It’s the essence of classical ballet, “en pointe,” when a ballerina rises up, standing in perfect balance on the tips of her toes. But she couldn’t do it without her slim satin shoes, the essential tool of her dancer’s art.
“They are an integral part of their life,” says Leslie Roy-Heck of Saratoga Springs, who danced with the New York City Ballet for 13 years, from 1976 to 1989. “When I was a dancer, I wore pointe shoes from 10 in the morning to 10 o’clock at night.”
After she retired, Roy-Heck became a pointe shoe expert. As owner and operator of Saratoga Dance Etc., the Capital Region’s premier shop for ballet shoes, dance wear and accessories, she has been fitting pointe shoes for 21 years.
WHERE: National Museum of Dance, 99 S. Broadway, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: Through Nov. 18. Museum open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
HOW MUCH: $6.50; $5 for seniors and students; $3 for children 12 and under; free for children under 3.
RELATED EVENTS: Dancers’ Health Day, July 9; Autograph Day, July 14; and National Dance Day, July 29
MORE INFO: 584-4515 or www.dancemuseum.org
At the shop, people are always curious about the shoes.
“Many thought they were made of wood. I wanted to educate people about them,” she says.
So a few years ago, she came up with the idea of a pointe shoe exhibit at the National Museum of Dance.
“She dreamed it up and we made it happen,” says Sarah Hall Weaver, the museum’s assistant director.
“En Pointe,” a major show that opened in March and runs through Saratoga’s New York City Ballet season and into the fall, is an in-depth look at ballet shoes: their history, how they are made and the myths and realities of wearing them. The exhibit also showcases the 75 entries in the museum’s nationwide Pointe Shoe Decorating Contest.
In July, when NYCB takes the stage for its 46th season at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the museum will hold a Dancers’ Health Day, with guest speakers Eliza Minden, head of design at Gaynor Minden, and Linda Hamilton, wellness consultant with NYCB; and an Autograph Day, when NYCB dancers will sign shoes and photographs.
Weaver and Roy-Heck co-curated the show, assisted by design and development staffer Ruby Whitney.
With her connections in the dance world, Roy-Heck found support for “En Pointe!” with sponsorship from six companies that make ballet shoes: Freed, Suffolk, Grishko, Capezio, Bloch and Gaynor Minden.
From the first step into “En Pointe!,” visitors find out that ballet shoes are made by hand of leather, satin, paper, glue and nails.
“The materials have not actually changed over 100 years,” says Weaver.
She stretches her hand toward the wall, indicating a ballet shoe that has been cut in half to reveal its insides.
“I wanted to make sure people can touch these,” she says.
Roy-Heck, who wore Freed shoes when she was a dancer, has watched pointe shoes being made in Freed’s factory in London, and in New York City, at Capezio, where they have made ballet shoes since 1887.
“They are made from scratch,” she says. “It’s sort of a mystery. And sort of a lost art, too.”
For the show, the Dance Museum tapped major ballet companies across the country, asking for shoes signed by dancers. As a result, the museum now has 150 shoes that will become part of its permanent collection.
“These are all New York City Ballet dancers,” Weaver says, pointing to one of six cases.
Roy-Heck and her sister, Melinda Roy, also a former NYCB soloist, both donated shoes.
Then there are the borrowed ones, worn by Merrill Ashley, the NYCB dancer who had a giant bunion and had her shoes altered to accommodate it, the late Alicia Markova, an Englishwoman considered to be one of the greatest 20th century ballerinas, and the late Moira Shearer, famous Scottish ballerina and star of “The Red Shoes,” the most popular ballet film ever.
As every dancer knows, rising up on your toes is difficult, and pointe shoes are not very comfortable.
“En Pointe” dips into the controversy over shoes made of traditional materials versus those made of space-age foam and plastics.
“Diehards don’t believe in padding. It’s definitely a controversy. There’s a mindset that it’s cheating,” says Roy-Heck. “Quite honestly, I feel there is a place for them. It really depends on the foot of the dancer. Attitudes are changing.”
Easing the pain
While traditional pointe shoes last from two weeks to a month, the “space-age” shoes last four times longer and are more comfortable. “When I was dancing, I wore one pair [of pointe shoes] a day,” Roy-Heck says.
The exhibit doesn’t flinch from the pain of ballet. There’s an entire section about the four most common ouchies — blisters, bruised toenails, bunions and corns — along with the various pads, cushions and materials that are inserted into the shoes.
“When I was dancing, we had paper towels and lamb’s wool,” says Roy-Heck.
After she retired, Roy-Heck decided she wanted to help dancers ease their pain, and she developed gel toe pads that absorb the shock of the weight balanced on the toes.
By 2007, dancers in 50 countries were using her dance accessory products, marketed under the name Bunheads. She has since sold Bunheads to Capezio, the biggest dance wear manufacturer.
The exhibit concludes with a short film, “Pointe Shoes,” made by New York City Ballet and featuring principal dancer Megan Fairchild, which tells the story of ballet shoes from factory to stage.
In the documentary, we meet Angel Betancourt, NYCB’s ballet shoe supervisor, who underscores the importance of these shoes, revealing that the company spends $500,000 per year providing them for its dancers.
“When people put them on, they create miracles,” Betancourt says.
Exhibit shows entries in shoe-decorating contest
Painted, stitched and bejeweled, 75 pairs of worn-out ballet shoes were transformed into works of art for the “En Pointe!” exhibit at the National Museum of Dance.
Last fall, the museum issued a call for entries in its Pointe Shoe Decorating Contest, with notices sent to dance schools and posted in Pointe magazine.
This spring, winners were announced in four age categories, and all the decorated shoes that were submitted became part of the exhibit.
Sophie Nguyentran, 11, of Orange Park, Fla., won in the age 12 and under category, with her “Around the World” shoes decorated with images of Egypt’s pyramids, the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower.
Fourteen-year-old Molly Feldbush of Jarrettsville, Md. was honored in the 13 to 16 group for “Check Pointe,” painted red shoes that look like race cars.
“My dad is into cars,” Molly explained in a phone call, describing how she hot-glued wheels onto her old pointe shoes and then added license plates, headlights and taillights printed from the Internet.
Three sisters from the Capital Region worked together on their creations.
Lindsay Miakisz, a 26-year-old Saratoga Springs native who lives in Ballston Spa, was honored in the age 22 and older group for “Precious Metal,” shoes spray-painted metallic silver and adorned with studs, spikes and chains.
“I love making art,” says Miakisz, a first-grade teacher at Schuylerville Elementary School.
Her 18-year-old sister, Alliza Charbonneau, a senior at Saratoga Springs High School, won in the 17 to 21 group for “Degas Emulation,” shoes painted in soft colors in the style of French artist Edgar Degas.
Charbonneau's twin, Catherine, also a senior at Saratoga High, used gold ribbon, pearls and lace to decorate her shoes. Alliza and Catherine both plan to study art at SUNY Purchase in the fall.
Lindsay, Alliza and Catherine all teach dance at Creative Dance Arts in Clifton Park.
The four winners won $100 gift certificates to Saratoga Dance Etc. and $100 from the Dance Museum.