E-Traces began as Lesia Trubat’s final project at the ELISAVA design school in Barcelona. On her website she claims that the electronic shoes can be used for a number of things, including for analysis during training. I think that is a neat aspect of the shoes, and it would be illuminating—and humbling I’m sure—to see what Tiler Peck’s toe-prints look like in a series of chaîné turns compared to the rest of us (she has the best in the biz)! Trubat’s site also features a video of a dancer performing as the slashes and curlicues made by her feet on the floor float all around her on the screen. The video is interesting and reminded me somewhat of Disney’s Fantasia (which I adore), but it seems to me that the full artistic potential of the shoes’ innovative technology has yet to be tapped. And as of now the shoes only react to pressure from the floor, but it would be cool if eventually they could trace the images of feet in the air as well.
At any rate, it is exciting that the ballet world is piquing the interest of techies and designers. After all, the basic technology of the pointe shoe has changed relatively little in the past two hundred years. I suppose that Marie Taglioni wouldn’t recognize a modern pair of Freed’s (the brand of
When City Ballet performed at Covent Garden several years ago a group of us went to visit the London Freed factory and to “meet our makers.” Female dancers wear shoes made by a specific cobbler, or maker, as designated by a symbol on the bottom of the shoe’s arch. The symbols are funny: there is a dollar sign, a fish, a Maltese cross, and many letters. (The male dancers’ leather or canvas slippers are all machine-made and are therefore much more uniform.) Handmade pointe shoes all have a “birthdate” stamped on the sole, and they are born in batches of twenty. Each batch is slightly different since they are handmade, and if we women feel we get an exceptional batch—one that is really comfy or aesthetically pleasing—we will hoard those for special roles. I will always fondly remember a perfect batch of shoes from Pearl Harbor Day some years ago. You can’t save shoes for too long, however. The glue breaks down and they slowly decay.
Sometimes we get batches that just don’t work for us; they could be crooked or break in oddly or feel just plain weird. When this happens we donate the shoes we cannot wear to the School of American Ballet. This is a godsend for young dancers if they can find a pair to fit them, for they get the shoes at a discounted price—and pointe shoes are crazy expensive! They run roughly a hundred bucks for a “stock” pair (with universalized, average measurements and randomly assigned makers), but the custom-fit ones that we use cost much more. Curiously, I could not find out what the E-Traces pointe shoes cost. I remember when my poor parents were paying for all of my shoes at SAB and I had to make a pair last for a week or more. In contrast, during performance seasons we company dancers will go through roughly a pair a day—more if we are performing in the outdoor heat and humidity of Saratoga Springs, maybe fewer during the winter when shoes don’t lose their shape as quickly. One can almost forecast the weather based upon pointe shoes alone—they are so susceptible to moisture.
Matching up feet and makers is also practically an alchemical process. It involves seasoned fit experts and several trial pairs of shoes, and custom orders require tiny measurements of every single part of the foot. My maker is Mr. “T.” He specializes in a light, pliant shoe with a moderately square box. This fortuitous symbol inspires my friends and coworkers Gwyneth Muller and Tess Reichlen—fellow Mr. T devotees—to make all sorts of terrible A-Team puns like “I pity the foot.” Groan, I know. Sadly, I did not get to make Mr. T’s acquaintance on our London tour—he worked in a location further afield. But my friend Janie Taylor did get to meet her maker—Mr. Anchor—and they were both wearing the same striped shirt. It was hilarious!
If the basic form of the pointe shoe has changed little since Anna Pavlova’s time, at least the orthotics have improved a lot. As a young student, the only means of pointe shoe padding available to me were lamb’s wool, cut-up sock tips, and paper towels (all still used today). I was taught to use lamb’s wool which starts out scratchy but plush, but then compresses and clumps up uncomfortably when feet get sweaty, causing nasty blisters. Naturally, it took a woman to come up with a better—and less bloody—alternative. In 1996 a former City Ballet dancer, Leslie Roy, came up with a gel toe pad (called an Ouch Pouch) with her husband Michael Heck, a chemical engineer. They formed the company Bunheads which has since invented a variety of gel inserts and accessories for pointe shoes. (Full disclosure, I used to model for the company.)
Since then much of the dance world has switched over to the gel cushions which last much longer and mold to one’s toes. They are also washable and don’t slide around inside the shoes like other methods. Many older dancers still stick to paper towels, which they must replace several times a day as they are disintegrated by sweat, but I feel like the paper towels are ecologically reckless and I already read the newspaper in print. You have to pick your battles…
Pointe shoes, as you can see, are kind of gross. They start out pristine and shiny and beautiful and they quickly become sweaty and stinky and misshapen. Whenever I hear about “face-washing” in hockey—google it, it’s disgusting—I shamefully think of my own pointe shoes. At least in ballet we try to keep the ick-factor contained. Like so much in ballet, the applied reality is quite different from the pretty-in-pink stereotype.