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Written by: Vanessa

According to some, the French Revolution swept away courtly costumes. This combined with the increasing technical demands of ballet meant shoes needed to meet the task.

The first ballet shoes were based on straights worn for ballroom dancing but had no block in the toe. Specialist shoemakers began to appear in every city that had a ballet company, especially Paris.

Janssen was best known and made Taglionis shoes. His close rival was Crait who started in Lyons in 1823 but moved to Paris in 1850. His shoes were well sought after and the great Adel Grantzan from the St Petersburg ballet ordered her shoes exclusively from him. In 1879 he was made the official supplier to the Paris Opera.

The Belle Epoque saw the founding of many specialist ballet shoe firms including Ebermann of Berlin, Romeo Niccolini of Milan, Capezio in New York, Gamba in London and Anello, Davide & Frederich Freed.

Some shoemakers started by accident. Salvatore Capezio for example was asked to make a replacement pair for male dancer, Jean de Reske. Capezios shoe shop was close at hand to the Metropolitan Opera. The project interested Capezio so much that he started to specialise in ballet shoes.

London Based Gamba was formed by an Italian waiter, Luigi Gamba in 1894 who designed shoes for Pavlova and Nijinsky.

Today, Freed of London is the worlds leading ballet supplier and makes over 1000 pairs a day.

Dancers have their favourite shoemakers and are fiercely loyal as the tiniest variation in paper or glue in the toe block can mean the difference between agony and comfort.

Makers pay great attention and can remould previous shoes with plaster to take into account the dancers individual foot shape. The shoes are made in a very short time but the treatment of the toe block requires to be baked in a special oven at 60C for 14 hours.

A major ballet company will use 3000 pairs per year and in 1998 the shoe budget for the Royal Ballet (London) was in excess of R105,400-00. To try and recoup some of the costs, they sold of discarded pointes at R558-00 a pair. Nureyevs old shoes fetched R58,280-00 at a Christies auction.

Dancers have several pairs of shoes per week and they rarely last longer than one performance. They usually take responsibility for caring for their shoes and will repair them when necessary. Dancers have favourite shoes and try on many pairs in the wings before finding the right ones. Many performances are complete with the dancer wearing shoes, which have literally disintegrated.

Vanessa van Rensburg


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