The thrill of bal­let and the agony of the feet.

Dancers’ feet take years of abuse — and in the worst kind of shoes

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - SARAH L. KAUF­MAN sarah.kauf­man@wash­post.com

‘Ifeel like I’m al­ways in a bat­tle with my feet,” says Lau­ren Lovette, with a sigh. One of New York City Bal­let’s prin­ci­pal bal­leri­nas, Lovette has beau­ti­fully arched, sup­ple feet, and of­ten, they’re killing her.

Af­ter years of sprains and other in­juries, she un­der­went surgery to cor­rect a bone anom­aly, but even with phys­i­cal ther­apy, daily an­kle ex­er­cises, ice baths and oint­ments, the 25year-old still hasn’t made peace with her feet.

Lovette shares this strug­gle with many dancers, whose feet take sus­tained abuse, and in the worst kind of footwear (or none at all). While they may run, jump, squat, leap and pivot like any NBA star, dancers do it with­out shock ab­sorp­tion, arch sup­port or any foot-com­fort fea­tures what­so­ever. Ath­letes get to wear shoes that are pro­tec­tive and kind to their feet. Dancers ex­pe­ri­ence no such lux­u­ries as they speed around the stage bare­foot, or in heels, or in thin slip­pers with a flimsy leather sole — or, if they’re bal­leri­nas, in those tight­fit­ting tor­ture cham­bers known as pointe shoes.

I had my own flir­ta­tion with pointe shoes as a bal­let student in my youth, and I’ll never for­get my alarm as I slid my feet into my first pair. Lit­tle bones I didn’t know I had were sud­denly squeezed in a death grip. Pointe shoes may look dainty, but there’s an El­iz­a­bethan-corset qual­ity to them, re­flect­ing their se­ri­ous­ness of pur­pose: equip­ping the dancer to do what no hu­man is de­signed to do.

“Pound for pound, dancers are just as strong as foot­ball play­ers, if not stronger,” says Lisa M. Schoene, a Chicago po­di­a­trist and ath­letic trainer who treats dancers and Olympians. “Get­ting up on pointe is one of the most ath­letic things you can do. They’re ex­ert­ing 10 to 12 times their body weight, go­ing up and down on that pointe shoe.”

In an­tic­i­pa­tion of New York City Bal­let’s en­gage­ment at the Kennedy Cen­ter from June 6 to 11, I’ve been think­ing about the in­com­pa­ra­ble strength of the bal­le­rina, es­pe­cially when it comes to her toes and what it takes to dance on them.

Danc­ing on the toes rev­o­lu­tion­ized bal­let in 1832, when Ital­ian bal­le­rina Marie Taglioni caused a sen­sa­tion in “La Syl­phide.” In the ti­tle role of a high­land fairy, she seemed to briefly trod the air, ris­ing on the tips of her satin slip­pers, which she had re­in­forced with darn­ing. As her trick caught on, and chore­og­ra­phers be­gan ex­plor­ing the airy pos­si­bil­i­ties of steps en pointe, shoe­mak­ers started stiff­en­ing bal­let slip­pers from the in­side with lay­ers of fab­ric and glue.

Pointe shoes are still made that way to­day, with cot­ton-lined satin, a rigid in­sole — or shank — and a cupped por­tion around the toes that is hard­ened with glue, can­vas and pa­per. Be­cause the shoe and the foot must work to­gether as one, it’s up to each dancer to cus­tom­ize her pointe shoes. Even the most ex­alted bal­leri­nas sew on their own an­kle rib­bons and elas­tics, which se­cure the shoes, and, like base­ball play­ers break­ing in new gloves, they all have rit­u­als to make their shoes pli­able and quiet. Noth­ing de­stroys an at­mos­phere of light­ness and grace like the clop-clop of hard pointe shoes.

Un­like ballplay­ers, bal­leri­nas in the ma­jor com­pa­nies have to sew and break in new shoes al­most ev­ery day. A pointe shoe’s life is mea­sured in hours of wear. At a cost of around $100 (usu­ally paid by the com­pany), a pair may last a pro for a full day of class and re­hearsal, but if she’s star­ring in “Swan Lake,” or danc­ing in a cou­ple of short bal­lets in an evening, she may go through a few changes of shoes.

