Did you catch the picture of the dainty and pristine pointe shoes featured at the head of this post? It is a shot of Ocean Breeze’s first pointe shoes taken minutes after I had spent no less than two hours lovingly sewing the ribbons and elastics onto that gorgeous and long-awaited set of footwear. This is what they looked like before she ever wore them…before the work of learning to dance en pointe began.
Truly, the work began three years ago when she took her first pre-pointe class. This year, she was finally strong enough to slip into those delicate-looking slippers…and I use the words “delicate-looking” deliberately. If you pick up a pair of pointe shoes, the first thing that will strike you is their rigidity in contrast to their soft and satiny exterior. A brand new pointe shoe does not give anywhere where you would expect – you almost expect it to be made of wood. In fact, it is made of a satin exterior and leather sole with the toe box made of multiple layers of fabric or cardboard hardened with glue. A dancer would wear toe pads for cushioning before slipping on the shoes.
“Slipping on the shoes” entails inserting toe separators between the first two toes to keep bones properly aligned and avoid damage, then covering all the toes with a silicone or fabric toe pad before unrolling the foot of her transition tights over her feet to contain everything. She is now ready to step into the shoes and secure them by firmly tying the delicate ribbons around her ankles (not her calves).
She is now ready to dance. I stood at the edge of the studio’s doorway this past fall when I watched my daughter go through this routine for the very first time. I watched with amazement laced with maternal pride as she tentatively rose to her first position en pointe, and I felt her engage every muscle in her body as she held herself high and strong.
She did this week after week for eight months…there was rarely a night when her legs didn’t ache and her feet didn’t burn. Yet, she returned each week…growing steadier, training her body to flow like water on muscles hard as steel. Occasionally, I would peek in…maybe linger at drop-off just long enough to catch the intimate moment of her lacing her shoes. Even that requires precision, as the knot must end up at exactly the correct soft part of her ankle so as to not rub her uncomfortably throughout her lesson.
As the months passed, technique work turned into choreography and choreography turned into dance. She made her pointe debut at this year’s dance recital just a few weeks ago, and although she was dancing in four different numbers, it was the pointe piece that grabbed hold of her nerves. She would be dancing in the ballet company alongside dancers who had been training en pointe for as long as nine years. Of course her strength would not be the same, of course her part would be at another level…but that was not what I was there to watch.
As I sat in the center of the fifth row, cloaked under the darkness of our elegant and gorgeous theater, I watched my angel make her appearance. I took in her graceful figure and allowed my gaze to drift down to her feet. I swelled with pride as she echapped from a perfect fifth position and held en pointe. Beautiful. Classic. Love.
This is what the weekly grind had refined. Pique turns accomplished. Impeccable port de bras. A beauty floating like vapor who is still the queen of the leaps. Her work this year was done, and even from the proximity of the fifth row you would not notice the labor in the shoes. You would not see how the shoes themselves carried the load of the dance, how they bore their own bruises, how like life itself, their luster seemed to be left with their youth. Their work this year was also done.
Ocean’s first pointe shoes are now retired and are pictured in their current glory below right. They will likely be preserved in a shadow box alongside a
professional photograph of the girl who brought them to life.