6 March 2015 at 3.20pm | 4 Comments
It's often said that 'Every journey starts with a single step'. For aspiring ballerinas, it's not one standard step that starts them on their journey, but an arsenal of them, perfected over thousands-upon-thousands of hours of practice and rehearsal.
One particular rite of passage for a young dancer is the first time they put on a pair of pointe shoes, the essential tool of the trade. 'It was a magical experience. I must have been nine or ten years old and I remember going to the ballet shop to get them fitted', remembers Royal Ballet Soloist Yasmine Naghdi.
‘I was at White Lodge [The Royal Ballet Lower School] and I remember we were told not to go up on pointe until we'd had our first class with our teacher', says First Artist Hayley Forskitt. ‘But it's very exciting to get a shining pink pair of shoes that you've been waiting so long for and so in the dormitory we were all going up on pointe. It was a lot more painful than we thought it would be, but very fun!'
From this moment on, dancers develop a dependency on their footwear, getting through three or four pairs a week, and personally preparing their shoes for both the studio and stage. 'The process of learning to sew the shoes is always taught by a dance teacher', reveals First Artist Nathalie Harrison. 'It takes me an hour to prepare a pair of shoes and I don't know any dancer who prepares their shoes in the same way to another – it's like a fingerprint.'
'You do what you have to do to the shoes to get the best possible performance. I prepare a pair of shoes and then I probably won't use them again', says First Soloist Helen Crawford.
If their first class in pointe shoes is a moment that every young dancer looks forward to, then the moment that they dread in equal measure is their first injury.
'Mine was a freak injury', remembers First Soloist Melissa Hamilton. 'I snapped my Anterior Tibiofibular ligament in my ankle the week before I was due to premiere Raven Girl with Wayne McGregor. The pain was excruciating but I was able to walk out of the studio once the initial shock had subsided.'
With the nature of a live art form, injuries are an unfortunate risk, minimized by trained physiotherapists and healthcare professionals, who work with dancers and students to keep them on the stage and out of the recovery room. Professional companies such as The Royal Ballet employ teams of these professionals, which young dancers studying at dance schools also have access to.
'The most important thing, even now, is that I have good shoes to wear', says Soloist Laura McCulloch. ‘I had a tendon issue in my foot last year and if you have soft-soled shoes, your foot can go beyond what it should do to support you. Even now, I'm a bit careful with it and make sure I have something decent to wear.'
Hayley agrees: 'How your feet work is the grounding of how your body reacts. Footwear is important.'
Shoes worn by most dancers – from first steps as a student to a professional dancer – are handmade and a dancer’s requirements can change from show to show:
'I have several pairs on rotation as it makes them last longer’, says Artist Demelza Parish. 'In Manon for example, I'll wear a softer, older pair as there isn't as much pointe work, but for Swan Lake, I'll wear something more supportive as there's more of it.'
Because shoes are so vital to dancers, The Royal Ballet runs an annual Pointe Shoe Appeal to raise the funds that enable dancers to give their best performances. Every Season, the Company spends over £250,000 on ballet footwear, so every donation made to the appeal makes a real difference. A gift of £39 could buy a pair of pointe shoes for a Royal Ballet dancer, while £5 could pay for ribbon for five pairs of shoes.
'As dancers, we're so grateful to those who donate to the Pointe Shoe Appeal', says Nathalie. 'That special support enables all of us to stay at the peak of our profession and give our finest performance every time we go on stage.'