how it looked was. “I saw dancers at The Royal Ballet wearing Innovations. I thought they looked beautiful so I had to try them,” says Schandorff. Turns out the shoes that looked good actually fit! The creator of the shoe, Bob Martin, who originally worked at Gamba, started his own small company 10 years ago with his wife Patricia. Now their London workshop consists of six cobblers producing around 180 pairs of shoes a day. “The small size allows us to personalize each shoe. We don’t even need to sign them,” says Martin. Schandorff met with Martin in London to get the right fit. Martin discovered Schandorff was in between half sizes. Now Martin fashions a 5X fitting hard shank, very large platform, and medium vamp shoe for Schandorff. The result is what Schandroff describes as the best of both worlds. “I like the way they look. I like the way they feel. They’ve made my life easier. Bad shoes can ruin a performance.”
Tried and True
NYCB soloist Pascale van Kipnis switched to her 5 1/2 D Capezio “Special Make-Ups” midway through her career. Now, eight years later, van Kipnis says, “I’m sticking with these.” van Kipnis’ shoes are handmade by Maker #7, Tony Sousa, a cobbler with 20 years experience. Capezio makes lasts (plastic models of the foot) for dancers who order customized shoes. The result is a shoe that fits every time. “And they last,” says van Kipnis. “I can use them for a performance and then for rehearsals the next day.” Though she could request the shank be shortened, van Kipnis three-quarters them herself. “I don’t need much support,” she says. “My feet go on pointe and stay there. Some people have pliable feet; I have rigid feet.” Her other preparations? “An Ouch Pouch, tape, and Second Skin if a toe is bugging me. I sew elastic into my ribbons to ward of tendonitis.” And just how does van Kipnis keep from sounding, in her words, “like an elephant?” She reveals, “Every NYCB dancer bangs her shoes. It’s a requirement that we don’t make noise.”
Love at First Try
When ABT corps member Melissa Thomas was searching for a bunion-friendly shoe, she tried Gaynor Mindens. “I knew right away I liked them,” says Thomas. Because each element of a Gaynor Minden shoe is customized, the key is perfecting the fit. “We accommodated Melissa’s need for extra girth in the toe area so she could dance safely and comfortably,” says head of design Eliza Minden. Of her shoes (size 9 wide with a #4 square-shaped box, hard shank, sleek vamp, and sleek heel) Thomas says, “They took a little adjusting to but they’re quiet, light, and comfortable. I don’t wear padding or spray alcohol on the shoe where my bunions are because the material inside is soft and doesn’t hurt.” Minden, who also consults with The Royal Ballet’s Alina Cojocaru, a customer since 2002, says she loves working with dancers. “I get involved if the dancer wants something unusual,” she says. “We look at the foot and what the dancer needs. That’s where it all starts.”
Shoes with Heart
“Looking for the right shoe lasts for the whole ballet life,” says Svetlana Lunkina, Bolshoi Ballet principal. “Repertoire changes, responsibilities increase. If I weren’t 100 percent sure of my shoe, I wouldn’t be convincing,” she says. Grateful for her Grishko Maya I models, Lunkina thanked Alexander Shemenev, her cobbler of five years, face-to-face and invited him to see her perform. Though he has several clients at companies worldwide, Shemenev knows Lunkina’s order (size 4, width X) by heart. Once, noticing a lapse in orders, Shemenev said he was afraid Lunkina found a new cobbler. “I felt so relieved to find out she was on maternity leave!” says Shemenev. Soaring through 250-300 pairs of shoes each year, often 2 per performance, Lunkina’s only special request is to specify different shank strengths. “For Giselle I prefer a very soft shoe, for Don Quixote, a stronger shoe,” says Lunkina. “My shoes fit perfectly. I don’t need to think about my feet, I simply melt in my role.”
The Scenario Ballerinas Dread
After the retirement of her longtime cobbler, Royal Ballet principal Leanne Benjamin “was in a terrible state,” she says. Finding a new cobbler seemed easier said than done. Luckily, Freed’s maker, Taksim Eratli (whose symbol is the “Anchor”) was up to the challenge. “I sent trial shoes to see if she wanted to stick with me.” After a period of adjustment, Benjamin stuck, and Eratli has now been crafting her shoes (size 5 1/2; with a heel pin; long, winged block; flat toe and long pleats) for around 3 1/2 years.
Benjamin shellacs the box, paying special attention to the tip and sides. The shoes dry for a day then she shellacs them again. After they have solidified, she sews on the ribbons. “Then I put them on,” says Benjamin, “I sweat in them. It makes the shoes softer, but gives them more strength.” Why all the hassle? “If the shoes are right,” says Benjamin, “I’m happy.”
Khara Hanlon lives and writes in New York City.