Come dancing

Darcey Bussell and Sylvie Guillem get through 20 pairs of shoes a month

With a little cotton wool and a lot of training, the Swedish-Italian dancer Marie Taglioni changed the face of ballet forever. Rising without apparent effort on to her padded toes when she danced La Sylphide in 1832, the dancer epitomised the wispy waifs of Romantic ballet.

Until then, toe-dancing had seldom been more than a circus stunt: Taglioni raised it to an art. Suddenly the shoes themselves took on a new significance: a group of Taglioni's Russian admirers once made soup with her slippers after a particularly satisfying performance.

Ballet has come a long way since Taglioni's crudely stuffed toes. Shoes are now artful constructions of satin, burlap, paper and glue which support the foot on a sturdy little platform and cost pounds 25 a pair. Freed of London, the main suppliers worldwide, make 1,000 pairs a day and ship them to dancers from San Francisco to Sydney. Bussell, Guillem and Asylmuratova are all shod by Freed - each gets through more than 20 pairs a month. Twenty-five different "makers" work on Freed's pointes and their output is so distinctive that each ballerina has a preferred maker whose creations she will always wear. In an ideal world, your maker should be young enough to last your professional life - Gelsey Kirkland, an American dancer, returning to the stage in 1986 after a two-year absence, couldn't find any shoes to fit her as her maker had gone into retirement. Fortunately, he took pity on her naked feet.

The bunion factor

Makers can be very accommodating; should a ballerina's feet become deformed by bunions, or spread after childbirth, they will modify the last with various plastic lumps to mimic the grotesque distortions that this superficially delicate art has inflicted on bone and sinew. Tiny variations in the paste or paper used in the block can make the difference between total agony and the acceptable level of discomfort that passes for normality.

Making up the shoe is straightforward enough - a skilled craftsman can knock up a pair in about ten minutes - but the resulting shoe cannot be worn until it has baked for 14 hours in a 60-degree oven. Even then it isn't considered fit for use. Dancers "break" their new shoes in the hinges of doors, or steam them over kettles. Shellac varnish is used to harden patches. Pavlova virtually took hers apart and started again, Fonteyn used to slam them against the stairs, and Kirkland never travelled without a small steel hammer for softening her pointes. Two days later and they're in the bin.

Even when thoroughly distressed, the shoes still only bear a passing resemblance to the human foot (there are no lefts and rights). And to survive a morning's rehearsal or a three-act performance, the ballerina's feet will be bound with yards of sticky tape, like a boxer's fingers, and cushioned with little pink toe sponges.

Nureyev's: yours for pounds 5,912

Will any balletomanes be lunching on Darcey Bussell's size 5s this weekend? The ingredients are certainly available. In an attempt to cover its annual shoe bill of pounds 67,000, the Royal Ballet promises a pair of autographed cast-offs to anyone sending pounds 30 or more. Most people want a memento of Bussell or Viviana Durante although even more would like to sniff Sylvie Guillem's instep. Tough. The French star refuses to be a party to this foot fetishists' exchange. No one knows what she does with her old footwear, but she could do worse than save it as an investment for her old age. When Christies auctioned Rudolf Nureyev's effects in January, they put a reserve of pounds 39 on a pair of cheesy old slingbacks: after furious bidding, they finally went for pounds 5,912

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