Claire Kret­zschmar, a mem­ber of New York City Bal­let’s corps de bal­let, lays her new shoes on the ground, sole up, and stomps on them. Af­ter that, she pours quick-dry­ing Jet Glue (de­vel­oped for model air­planes, now a pointe shoe stan­dard) on the tips for ex­tra hard­en­ing. To pro­tect her toes, she wraps them in a brown pa­per towel, the kind you find in pub­lic bath­rooms. She used to use foam pads but found that the hum­ble pa­per towel al­lows her more dex­ter­ity.

“Pointe shoes are never com­fort­able,” says Kret­zschmar, 25, “but I didn’t find a dra­matic change in pain when I switched to pa­per tow­els.”

Lovette bangs her shoes against a wall about 20 times to rid them of clunk­i­ness: “If I feel my shoes are loud, I get self-con­scious and I dance in a dif­fer­ent way.”

Pointe shoes are an ex­ten­sion of their bod­ies, an es­sen­tial tool of ex­pres­sion, and bal­leri­nas get at­tached not only to their brand — most pop­u­lar among pro­fes­sion­als are Freed (made in Eng­land) or Bloch (from Aus­tralia) — but also to the in­di­vid­ual maker who hand­crafts the shoe. It can be trau­matic to change mak­ers. Julie Kent, artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Wash­ing­ton Bal­let, pan­icked when, at the height of her ca­reer at Amer­i­can Bal­let The­atre, she found out that her maker at Freed was re­tir­ing.

“I wrote him a let­ter,” Kent says, “and sent a pho­to­graph of my­self in ‘Giselle’ pray­ing, look­ing very plead­ing, say­ing would he con­sider just mak­ing a lim­ited amount of shoes for me a year.” It didn’t work. She even­tu­ally asked Bloch to copy an old shoe. While danc­ing as a guest with the Aus­tralian Bal­let, Kent went to Bloch’s fa­cil­ity to meet her maker, and they worked out an ideal, be­spoke fit.

In such a com­pet­i­tive pro­fes­sion, rest doesn’t come eas­ily. Bal­let dancers have a very high pain thresh­old, says Wash­ing­ton po­di­a­trist Stephen Pribut. It may be a com­bi­na­tion of pain re­sis­tance and para­noia that gives them the abil­ity — un­wise as it may be — to dance through in­jury. Kret­zschmar has been dogged by stress frac­tures and dances with chronic ten­dini­tis. Lovette dis­cov­ered an ag­o­niz­ing down­side to her foot flex­i­bil­ity. While her an­kles bend freely for­ward — giv­ing her pointed foot a lovely, long line — bend­ing back­ward, as they must when she lands from jumps, is chal­leng­ing. She was in con­stant pain in her early years at NYCB. An X-ray showed she had an ex­tra bone in her left foot, but it took her six years to face surgery.

Af­ter that last per­for­mance be­fore the op­er­a­tion, “walk­ing out of the the­ater was scary,” Lovette says. “What if I’m for­got­ten about? That’s al­ways a dancer’s fear.” That was two years ago. Af­ter months of re­cov­ery, she re­turned to the stage, newly pro­moted to the top rank, her foot prob­lems be­hind her. That is, un­til the right one started caus­ing trou­ble. Lovette says a plant-based diet has helped re­duce in­flam­ma­tion, and she sticks to sneak­ers and com­bat boots in her time off.

How a bal­le­rina treats her feet off-duty is im­por­tant, Pribut says. And it’s true for any of us. Our footwear is an es­sen­tial tool no mat­ter what we do. Some shoes, worn too of­ten, can cause more strain than pointe shoes, the doc­tor adds. Com­mon cul­prits are flip-flops, high heels and what few dancers would ever wear out­side the stu­dio — bal­let flats.

“POUND FOR POUND, DANCERS ARE JUST AS STRONG AS FOOT­BALL PLAY­ERS, IF NOT STRONGER.” Lisa M. Schoene, a Chicago po­di­a­trist and ath­letic trainer

Danc­ing takes a huge toll on the feet. Sona Khara­tian, above left, and Ash­ley Mur­phy are dancers with the Wash­ing­ton Bal­let.

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