Thanks to Pointe Til You Drop for sharing this on our Facebook Page!
When I started pointe class last fall, I had no idea how to break in pointe shoes. Of course I heard of people bending the shank, banging the shoe on the floor, hammering or standing on the box and even slamming a shoe in a door frame. Remember the montage of dancers breaking in their shoes in the movie Center Stage? Since I didn’t know what I was doing, I knew that trying one of these methods was a surefire way to break (not break in) my pointe shoes.
On the first day of class, my instructor had us put on the pointe shoes and walk, then run around in demi-pointe. Although I felt like I was shuffling around in wooden shoes, I knew this was the first step to actually breaking in the shoes … I just couldn’t imagine my feet being strong enough and lasting long enough to break them in successfully. I felt more discouraged when I releved – my feet looked like tiny stilts.
A bit depressed and embarrassed, I lamented about my first class to my neighbor, a ballet dancer who performed the Sugarplum Fairy role in a professional DC-area Nutcracker production just 8 months after having twins. “Oh … maybe I’m in over my head. Maybe I’m not ready. Maybe I shouldn’t even be trying pointe,” I sighed.
She scoffed, “That was your first day! And you had on new pointe shoes! What do you expect?” She paused and thought for a moment. “Try this: wear your pointe shoes in the house, but put socks on over the shoes. Walk around the house in demi-pointe while doing your normal tasks, like the laundry, dishes, etc. with socks over the shoes.”
I wasn’t sure if this was going to work but tried it anyway. At least this method seemed safe (for me and my shoes) and built onto what I did in class. After a few of 20-minute sessions of walking around in pointe shoes in demi-pointe (that is all my feet could stand at the time), I felt like the shoes were not so stiff … and I felt less discouraged. Of course breaking in the shoes didn’t happen overnight and more exercises in class were needed to break them in, but I felt encouraged by this low-maintenance, convenient method that worked from my own body heat and foot strength. I liked this method because:
- the socks kept in body heat to warm up the shoes, which of course softened the shank and box, allowing them to mold to shape of my foot;
- I wasn’t breaking or bending the shank in random places;
- the socks protected the shoes from being scratched up;
- I didn’t worry about slipping on the tile floors with the socks’ traction;
- I was strengthening my feet at same time and;
- this method took no time out of my day since I could incorporate it in my everyday activities – especially important for adult dancers!
By my second class, the shoes felt much more comfortable and I could bend and flex my foot to roll up and releve. I can’t say that walking around demi-pointe in pointe shoes covered with socks broke in my pointe shoes completely, but it was an encouraging start.
Being approved to go en pointe was a dream come true – clichéd but true! With a daughter en pointe, I had an idea of what to expect in a fitting, but only as an observer; I had no idea how the process would actually feel. Despite my excitement, I didn’t immediately rush to the dance store and camp outside like a concert groupie pining for the box office to open (pre-Internet) or an Apple product fanatic ready to storm the doors in order snag the latest iProduct.
Instead, I emailed Joy Ellis, owner of Footlights and fitter for my daughter and her ballet classmates for years, to see when she would available to fit me. I planned to go Footlights in the middle of a school day and workday to avoid other customers–of any age but especially young ones :). The fewer witnesses to my fitting, the better.
On the big day, Joy immediately put me at ease as we sat down and chatted about non-ballet topics like our kids, good books, and the weather. I joked that at 44, I was probably the oldest person she had ever fit for pointe shoes. Joy smiled, “No, just last week I fit a dancer in her 70’s.” Oh, well that sounded encouraging. I kept babbling nervously to procrastinate until Joy said “Okay, let’s get started.” She carefully studied both of my feet, noting their shape, size, and narrowness before selecting the first pair of pointe shoes for me to try on.
The first pair was Gaynor Mindens, which I thought were for advanced and professional dancers – but what did I know? They felt like narrow wooden boxes on my feet but: 1) I didn’t know what pointe shoes were supposed to feel like and 2) probably any pointe shoes would have felt that way to my virgin feet. I waddled to the barre and stood in first position. I knew what was coming next. “Okay, releve!” Joy said. I stared back at her but didn’t move. She gently prodded, “Come on, up, you can do it.” Bizarre scenarios crossed my mind: what if my feet broke … or I damaged the dance floor … or I fell over like Mary Katherine Gallagher (Saturday Night Live hyper-klutzy Catholic school girl from the 90’s) … or crashed into the mirror … or pulled down the barre?
Taking a deep breath, I plied and rolled up. I thought, wow — I am up high. Then whoa – getting completely over the box is difficult … and ouch — my toes hurt! Uh-oh, maybe this is not such a good idea. Maybe I can’t do this. I looked at my feet in the mirror – sadly, they looked like short stilts. Of course I was not expecting beautifully arched feet, especially as a complete neophyte in unbroken-in shoes, but my stick-like feet were a bit disappointing. Joy checked heels and asked me to describe what I felt (since I couldn’t judge how I felt — as in good or bad — since I did not know what was supposed to feel correct or not). She didn’t particularly like how the Gaynor Mindens looked on my feet and suggested other pairs. We worked through several different brands, models and sizes so she could eliminate obviously poorly fitting shoes and narrow down the selection to hone in on better fitting ones.
