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

Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

    £65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

    Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

    Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

    £50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

    The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

    £27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas