BAL­LET SHOES are cus­tom­made at Ros­setti, which makes the 60-year-old store a rar­ity.

Montreal Gazette - - Weekend Life - RE­TAIL DE­TAIL Vanessa Muri This in­ter­view has been con­densed. Com­ments? Email Vanessa at

Sean Win­ston is the mas­ter shoe-fit­ter, man­ager and al­laround dance com­mu­nity li­ai­son for Ros­setti, a dance store of­fer­ing leo­tards, tights and, of course, pointe shoes to Montrealers for 60 years. Aside from bal­let, jazz, tap, salsa and fla­menco ac­ces­sories, Ros­setti also out­fits cir­cus per­form­ers from around the world. 3923 St. De­nis St., 514-842-7337. www.sal­­setti

So the word is that you’re the pointe shoes ex­pert in Mon­treal. First, can you tell me how you got into the dance busi­ness?

I was hired to rake Dorothy Ros­setti’s leaves and walk her dog. (Laughs) In­ter­est­ing. So how did your po­si­tion evolve?

She opened the store in 1951. I was just sort of there, and she came in one day and told me to get out there and sell some­thing, rather than sit there at the back of the store wait­ing for her to in­struct me on what my mis­sions were for that day (which all in­volved her dog). Her dog would bite ev­ery­body, in­clud­ing her. I, for some rea­son, was let off the hook. So I be­came the dog walker.

Then I started work­ing here as the ship­per, and she sent me to New York to meet a man called Ben Som­mers at Capezio. I worked in the fac­to­ries very briefly and was in­tro­duced to all the early peo­ple who made shoes. Many years later she in­tro­duced me to a man named Rod­ney Freed from London, and of course I picked up ex­pe­ri­ence with dancers work­ing in the store as well. So it spi­ralled into a new po­si­tion for you over time?

Yes, I sup­pose it was a nat­u­ral tran­si­tion, be­cause no­body else does this work. There are re­ally only a few of us in the world who do what Ros­setti’s does. Two stores. Two in the whole world? What ex­actly is it that you do?

We ad­just the shoes to achieve bet­ter weight dis­tri­bu­tion. And the fa­ther of this would be Rod­ney Freed, who is the son of the man who started the most fa­mous pointe shoe com­pany, Freed of London. He was an af­ter­thought in his fa­ther’s life, and he grew up in the Le­ices­ter fac­to­ries, and they gave him the depart­ment of cir­cus and rock ’n’ roll, which his fa­ther hated. So he was one of the peo­ple who made the first Bea­tle Boots, and he worked in cir­cus arts. That’s all about align­ment and weight dis­tri­bu­tion, and he adapted it, us­ing those the­o­ries, into pointe shoes. He then passed on this tra­di­tion to me. So there’s no­body else. So you can cus­tom-make pointe shoes?

Yes. And we do a lot of other spe­cialty work with the cir­cus, be­cause of the cir­cus boom, largely due to Guy Lal­ib­erté (founder of Cirque de Soleil). For many years, we’ve done a lot of spe­cialty work. Not ev­ery­one in the world even knows that we are one of the only ones in the world. (Laughs) So who needs a cus­tom pair of pointe shoes?

What we gen­er­ally do is we take stan­dard pointe shoes and ad­just them to each foot to achieve bet­ter align­ment. We sort of re­build them. For any­one who walks in here, we’ll do it. The moment they walk in the store?

Yes, right away. Un­less it’s some­thing we have to re­make com­pletely. But that’s rare. Be­cause usu­ally we can do enough with what’s right here. We’ll take out and add a lot of things to find that per­fect bal­ance. There’s a space in­side the shoe; the foot oc­cu­pies that space. My job is to de­cide where it oc­cu­pies that space. And in do­ing that, we achieve the best weight dis­tri­bu­tion, so it’s much more com­fort­able and the align­ment is all there. In more gen­eral shoe-speak, how many dif­fer­ent styles or brands of shoes do you sell here?

We sell about eight or nine. We don’t need very many be­cause we re­build them right here any­way. What are the dif­fer­ences be­tween the ma­jor brands?

(He presents a pair of shoes.) The gen­eral shape of the box is squarer. And then, here, this pair is more ta­pered. Sub­tle changes, but a mil­lime­tre can make a huge dif­fer­ence for a dancer. So who would look for the larger toe box?

It all de­pends on the to­tal pic­ture, on how the align­ment is go­ing. There are a lot of myths out there that we be­lieve are just myths. For in­stance: Only cer­tain types of feet should be in cer­tain types of shoes. Myth is the ma­jor fac­tor that re­volves around pointe shoes. I at­tribute that to the war brides who came here from Europe. How so?

Be­cause where there is ig­no­rance, peo­ple will tend to cre­ate their own knowl­edge. So you can imag­ine all these young war brides com­ing over here, and a lot of them started open­ing up dance schools. They had stud­ied in Eng­land – but not with as much knowl­edge as one might think. I’ve heard peo­ple tell you that these shoes are made of wood, and one ac­tu­ally said blind wood carvers made them. I thought to my­self, “that would ex­plain a lot.” Fas­ci­nat­ing.

