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Going Through Pointe Shoes

Michele Wiles Professional ballerina and Capezio Athlete Michele Wiles. Photo by Nisian Hughes.

How many pairs does a professional dancer really wear each season?

By Laura Di Orio of Dance Informa.

Between numerous classes, hours of rehearsals and full performance schedules, professional dancers sure do make a dent in their pointe shoe inventory. Some companies provide dancers with a supply of shoes, but other dancers who must fend for themselves try to make theirs last as long as possible, while still ensuring the best support, look and feel. So, out of curiosity, how many pointe shoes do some ballerinas go through each year, each season, each week? And at what point in the shoe's life do the dancers prefer them the most? Here to share more are professional ballerinas Tiffany Hedman and Michele Wiles

Tiffany Hedman

Tiffany Hedman goes through over 100 pairs of pointe shoes each season! Photo by Brian Mengini.

Hedman, a soloist with Boston Ballet, says that, on average, she goes through over 100 pairs of pointe shoes each season (based on a 41-week contract). She uses around three to four pairs alone during a busy week of classes, rehearsals and performances. She says her Capezio 193 and Capezio Studio pointe shoes are her most favorite after a few good wears during class and rehearsals. 

"I like to be able to feel the floor and have control of my demi-pointe," Hedman adds. "That gives me confidence that I can handle any obstacle that may come throughout a performance."

Wiles, dancer and artistic director of BalletNext, typically goes though one pair of Capezio Sylphide pointe shoes per week. During a performance week, however, such as BalletNext's recent run at New York Live Arts from January 14-18, she uses three or more pairs. 

Wiles says she prefers her shoes the most after a few rehearsals. "Perspiration does wonders to mold them to that perfect fit," she says. "The box softens and then dries overnight with each rehearsal cycle, and the shoe reaches that diving balance of hard but still flexible. I feel myself letting go in turns and movements as the shoe reaches this apex. Most of the time, I find one really good pair and try to get the maximum life out of them. But the time to wear-out really depends upon what choreographers demand."

For example, when choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti created La Follia on BalletNext, Wiles found she was constantly burning through shoes. During her run of Nutcracker guestings this past season, however, she was able to get through several performances with only one pair. 

A dancer's preference on the "hardness" or "softness" of the shoe she will use depends strongly on the type of repertoire she is rehearsing or performing at the time.

"If I'm doing a role that requires technically hard elements, then I will usually choose a semi-hard shoe, especially if the hard elements are at the end of that role," Hedman explains. "If it's a role such as in William Forsythe's The Second Detail, where I need to be able to move and take risks and go for things, I will choose very soft shoes that I trust. I don't ever change shoes within a piece. Once I decide on a pair I commit to them and stick with that decision for that show."

Michele Wiles Jens Weber, Ballet Next

Michele Wiles dances with Jens Weber in 'Picnic' by Brian Reeder for Ballet Next. Photo by Nisian Hughes.

"When I would dance Swan Lake with American Ballet Theatre, I would always wear a pair that was worn-in during rehearsals for the White Swan Pas de Deux," Wiles adds. "There are many quiet moments that require a softer, lyrical touch, and having that shoe fit and feel was important to me. Conversely, if they were available, I would use a new pair for Black Swan to accommodate all of the technical demands. Since I started dancing more contemporary work, I like to wear older shoes for the show. I tend to have more trust in familiarity!"

That said, dancers often need to keep around several pairs of pointe shoes, all in different stages of their "lifespan.”

"I think most companies may set a rough number of how many they like to order each dancer, but of course if a dancer needs a few more, an order must be placed," Hedman explains. "After all, the show must go on! We definitely have to be responsible and make each pair last as long as we possibly can."

Dancers have different techniques to save shoes for a bit longer before they go "dead." Wiles uses Jet Glue in the tips. This, combined with the shoes molding well to her feet, is what got her through nine performances of The Nutcracker with only one pair.

Hedman likes to rotate through a few different pairs throughout each rehearsal day. "Rather than keeping one pair on for an eight-hour day or longer and have it soaked with sweat and wear down the shank and box, I'll take it off when I feel it dying and switch to a fresh pair that has already been broken in," she says.

Dancers should avoid dancing on completely "dead" shoes, as the support is lost and can lead to injury. Plus, "dead" shoes can be painful!

"When shoes are dead, the shank breaks, you go too far over the box, and you feel your big toe in the floor," Wiles explains. "That's the worst feeling!"

"How do I know if a pair is dead?" Hedman asks. "I start having to work overtime to control holding myself up on pointe. With how hard ballet is already, that's the last thing anyone wants to have to think of!"

In order to keep a steady flow of danceable pointe shoes and a variety of options that can be ready for whatever repertoire is called, professional dancers are usually sewing, preparing new shoes and checking in on their stock daily.

"We work a minimum of eight hours a day on most weeks of our contract, and that puts a lot of miles on our pointe shoes," Hedman says. "My shoes are at their most perfect when I don't even feel I am wearing them, when they become an extension of my body. That is when I can express myself freely, let go and enjoy everything I've worked on for so many years. The perfect pointe shoe doesn't exist, just like the perfect show or perfect dancer doesn't exist. It's how you work with your pointe shoe company and maker that brings it all together so that you and the audience can have a magical and memorable performance."