The Born-Again Balletomane's Blog

Just another site about the love of ballet

Them new-fangled pointe shoes September 4, 2017

Filed under: ballerina,ballet — theworstat @ 5:41 pm

Didn’t want to put “GMs” in the title, but anyway, the subject has come up a few times in the comments.

Mind you I have only personally used the old-fashioned paste shoes, and that was decades ago.  I’ve never even seen a GM up close, and the informational video I posted on this blog was taken down from YouTube.  It did show an interesting few frames of someone bending a GM in their hand, and it was startling — it was like bending a bedroom slipper.  But yet it is said that GMs offer superior support.  I don’t get it; I guess I’d have to try GMs on to understand it, but doesn’t look like they make anything easier.

I do know that some schools still won’t permit students to wear them, and at least as of a few years ago, the NYCB forbid their dancers to use them.  This may or may not still be true.

In one of her videos, Womack warned student dancers not to use them — “they are for professionals” — yet in a later video she advised students to wear them.  I have heard that they make everything harder at first, so the “cheater” thing may be just a fit of pique at something new, just as ballerinas scoffed at Anna Pavlova’s stiffened toe boxes and flat platforms back when she invented them.  Yes, she did invent the modern pointe shoe!

Many of the ballerinas who do wear GMs still alter them.  But GM is supposedly working to customize the shoes for professionals so they can be worn out of the box (a very few dancers actually do that with traditional shoes as well).  Most of the GM alterations I see that are done by users involve that awful, ugly practice of darning the tips, which I continue to believe offers more psychological help than anything else.  Decades ago when I was dancing en pointe, almost no one darned their shoes; it was considered a thing of the past.  But it has caught on again in the past few decades and a lot of pro’s swear by it, so who am I to say much..except that unless the shoes are very carefully maintained, it makes them look unkempt and sometimes downright filthy.

I used to think that the issue of adding a huge piece of elastic to the top of the shoe was one only faced by dancers with exceptional feet that tend to spill over the top of the vamp, but then I noticed Yulia Stepanova does this and her feet are just okay.  It may also make the dancer feel more secure in some way; I don’t know.  But Alessandra Ferri definitely needed the extra elastic, and used it.  On the other hand, I don’t remember seeing extra elastic on Svetlana Zakharova’s shoes (I believe she uses GMs).

I understand the objection NYCB had/has to GMs is purely aesthetic.  The shoes do tend to hide the shape of the foot.  If a dancer has average feet, these shoes can make them look subpar, and true banana feet can look average in them, and so forth.  Once you get used to the sight of GMs it’s said you can actually spot them from the back of the theater, lol.  But for the average ballet audience, I don’t see this as much of a problem.

Apparently studies have shown that dancers who wear GMs are less prone to injury*.  Plus, the shoes last up to three times as long as paste shoes, which can break down in a matter of minutes.  Having had a pair of ill-considered Gambas break down in one beginner class decades ago (why I had purchased such a light pair of shoes, I don’t know), I can see where that is a huge problem for an actual ballerina faced with dancing the Rose Adagio.

I have also heard, however, that dancers who wear GMs are more prone to bruising and losing toenails, etc.  Can’t verify that either.

Personally I have seen dancers who had problems with pirouettes suddenly become able to turn more than competently after switching to GMs.  Womack was one of them, and the other I can think of offhand is Oxana Skorik.

I’ve also heard that GMs are quieter than paste shoes, but personally I haven’t noticed this.  All pointe shoes are noisy.

As for the Russian soloists’ objections to GMs…I don’t trust it.  A Russian newspaper once ran an article speaking out against GMs, claiming that because they are plastic (basically), they are bad for dancers’ health, and Russian shoes (made of paste) are so much healthier, and blah, blah, blah (yeah, having to strengthen your boxes with shellac is SO healthy!).

Apparently there’s been a little campaign there against GMs, which are an American shoe, yet many of the top dancers in big companies still use them.  There seems to be an issue here of whining in the face of reality, which tells me that the actual problem may be political in nature and have nothing to do with the shoes.  Expect it to intensify in the coming months if that is so.

Freed keeps bringing up the issue that GMs are not recyclable and their own shoes are…but plastics recycling is a big business, so I don’t get that either.  I haven’t heard much about ballet companies recycling shoes, to be honest.  I think the Royal Ballet does?  But I’m not sure.

