Updated: Jul 19, 2019
The first pair of pointe shoes as a metaphor for grit and grace!
Last week, I had the pleasure of taking two of my more advanced adult ballet students to get fitted for their first pair of pointe shoes. I would like to share what that was like, and the insights we gained from it.
Every little girl doing ballet is crazy about pointe shoes and cannot wait to be ready to get them. It is not that different for adult dancers. Those that are serious and consistent enough to want to get on pointe, are just as giddy about it! But as adults, once they actually get them, they are able to process the experience a bit more deeply.
Two of my adult ballerinas reached that milestone recently. One of them, Desiree Cummings, has been doing adult ballet since last November, and contemporary liturgical dance for a few years. The other one, Jeseka Lamb, has been my student since January, and even though she had no previous dance experience, she is the lucky owner of the most perfect pair of ballet feet ever! with high arches and great strength. I assessed both of them and we decided it was time to go for it.
Last Friday, we loaded up in the car and headed out to Grit and Grace Dance wear in Newman, GA, the place all the local studios use, since their pointe fitters are the at the top of their game.
We arrived at the absolutely gorgeous store 45 minutes later and were greeted by Stephanie (pointe shoe scientist extraordinaire) and Mary, former professional ballerina and also expert pointe shoe fitter. They had set up for us a table with wine and sugar cookies, because they understand the importance of this moment, and how it is a celebration of achievement for any dancer (being over 21 does have its benefits!). Stephanie started out by explaining to us the physics of pointe work (I will post this in an upcoming YouTube video). She specializes in pointe fittings and attends all the workshops offered by the top manufacturers. She told us how the manufacturers prefer fitters to be non-dancers, since dancers can get caught up in how pretty a certain shoe looks on someone (guilty!) and focus less on the actual physics of it, and potential benefits to the dancer. After all, a pointe shoe is an extremely special piece of gear. It is designed to hold the ballerina steady on her pointed feet, with a reasonable degree of comfort. As we learned from Stephanie, being on pointe does not need to involve excruciating pain, as people often think. Of course, is not the most comfortable thing, but it does not need to involve unbearable pain, blood and countless blisters (I have had only a few so far). A properly fitted shoe, on a dancer that is ready for it, will feel snug and supporting, making the task of raising on pointe achievable without cringing. More on that later.
After we settled in and I explained the girls’ experience level and goals, as well as my own concerns with the shoes I was currently wearing, they brought out the first pairs they thought would be best for us.
I had been wearing Suffolk Stellars, but I felt like the box was a bit tall (there was a space between the top of the box and the top of my foot, which was causing my foot to sit in the shoe wrong. We decided on the Suffolk Spotlight for me, which better fit the shape of my foot.
Desiree, after trying a couple of other pairs, settled on a Grishko 2007, which is a great beginner shoe. In fact, it was my first pair. It is great for dancers with narrow feet that need a bit of extra support while they strengthen their feet for pointe.
Jeseka’s amazing banana feet presented a bit of a challenge, and many styles were tried but were not quite right. Finally, she settled on the Bloch Stretch, which she felt most at ease in.
I recommended the elastic ribbons for both of them (I use them myself and I would not go back to anything else). We all settled on the proper toe pads and the girls got sewing kits and mesh bags for their new favorite shoes. A couple of hours later, we were off to a celebratory dinner.
Everyone was super happy and excited, but the moment of true came the next day. I arranged to meet the girls at the studio for a ribbon and elastic sewing tutorial, and their first pointe practice ( I will also share this in a future video). You see, the idea of being on pointe is fascinating for all dancers independently of age, but rarely do they stop to think about all the effort that goes not only into the practice, but the preparing of the pointe shoes. All regular foot wear comes ready to wear, but a pointe shoe is a blank canvas of sorts. Once you have chosen the right one, you now have to sew the elastics and ribbons that will keep it in place, and then you must break the shoe in, which is a different process for every dancer. For beginners, the breaking in process consists mostly off actually wearing the shoe and doing exercises while wearing it. The more advanced a dancer becomes, the more custom the break in process, as we figure out by trial and error what works for us and what does not.
