Few professionals are as closely linked to the shoes they wear as dancers — especially ballet dancers. Not only are pointe shoes beautiful to look at, the stuff of little girls' fantasies, but they're also practical, functional pieces of equipment that can make or break a performance.
Gwen Kelley is a dancer and teacher at the Charleston Dance Institute, and she knows a thing or two about pointe shoes. She started ballet at age three and has been dancing professionally for five years, since she was 20 years old.
Her shoe of choice is the Freed Studio Professional, a handmade pointe shoe fabricated in London. "I did my first paid, professional performance in them," she says. "It was a symbolic moment."
She may still have that specific pair somewhere, but it would be impossible to differentiate it from the pile of pointe shoes that Kelley has danced to their deaths. "A really good pair will last two weeks," Kelley says. "That's the longest I've ever had a pair last." And that's at a cost of $70 per pair. Delicacy prevented us from asking how on earth she can afford that, especially on a dancing-and-teaching salary.
But then, it's not like she has a choice. Dancing in a beat-up pair of shoes will completely throw off her movements and could even lead to major injury. "A bad pair of shoes is painful, almost debilitating to a performance," she says. "If you're not stable in those shoes it changes your whole performance — your weight shifts, everything."
Kelley has a whole routine she goes through to break in a new pair of pointe shoes (that part of Center Stage, at least, was real). "I have to sew two elastics in a criss-cross, put water on the tops of them, and cut the satin off the tips," she says. "And there are special tricks to make them last longer, like airplane glue, or you can sew them special ways. You have to make sure they air out — you can't store them in a sweaty gym bag."
Although much has always been made of the pain and suffering that ballerinas go through in order to move so gracefully, Kelley doesn't mention any of that — instead, she remembers how good it felt to finally be able to dance en pointe as a student. "When you finally get your first pair [of pointe shoes], it's like Christmas," she says. "They've got the pretty satin and ribbons. You form a bond with them. And though you feel a little unsteady at first, they become a continuation of your foot. When you first dance with them on it's such a freeing moment."
Since Kelley is only with each pair of her shoes for a couple of weeks, it's rare for her to remember much about any specific pair. But there is one special pair that she found just last year. "I did the lead in [Charleston Ballet Theatre's] Dracula, and it was the best I'd ever turned, best I'd ever balanced — that's one pair I remember being like, 'These are magical!' I save those now for performances."