What Edgar Degas Did Not Know, Nor I, About Ballet Pointe Shoes

Edgar Degas
L’etoile [La danseuse sur la scene] (The Star [Dancer on Stage])

Edgar Degas captured the essence of the ballerina in his beautiful paintings. We can appreciate the grace and beauty of the ballerina and of ballet. However, what he failed to share with us, and what we cannot see in the painting, is the elaborate fitting and customization that a ballerina does with her pointe shoes.

It all begins with bringing our little girls to ballet school. Oh, I see those moms all proud of their little ones, in their cute leotards, tights, and ballet slippers. Those moms are still oblivious to what lies ahead.  I was one of those moms. I had never danced as a child so I was not familiar with the world of ballet shoes.

Clara Getting Ready for her 1st Recital>
May 2003

Oh, if these moms only knew that as their little angel continues with ballet, the slippers they used to buy at Payless will no longer suffice and that the slippers, be they made by Freed or Bloch, will need to be customized. At first, it was not so bad, elastics needed to be hand sewn from one side of the slipper to the other. As your child outgrows their ballet slippers you need to repeat this process over and over again.

Shopping for first pointe shoes
November 2009

A day of celebration in our house was when our daughter, Clara, was fitted with her first pointe shoes.  All young ballerina dancers dream of this day. I even took my camera to capture this important milestone.  Images of Degas’ graceful ballerinas swirled in my head as I watched my daughter stand on pointe for the first time. These images of Degas’ dancers followed me to the cashier. And abruptly, as if the Degas ballerina had tripped, my romanticized imagery of ballet came crashing down when the cashier lady started saying, “…And you’ll need the elastics, the ribbon, the toe pads, the special thread, and needles…” In my head I was saying, “What elastic, what ribbons, what thread!” I guess I should not have been so surprised. The ballet slippers had required sewing so why would pointe shoes be any different. However, it was no longer a simple elastic from side to side, it was two elastics forming an “x” across the shoe and ribbons sewn on each side. The cashier lady gave me the quick 2-minute crash course on how to sew the ribbons and elastic and even sold me the special thread as thick as dental floss in ballerina pink color.

Thank god for YouTube. They had already come to my rescue a couple of years earlier, when the new ballet school we joined required a hair bun for class. I, who have had short hair since I was 15, had no clue how to do a ballet bun. I turned to YouTube and found an excellent instructional video.  Once again I searched YouTube to further enhance my knowledge of sewing ribbons and elastic to pointe shoes. And being the meticulous perfectionist person that I can sometimes be (not all the time), I was going to achieve mastery in the sewing of elastic and ribbons. My daughter’s pointe shoes would look perfect. But as we know, perfection comes with a price, time and effort. I often wondered what parents who did not know how to sew did with their child’s pointe shoes.

The Old and New Pointe Shoes

As Clara, recently turned 13, begins her 11th year of ballet dancing, and her 4th year on pointe, she is starting on her 6th pair of pointe shoes. I lost count of how many ballet slippers she’s had. Not only were her old pointe shoes quite worn out, she had also completely outgrown them even though they were only 5 months old. We purchased the new pair of pointe shoes last Sunday and I was dreading the whole next step of sewing ribbons and elastics. I will admit I have gotten better at the sewing but I still find it a laborious and difficult task. I was hoping to procrastinate and start the project later. But since it would be considered child cruelty to make my daughter wear her old pointe shoes again, I was compelled to get the new shoes ready. After taking measurements the previous night, like position of the elastics, length of the elastics, position of the ribbons on each side, and length of ribbons, I was set to begin. Yesterday at breakfast, I made the announcement to Clara that it was time for her to learn to sew her pointe shoes herself. I told her also that it was a right of passage for dancers to learn to care for their own shoes. Clara initially protested saying she did not know how to sew. To which I answered, then I shall teach you how to sew and you shall practice and someday you’ll be able to do it yourself. There is that fine line between doing something special for your child for as long as they need you to, and then finally recognizing that they are old enough to learn and take on new responsibilities. After Clara left to school yesterday morning,  I embarked on the much-dreaded sewing project, perhaps if not for the last time, maybe for the next to last.

Sewing the Elastic

I’ll always look back at Clara’s pointe shoe sewing projects with nostalgia, always reminiscing of when my daughter was a little girl, but believe me I’ll be happy not to have to use the giant needle with the dental floss thread and prick my fingers again and again.

Three hours later, with some interruptions, I concluded the sewing project feeling a great sense of accomplishment. Clara’s pointe shoes worked out great. There were a couple of last steps to be done. She wrapped the satin ribbon the appropriate length around her ankle and then we trimmed back the excess ribbon. Since the ribbons are made of satin fabric, the final last step was to burn the edges to melt them down to prevent fraying. And voilà we were set for maybe a few more months, I hoped.

This whole secret world of pointe shoes is not captured by Degas in his paintings. Only the insiders have a true appreciation for what is involved in having and caring for pointe shoes.

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