As in we settled on the floor of the studio to begin the process, I began explaining how it all works; you measure the elastic and cut it in four pieces, two for each shoe, then also cut the ribbons the same way. Then you figure out placement, and begin hand sewing each piece. Professional dancers that have to do this many times a week can do it in about 15 minutes. Some consider it a meditative practice and take it as an opportunity to practice mindfulness. I am sure that some also are not too keen on it, and probably pay someone to do it, but the general rule is that every dancer must prepare her own pointe shoes, is part of being a ballet dancer. As I explained this to the girls, they mentioned how they did not realize how painstaking this process was. Yet, they did not dislike it. Doing something for the very first time is always the hardest, so we were 2 hours in until their shoes were ready. During that time, we had the chance to talk about what getting on pointe meant for them: for Desiree, it meant the fulfillment of life long dream; she always envisioned herself as a ballerina twirling on the tips of her toes, but as a child, did not have the opportunity to be properly trained. She did a vlog about it herself and you can check it out HERE. For Jeseka, it was a new challenge: she never imagined herself as a dancer until she started coming to adult ballet classes, and seeing how this was something that she could accomplish, it was a meaningful and self-empowering moment.
There was, as expected, a lot of fighting with the needle and thread, but I got to say, the special sewing kits we got at Grit and Grace made a difference. Prior, I was using regular needles and thread for sewing my own pointe shoes and having the ideal tools made the process a whole lot easier for me.
When the shoes were ready, we made it to the barre for a quick first pointe exercise training. Just as Stephanie advised at the shop, the shoes, when properly fitted, felt like a glove, very tight. We progressed through the same exercises that we have been doing in pre pointe class in the previous months. This was an eye opener for the girls. The first time in pointe shoes is such a weird moment, it makes you realize that these very pretty shoes, that hold so much promise, are going to make you work for it; when you first start using them, it is going to look nothing like the expectations you have. It is awkward and odd. You feel like you have to start re-learning the very basics of ballet all over. But that is part of their beauty, the fact that you have to earn, trough hard work, the right to use them properly. The girls fully embraced this concept and have been working hard at it. I told them they could only practice at home by the barre for now, and to do only the exercises they learned in class, to avoid injury. Adult dancers going on pointe have an advantage over the little girls; their bones are already fully grown, but they still risk injury if they don’t have proper progression.
I have been on an off with my own pointe training for years because until recently, I did not have a proper floor to practice on. The best floor to do pointe work is a proper dance floor (that has a sub floor that absorbs shock, and a vinyl top, Marley type floor that provides the right amount of traction). A wood floor is second best. Now I work and practice at a proper dance studio that has such a floor, so I have made more progress on my pointe work in the last couple of months than I previously did in the last couple of years. Hopefully, my girls will be able to progress fast because we have the ideal floor.
Just like with anything else in ballet, consistency is key; the more you do it, the better you get. And pointe shoes have a special way to drive this idea home; everyone loves the way they look, every dancer wants an Instagram moment in their pointe shoes, but after the first time you put them on, you realize that is going to take some work to even pose properly. There are many cringe-worthy pictures out there of untrained dancers in pointe shoes, we know how that looks like and it is bad! Anyone doing ballet with me, does not want pictures like that! Of course, dancers that are new or intermediate on pointe are not going to look the same as the pros, but as a teacher, and intermediate pointe student myself, I am open to celebrating our accomplishments with pictures, as long as we are “over the box”.
The experience of taking my first set of students to get their first pointe shoes ended up being a lot more meaningful and introspective from what I thought it would be. I knew it was going to be emotional, but so much more came out of it; all the great science we got for Stephanie, the realization about how painstaking the process can be and how it becomes easier overtime, and the even deeper realization about how this is such a perfect metaphor for any aspect of life that you want to master. I think I can sum it up like this: You want it because is amazing. You can do it, but it is going to hurt and feel a little weird. But if you keep doing it, you will get to the amazing part. Apply that to anything you want, I think it will remain constant!