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