So this here is the shank of the shoe. They have dif­fer­ent strengths. Bend that. And now bend this one with all your might. So there are shank dif­fer­ences, there are height dif­fer­ences, the dis­tance be­tween here and here (the vamp, the part of the shoe that cov­ers the top of the foot from leg to toes). And so what is the dif­fer­ence be­tween the Rus­sian shoes and, say, Bri­tish? I had a teacher who in­sisted on Rus­sian shoes.

The Rus­sian ones are re­ally a work of en­gi­neer­ing; I think aes­thet­i­cally, the de­sign is most pleas­ing. But it re­quires a dif­fer­ent type of train­ing, where you’re stronger, gen­er­ally stronger. It’s Rus­sia, by the way! And they’re made with high ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in them. And I’ve seen Kirov classes – not that I’ve been there, but a few peo­ple de­scribe it on video, boot­leg videos that re­main on the black mar­ket – where they just grab them out of a bin. Whereas here, we tend to pam­per our artists; they just put them on. They’re made of black flour. Very thick burlap. High in­con­sis­ten­cies where they spread the paste. (The box of a pointe shoe con­sists of a paste made from flour, wa­ter and a few other in­gre­di­ents that har­den. Com­pa­nies don’t like to share their for­mula.) So you don’t know what you’re get­ting. What tra­di­tion­ally hap­pens is that the teacher who told you could only have Rus­sian shoes was prob­a­bly trained in the Vag­o­nava Method by her teacher, who said only wear Rus­sian shoes. Yes, ac­tu­ally, she was.

Let’s call that a Rus­sian virus. And she will pass that on to her dis­ci­ples. Now Bri­tish-trained teach­ers will pass on their virus, which is “only Bri­tish” – the Na­tional Bal­let be­ing the guilti­est of that. Only Bri­tish, re­ally be­cause they profit most from that fi­nan­cially. They per­pet­u­ate their virus all over, through the teach­ing schools and through their stu­dents. So they will only wear Bri­tish shoes. I see some Ros­setti boxes on the shelves. Do you make your own line as well?

No, no, we don’t. (He points to a hand-painted leather boot.) The only things we do are things like that. Here, come in the back. We’ll get a de­sign like this right here from the de­signer, and then we’ll make that boot. This was for Cirque du Soleil. We do a lot of those for dif­fer­ent shows. So your pri­mary clients are dancers and cir­cus per­form­ers?

Dancers. Def­i­nitely dancers. And that runs the gamut from am­a­teur to pro­fes­sional?

Yes. But there re­ally isn’t a dif­fer­ence. What­ever makes peo­ple most com­fort­able. So how long does a pair of pointe shoes last?

It de­pends what kind. The ones we mostly sell here last for about two years. Bri­tish ones, 20 min­utes. Be­tween 20 min­utes and max­i­mum five hours of use. So a dancer wear­ing these shoes will have 200 pairs in a sea­son. Wow. Are you se­ri­ous?

Be­cause it’s made of burlap, flour and paper. There’s not a lot of dif­fer­ence be­tween the shoes of to­day and those made in 1920. Though in the late 1960s they added formalde­hyde to the flour. There were worms in the flour that hatched and ate their way out of the shoes. This is a fact! Oh, gross. So these must be the cheap­est shoes on the mar­ket.

No, the most ex­pen­sive ac­tu­ally, at $100 a pair. When I started, they were $19.95. That’s crazy.

Yes, it is. It’s a whole sub-cul­ture, re­ally, isn’t it?

Yes, def­i­nitely. You must have no­ticed lots of trends in the in­dus­try over the years?

Yes, par­tic­u­larly styles of dance. Salsa has played a pre­dom­i­nant role in Mon­treal and across North Amer­ica. It’s played a phe­nom­e­nal role in the last 10 years. Fla­menco also had tremen­dous growth, tango in the ’90s. Bal­let in the ’80s, and bal­let jazz, too. Bal­let jazz was phe­nom­e­nal from 1978 un­til 1984. It was amaz­ing. I think there were nine per­form­ing com­pa­nies in Mon­treal. And I don’t just mean pro­fes­sional or­ga­ni­za­tions, I’m talk­ing full, per­form­ing, tour­ing com­pa­nies. It was a very rich time in dance. It was a whole life­style, a healthy life­style, to be sure. And now it’s nowhere near like that?

No. (Sighs) We’re do­ing a lot of bur­lesque now, though. Oh, tell me about that.

Scar­lett James is my part­ner in bur­lesque crime. She comes here for mesh tights, a lot of train­ing gear. She is the pure art form of bur­lesque. The hey­day for bur­lesque in Mon­treal was from the 1930s to 1964. Then (for­mer) mayor Jean Dra­peau shut it all down. There were more than 900 li­censed the­atres be­tween At wa­ter and St.Lau­rent Blvd. alone. You could catch a full show at 4 a.m., go next door and have steak for break­fast. This is how it was.


Sales con­sul­tant Le­tizia Noc­iti (left) and shoe-fit­ter Sean Win­ston check the fit of Laura-Claire Ma­her’s new bal­let shoes at Ros­setti.

A bin of bal­let shoes made at Ros­setti us­ing tra­di­tional meth­ods that are sim­i­lar to those used in 1920. A dancer tries on a new pair of pointe shoes at Ros­setti in Mon­treal. The price for such shoes can be as high as $100 a pair.

Shoe-fit­ter Sean Win­ston uses a chisel to cus­tom­ize a pair of bal­let shoes in his work­shop at Ros­setti.

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