My daughter asked to see my point shoes the other day. She’s developed a sudden passion for dance and dreams of dancing en pointe. I enrolled her when she was little, thinking it must be in her genes, but she didn’t take to it and landed on the gymnastics team instead. I started dancing when I was three. She’s eleven, but wants to give it a go. Scanning studio schedules unlocked a surge of memories. I actually put my point shoes on and pulled off a couple of relevés.
They’ve lost their peachy pink sheen and the shanks are broken, but I will never throw them away. They’ve been tucked in a memory box for over twenty five years. The ribbons are stained and their edges frayed, the toes are worn and the seams are split, but they are still beautiful to me. My feet tingle in protest as I examine the old Capezios. At once ethereal and excruciating, they symbolize beauty, grace and pain, like many other disciplines worth sacrificing for. My corns and bunions have been tamed, but my right big toe still pops out of the joint and I have scars from second degree blisters. These shoes are a badge of honor.
I remember sprawling out on the floor, taping my toes with moleskin and donning an armor of lambs wool before slipping into the pointe shoes and wrapping the ribbons just so. I would grind my toes in a box of rosin before gliding across the wood floor in a series of shenae and pique turns. A pair typically lasts about a month and breaking them in was a bit of a chore. You could soak the toe box in water or take a hammer to them if you need them for a performance, but there was always a certain amount of pain involved. Pain was expected, you built a tolerance or you didn’t advance. Leaving the floor because of a blister was admitting defeat and showing your weakness. If you wanted it bad enough, you danced through the pain.
I should have saved the pair of blood soaked toe shoes from my rehearsals for Les Sylphides. Endless bourrées punctuated by flowery poses. When you weren’t posing, you were fluttering on your toes for what felt like hours. It was during this tedious ballet that I decided my feet were destined for character shoes and musical theatre rather than traditional ballet. This idea had been planted earlier in my training by the only teacher whose signature I wish was on my first pair of point shoes. It’s tradition for a dancer to have her first pair of pointe shoes signed and the signatures that made it onto mine don’t matter as much as the one missing.
Of all the teachers I studied with, Patrick was the one who taught me passion, not just technique. He helped me find my niche as dancer. I was curvy and expressive and he taught me how to see those qualities as attributes rather than obstacles. He occasionally kept me after class, using me as a guinea pig for new choreography that would make its way into productions at San Francisco State University, where he was on staff as a dance instructor. He made a huge impression on me. I was devastated when he stopped teaching. He sent a letter to a select group of students explaining that he was dying of AIDS and that he had reached the point where he had to stop teaching. It broke my heart, but I’ve always carried a piece of him with me and I am forever grateful for what he gave me.
He steered me towards my niche as a dancer. I eventually moved away from ballet and traded my pointe shoes for character shoes, Giselle for Chicago, and Balanchine for Fosse. My foundation in ballet often landed me the dream ballet roles. I played Louise in Carousel, Little Eva in King and I, and Dream Laurie in Oklahoma. Occasionally I broke out the pointe shoes when requested, but my body and my toes were grateful for the new direction.
I’m not sure what my daughter’s path will be, I suspect she’ll play at it for a bit. She has a passion for playing piano that will probably take her farther, but I’m willing to let her try.