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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

    £40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

    Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

    £26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

    £17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

    Day In a Page

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?