Dancers have a very close affinity with the floor and their feet begin and end all dance movements in contact with the floor. All dancers have to look after their feet very carefully because feet are to dancers what hands are to a pianist. In dance feet must last through a long and arduous career, suffering the wear and tear of bunions, corns, blisters and swelling. The National Ballet of Canada has a podiatrist who visits the dancers on a regular basis to look at their foot problems.
The company has a footwear staff of two who look after the needs of approximately 50 dancers. They fit, order, dye and sometimes design the shoes for all the company's dancers. Approximately $250,000 is spent each year on footwear. Female dancers sometimes wear soft ballet slippers but more often than not they are required to dance in pointe shoes. Pointe shoes, which are clouded in myth, symbolize the ethereal woman of ballet who floats across the stage weightless and otherworldly. Little girls begin to practice pointe work at the age of 12 or 13 so that by the time they are ready to dance professionally their feet are well trained and strengthened for the rigors of pointe work.
Dancing on the tips of the toes was first seen in the 1820s; no one is sure of the exact date. Since the first female dancers began to linger in the air for seconds on the tips of their toes, they have developed the technique of pointe work, achieving great feats of strength and virtuosity through the strengthening of the foot muscles, which makes for flexible, mobile and light footwork. The first pointe shoes were simply soft ballet slippers that were padded with cotton wool and darned at the toes to provide strength and a base for the foot. Dancers were not able to stand for long on these shoes. Today's pointe shoes provide dancers with far greater support and are handmade to meet the individual needs of each dancer.
Since the 1860s, pointe shoes have been made of shiny satin and shaped like a tightly fitted slipper with an elongated, hard toe. The area covering and surrounding the toes is made of layers of canvas glued together in the shape of a three-sided box. It is then baked in an oven to make it hard. Dancers take these hard toed shoes and gently mould them to their feet and sew ribbons on them for added support. The sole of the shoe is made of hard leather to provide more support.
When ballerinas dance in pointe shoes, their body heat softens the shoes. The glue and canvas break down and by the end of a performance, the shoes often are so soft they can no longer support the dancer's footwork. Some dancers wear through three pairs of pointe shoes in a single performance. Male dancers usually wear ballet slippers made of leather or canvas which, like pointe shoes, are specially made to measure for each individual. The leather is pleated and soft under the toes but the rest of the sole is made of hard leather. The shoes are easily malleable, moulding to the foot like a second skin and assist the dancer in establishing a firm grip on the floor.
Dancers also use a variety of other footwear including character boots and shoes. There are two different kinds of character boots, heeled and unheeled. In order to perform complex dance techniques, male dancers must wear the very soft, flat, close-fitting slippers mentioned above, in which the foot can be easily manipulated. But if they have to dance classical ballet variations and the costume designer requires them to wear period boots, footwear appropriate to the time and place of the ballet, the dancer compromises by wearing heelless boots.
The foot of the boot is shaped just like a ballet slipper and the upper part is made to fit the calf and ankle measurements of the individual dancer. They are thus tight fitting and don't roll down the leg. For ease in getting these boots on and off, the sides are elasticized. They usually are made in white and are dyed to match the costume and tights with which they are to be worn. Sometimes colour samples are sent to the boot manufacturer, who delivers boots in the appropriate colour. By wearing heelless boots, a dancer can maintain the costume style required by the designer without compromising his dancing. For instance, the Prince in Swan Lake wears heelless character boots.
Heeled boots can be worn by both male and female dancers and reflect more accurately than the heelless version the designer's conception of the period in which the ballet takes place. Designers carefully research the period in order to reproduce clothing as authentically as possible for the stage. Character boots can come in all shapes, sizes, colours and heights, from ankle boots to thigh boots. Whatever is necessary to conform to the needs of the costume is used in the design of such boots. Boots are an integral part of many character dances. The mazurkas and czardas seen in Swan Lake incorporate a lot of heel clicking, so heeled boots are worn by both men and women for these dances. Character boots can also be decorated with elaborate designs and with gold applique and buckles, bows and ribbons.
The Bournonville slipper, invented by August Bournonville, is worn by male soloists in all of the ballets choreographed by Bournonville. This slipper has a white V-shaped vamp in the front while the rest is black. Even people sitting at the back of the theatre are sure to notice these slippers which give the illusion of beautiful, long pointed feet. At the Royal Danish Ballet in Denmark, it is a very great privilege to be given permission to wear the Bournonville slipper and inevitably the dancer is given a solo to perform. Some shoemakers make Bournonville slippers while others supply dancers with white slippers that are then dyed black appropriately. The Bournonville slipper is worn in such ballets as Napoli, Flower Festival at Genzano, Kermesse in Bruges and A Folk Tale.
Do you sometimes find it hard to see the footwear worn by dancers? If so, our footwear staff has done a good job because it is up to them to match the dancers' shoes with the tights they are wearing on stage. If the dancer is wearing a specific colour of bright orange tights, for example, the shoes must be dyed exactly the same colour. That way the line of the leg is not broken at the ankle by the introduction of a new colour. This also makes the dancers' legs look longer.
Sometimes no footwear is worn on stage. In modern dance, the dancers often perform in bare feet. As you can imagine, dancing barefoot is a very different feeling from wearing confining shoes. When dancers are barefoot they can spread out their toes and have a very different kind of contact with the floor. They can use their weight differently and thus their movement is more grounded than in classical ballet. When dancers are barefoot the audience sees a very different manipulation of the foot. Even the sound of the feet on stage is very different from that of slippers and particularly from that of pointe shoes.
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