It's all about the pointe during 'Nutcracker' season
Ballet could be called the art of gracefully defying gravity.
Alighting on their toes, ballerinas seem to flout the earthbound pull to which the rest of us are subject.
And no time is that more apparent than when "The Nutcracker" arrives on stages around the country. Ballet Austin's version, with choreography by artistic director Stephen Mills, plays the Long Center through Dec. 23.
But for all the breathtaking moments of ballerinas aloft, there's the not-so-magical mechanics of the pointe shoe.
Ballet's anti-gravitational spectacle is actually a combination of century-old shoemaking techniques paired with years of hard training and a lot of sore feet.
The female dancers of Ballet Austin use about 350 pairs of pointe shoes each season, and dancers in Ballet Austin II — the apprentice company — use 105 pairs. Each ballerina receives 35 pairs of pointe shoes to use for rehearsal and performance during Ballet Austin's nine-month season.
Annually, the company spends more than $47,000 for pointe shoes. (Custom-made shoes can run $90 and up; non-custom start at around $50).
And with its multiple performances, several large casts and classical choreography, perhaps no other production consumes as many pointe shoes as "The Nutcracker."
Jaime Lynn Witts — one of three who dances the major role of the Snow Queen with its multiple pirouettes and other pointe-intensive steps — will use up a new pair of pointe shoes every two performances in the role, and this year she dances it five times out of Ballet Austin's 12 "Nutcracker" shows.
Ditto with Chelsea Renner. She'll burn through the delicate-looking satin shoes as one of the leads in the "Waltz of the Flowers" scene.
"This is the time we really go through the shoes," Renner says.
Inside the shoes
The illusion of weightlessness that dancing en pointe creates makes for plenty of misconceptions.
No, the box of the pointe shoe — the hard enclosure that encases the dancer's toes — is not a thick block of wood, as many people think. It's actually quite a thin shell of fabric (burlap, linen or canvas) and sometimes papier-mâché layered with glues and pastes.
Typically the platform is no more than about a quarter-inch thick. And inside there's little between a dancer's toes and the shoe. Some dancers stuff a little lambswool in their shoes or use thin toe pads that offer a smidgen of cushioning. Many use nothing at all.
Though pointe shoes also support a dancer's feet from underneath the arch by a stiff shank usually made of leather, the answer to probably the most frequently asked question about pointe shoes is yes, a ballerina really is just standing on her toes.
Physiologically, a dancer stabilizers herself with the upward tension of her foot, leg and torso as her toe pushes down, keeping her center of gravity in line with the very tip of her shoe.
Young dancers must have years of training before their feet and legs are deemed strong enough to dance pointe. The curriculum of Ballet Austin Academy requires four years of intensive classical ballet training before a dancer can begin pointe technique classes.
"It's a privilege to finally get your pointe shoes," says Renner, who like Witts teaches beginning pointe technique at Ballet Austin's Academy. "You dream about it."
Renner remembers as a little girl dancing around her bedroom with plastic cups on her feet pretending they were pointe shoes. She still has her first few pairs of pointe shoes neatly numbered and packed away as treasured mementos.
Now Renner, like other Ballet Austin dancers, autographs her used pointe shoes, which are then sold at intermission to little ballerinas-to-be.
Of course, back in class, Renner and Witt share a less-than-glamorous pointe shoe secret with their students: Skip the pedicures.
"(A pedicure) would take away all the callouses I need," says Witts. "We don't want soft feet."
Making shoes fit
Like most professionals, Ballet Austin dancers use only custom-made shoes. Toe length, foot width and arch height and flexibility are just a few of the characteristics dancers consider when choosing their shoes.
And as they have been for more than a century, pointe shoes are handmade, with many dancers using shoes not only made by a specific company but also by a specific shoemaker.
Some shoes take as long as six months from order to delivery. Yet once they do arrive, even custom-made shoes still are not ready for dancing.
Pointe shoes come without the elastic straps and satin ribbons that keep the shoe secure on the foot and ankle. And optimal placement of the elastic and ribbons depends on the individual characteristics of each dancer's foot.
Sewing ribbons and elastic into place is just the first of many rituals — some practical, some superstitious, all idiosyncratic — that each dancer undertakes to get her pointe shoes in exactly the shape she prefers.
Pointe shoes prove a strange conundrum. Dancers want a stiff shoe for rigorous pointe work. Yet some pliability is needed, too. But of course, because they're made of just satin, glue and canvas, a pointe shoe can quickly lose its structural integrity. Managing that fine line between stiffness and pliability creates a constant routine of shoe maintenance, something dancers do every day they dance.
"We're always messing with our shoes," Renner laughs.
Some dancers soften up their new shoes by jamming them in door hinges or smashing them on the floor. Some darn the shoe's platform to prevent to the satin from fraying or to alter the balance of the shoe.
To shore up weakening shoes, Witts, like many other dancers, coats the shoe box with a flexible, fast-drying glue. And once a pair has become too softened up to use in a performance, she'll use them in less-demanding rehearsals or the daily class all professionals take.
The constant shoe-juggling and shoe-futzing means that most ballerinas haul two large bags: one that carries 10 to 15 pairs of shoes in different states of use and another that totes all the supplies for tending shoes and feet.
Renner and Witts gladly reveal what they carry: Various sewing needles, pink thread and unwaxed dental floss for stitching on satin and elastic ribbons (dental floss makes for a particularly strong thread); antiseptic powder (to keep feet dry); disinfection spray; scissors; sports tape; various types of bandages; bunion cushions; gel toe separators; a nail file and nail clippers; a cigarette lighter (for burning the ends of satin ribbon so it doesn't fray).
It's a less-than-glamorous array of accoutrements needed to keep a dancer aloft on her toes. But if the reality of defying gravity isn't pretty, the art and effort of dancing on pointe give ballet its most enduring illusion.