Joy compared pointe shoes fitting to solving a puzzle – matching different shoes to feet of various sizes and shapes. Much to my relief, each subsequent pair felt better. I was not sinking into the box, my toes were not hitting the end, and my feet felt breathable snug but not squeezed (or encased in a wooden box). After trying about 8 pairs, I found the most comfortable pair to be the Suffolk Standard Spotlight, 5 ½ N.
After purchasing the shoes, ribbon, elastics and Gellows by Pillows for Pointe toe pads, I thanked Joy profusely for her patience and expertise. Driving home merrily humming to myself, I called my daughter to share my excitement. She asked, “What kind did you get?” I told her Suffolk Standard Spotlight 5 ½ N. Silence. Then she exclaimed, “Oh no, that’s what I have, only mine are 5N. Now I want to get a different kind!” Nonetheless, this typical comment from an adolescent didn’t dampen this adult ballerina’s enthusiasm!
Ida Cathrine Holme Nielsen runs her own blog on personal style and ballet, which goes surprisingly well together called Wardrobe Philosophy. Make sure you check out her blog and her profile below!
When did you start doing ballet as an adult?
I started taking classes at 23.
Did you ever take lessons as a kid?
Yes, I was very serious about my ballet training until I was 18 and was injured with a stubborn case of tendonitis which forced me to take a five year long break from ballet.
Why did you decide to take ballet as an adult?
I decided to go back to ballet because I realized that it is the perfect work out for me. It suits my body type and aesthetic taste and it even reflects my fashion taste quite well.
Where do you take classes?
In Copenhagen, Denmark.
What is your favorite part about ballet?
My favorite part about ballet is that it gives you a place in kind of an ‘elegant cult’, and you’ll feel absolutely great about yourself while dancing, it also really helps your posture and how you carry yourself. I am also totally up for the amazing leotard wardrobe , pointe shoes and accessories that goes with!
What is your least favorite part?
My least favorite part are the days when nothing seems to work and your balance is completely off no matter what you do.
Who/What is your ballet inspiration?
My ballet inspirations are Evgenia Obraztsova and Marianela Nunez. They are about my height and does an amazing job with what they’ve got!
What motivates you to keep dancing?
I hate to say the perks of being in pointe shoes, but it is definitely a wonderful feeling!
Do you take any other dance classes?
Not currently, but I’m thinking of taking one or two contemporary classes a week next season.
What are your hobbies outside of ballet?
I love film and I’m a huge collector of vintage and antique clothing!
What advice would you like to give to those who want to start ballet or have just started?
Don’t give up! I know it seems like everyone is better than you and your body does not respond well in the beginning and you feel like the lowest of the low in class, but it will pass and the day you feel you are the one to watch in certain exercises is totally worth it!
Anything else you’d like to add?
Once you’ve started ballet it almost gets to be a lifestyle. It comes to influence so many aspects of your life in a good way!
This past year, I’ve had occasion to do a lot of travel. Most of it has been business, some has been personal, and all of it has presented me with a challenge if I want to practice ballet. A handy chair or railing can substitute for a barre, but you probably don’t want to do grand jetes in the hotel corridors.
Here are a few solutions I’ve found to the “Where can I dance?” problem:
1. Local Dance Studio: If you have transportation, Google the area ahead of time. Don’t be discouraged if the only thing you can find is a studio that requires students to sign up in semester-long blocks of classes. Sometimes you can get permission to join a class on a drop-in basis.
2. Local Gym: Some memberships give you access to facilities in other cities, and most gyms offer day passes. Even if a gym doesn’t have a dance studio, you can often make use of a fitness room when there isn’t a class. If you want something more private, consider appropriating a racquetball court. Gyms often have several of these and they make great private spaces for floor work.
3. Hotel: This one is hit and miss, but here are a few things to try:
• Your Room: If you are in a suite, you may be able to move the sitting room furniture out of the way and dance in the privacy of your own room.
• Pools and Exercise Rooms: Some hotels have a separate area of the fitness center for yoga and aerobics classes. Be sure to also check out the pool. Many hotels have a poolside area for small functions. You should not dance on bare concrete, but a thin carpet with low nap will often work just fine.
• Ballrooms/Conference Rooms: Sometimes you can find an unlocked door to a ballroom or conference room. If it hasn’t been set up with too many tables and chairs, you’ve got yourself a dance studio. If all the rooms are locked, explain your situation to the front desk. They have heard stranger requests than yours and may be happy to help.
A Few Considerations:
1. Scheduling: If you are angling for an empty conference room, your best chance of success will be weekday evenings and weekend mornings, so plan accordingly. This may mean skipping the drinks and heavy hors d’oeuvres at a conference reception, or skipping a reception altogether and meeting a few colleagues for dinner and drinks after your dance practice.
2. Music: If you don’t like dancing while wearing earbuds, consider buying a speaker for your mp3 player. I use the iHome 3.5 mm portable speaker, but there are many options out there.
3. Shoes: Unless you have made arrangements to attend a ballet class, leave the pointe shoes at home. You don’t know what kind of floor surface you’ll be on, and you don’t want to spend your vacation or conference covered in bruises and nursing a sprained ankle. Bring several different types of ballet slippers if you can. The shoes that are your go-to at home might be too slippery or too grabby for the dance space you find. You might even have to dance barefoot or in socks.
In sum, dance practice is very doable while away from home, but requires creativity and flexibility. Luckily, this is what ballet is all about. Just remember to get outside and see a few sights while you’re away, too. Have a few adventures, because when you get home the last thing your non-ballerina friends will want to hear about is your perfect pirouette by the hotel pool.