Youth America Grand Prix
Special Program: The Making of a Pointe Shoe
City Center, Studio 5

February 8, 2015

– Jerry Hochman

Youth America Grand Prix, the organization that provides scholarship opportunities and master classes for young dancers around the world, as well as an annual international competition culmination in a week-long final completion in New York, presented a special program last Monday titled “The Making of a Pointe Shoe” at City Center’s Studio 5. The well-attended program featured dancers from American Ballet Theatre, a student dancer, and two ‘ambassadors’ from companies that manufacture pointe shoes.

The program was considerably more interesting than its title might indicate.

The presentation was moderated by YAGP Chair Emeritus Barbara Brandt, who provided a brief introduction to the development of the pointe shoe some 200 years after ballet itself is considered to have emerged as a distinct art form under King Louis XIV of France, in order to enable to the ballerina to appear weightless and ethereal by rising en pointe regularly, consistently, and relatively painlessly. The shoe itself progressed from Marie Taglioni, whose somewhat pointed satin slippers provided minimal support and had to be augmented with padding, through to the development of a flat platform, and thereafter to the inspiration for the modern pointe shoe, attributed to Anna Pavlova, who required additional support for her highly arched insteps and slender tapered feet. A table set-up behind Brandt included a variety of pointe shoes (including examples sliced in half to display the shoe’s interior), as well as various mechanism (toe pads, spacers, adhesives, etc.) that provide ballerinas with further support they might require.

Brandt then introduced Judy Weiss, a Grishko representative, and 13 year old student dancer Aliana Greco to illustrate competing considerations in crafting and fitting pointe shoes for young dancers, with the preference being for a light shoe (otherwise they expend energy fighting the toe box) and flexible shank, but the flexible shank is not good for flexible feet. Thereafter Capezio representative Anitra Keegan, a former dancer herself with the Pennsylvania Ballet and other companies, provided further information about the making of pointe shoes for professional dancers, including the manufacturing (by hand) of ‘custom’ pointe shoes – primarily for dancers above the corps level – to conform to an individual dancers’ feet and to take into account foot changes over time, including injuries, bunions and blisters. Many in the audience (including myself) found particularly surprising the short working life of pointe shoes and the number of pointe shoes a professional company typically uses in a season, as well as that the strong ‘thread’ that many dancers use to sew the ribbon is dental floss.

During the presentation, American Ballet Theatre dancers Jamie Kopit and Zhong-Jing Fang added personal experience anecdotes (for example, Kopit used to break her shoes’ shanks herself at ¾ length to provide her with flexibility while still providing essential support; Fang wears custom shoes made with a type of plastic). Other current and former ABT dancers sprinkled around the audience responded to questions and shared their own experiences, including Irina Dvorovenko (with Maxim Beloserkovsky), Calvin Royal III (who explained considerations taken into account with respect to toe shoes for male dancers), and Skylar Brandt.

At the outset of the program, Brandt also announced that the 2016 “Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow” gala will be held on April 28 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

A private reception followed the program.