Nearly every film that features ballet — Black Swan, The Company, The Turning Point — contains the same evocative scene: a ballerina strips off her pointe shoes to reveal blistered, mangled toes. Such a sight isn’t an exaggeration for professional ballet dancers, whose feet are sacrificed for their art.
Finding the perfect ballet shoe is paramount to the successful career of a ballet dancer. Ballet shoemakers create every pointe shoe by hand, each with a signature style that becomes part of a dancer’s identity. Since 1929, Freed of London has been making pointe shoes. The Los Angeles Times documents the highly revered company, revealing the incredibly specialized, handmade process that goes into every shoe — just 40 pairs are produced each day. Unlike other companies who use plastic for the box of the pointe shoe, Freed uses layers of glued burlap. Over time, the dancer’s foot breaks down the burlap, and the shoe naturally molds to the curves of her foot. Each pair of Freed’s pointe shoes costs $100 and lasts a single performance, but in those few hours, the shoes become one with the dancer.
Greatness is rarely the achievement of one person; the brush maker who supplies a painter or the person who restrings a tennis player’s racket are partly responsible for the star’s success. In that way, the ballet shoemakers who still practice this craft are just as important to ballet as the dancers themselves. “I’ve been doing this job for 18 years,” said shoemaker Pat Moran. “I still remember the times I’ve come to work and made the perfect shoe.” We may be captivated by the movement and grace of a ballet dancer, but another incredible work of art exists on her feet, the perfectly crafted vehicle for her talent.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.