So anyway, there in a nutshell is what I know about GMs.  Lots of questions, very few answers.

*I don’t have any links to studies, but I’m sure the GM website does.




9 Responses to “Them new-fangled pointe shoes”

  1. atlanticw Says:

    When I was still in adult pointe classes I was fitted for a traditional shoes which was fine and I liked the way my foot looked (Grishko 2007 and at one pair of Freeds) I did try to find GMs that worked and something about my foot just did’t seem to work. My food is wide at the metatarsal but toes are tapered. Somehow I could not get the correct length which resulted in me selling them after one attempt (still sold high, the prices are high and the resale even after one use was good).

    As far as the feel, I would say its like comparing a rough espadrille to a pair of nike airs. GMs feel like a sneaker inside and they do feel way more comfortable. Side by side, the Freeds fee like a crappy product. But dancing in them surely must be more comfortable due to the huge conversion rate that seems to be happening.

    I agree about the look- I can spot GMs from the balcony here at SF ballet and I agree they don’t look great to me- but I am probably one of the few people that eve notices or cares. I saw Kotchetkova last season in GMs and she was beautiful. I agree it does take away from the foot line but honestly that’s a little foot fetish-y to ban them for an entire company, particularly when your company has a high injury rate (I’m looking at you, NYCB). Something about that seems wrong; they are forcing their employees to use something that is potentially hazardous to their health when a better option is available. From a financial perspective they should be begging dancers to use GMs.

    Darning looks awful- I believe you are correct about the psychological/palcebo effect it may be having. I think a lot of things dancers do is based on their perception of what helps vs. hard evidence proving their hypothesis. I never was at the point where I would have need to darn, cut shanks, or do any of crazy stuff I see people doing, so I cannot say.

    The only downside, which is likely unfixable, is that they cannot ‘mold’ to the dancer’s foot. Due to it being a molded form, the dancer either accepts it or stays with traditional shoes.

    As far as being cheater shoes, do modern lightweight tennis rackets make Serena Williams a cheater or bad tennis player? I think not.

    • atlanticw Says:

      Just found this interesting video on how the shoes are made. Some things, like the cobbler hammering away and the seamstresses, seem like traditional shoes. But there are clearly very modern materials being put in them.

    • theworstat Says:

      Thanks for the first-person description of what GMs actually feel like. I was whistling in the dark there.

      LOL sometimes I feel we should mount a campaign against darning, lol. There are just so many alternatives, including ordering a shoe with a wider platform. As for traction, just strip the satin off (why do they put it on the tips anyway?), and glue on some sueded fabric or something. No need to go through all that torture, particularly if finishing one shoe takes more than an hour, which is ridiculous. Plus, back in the day we were told that darning was dangerous, as a thread could catch onto something on the floor.

      Some manufacturers now make shoes with 3/4 shanks, and professionals can definitely order them that way…yet I still see them going through all this terrible business of altering the shoes. It’s a mystery.

  2. atlanticw Says:

    I think the main thing is that GMs are a totally different shoe. Yes they are ‘pointe’ shoes but they are not really related to traditional shoes in their construction or feel (as seen above). Even the satin feels different-it’s thicker or something about how it is merged with the other fabric. The one issue I had with them not fitting was the lack of ‘give’ or stretch’.

    The cutting of the shanks is a total mystery to me. I watch a lot of the videos of professional prepping their shoes and the process must eat half their free time at least (the women should be getting OT compared to men). I actually have tis theory that because pointe is so unnatural an painful these little rituals just make them feel like it hurts less (like you suggested about darning being a placebo). It gets to the point on some of those videos that it just can’t possibly be necessary to do all of that. But then again, I never got past recreational classes so I really can’t say.

    I find it quite ridiculous that a male director is banning women an girls from using a shoe that could mitigate their health problems. It’s not really his business as far as I am concerned.

    • theworstat Says:

      Again, fascinating information from someone who has actually tried on GMs. Thanks.

      I do feel that Merrill Ashley (former prima at NYCB) had a big voice in getting NYCB to ban GMs. She DETESTS them. Not sure how the power structure worked from there on out, but I’m sure Peter Martins would have had something to do with it. Balanchine, however, was just as bad — he insisted his dancers wear Capezios and worked with Capezio to create a pointe shoe that would promote those “creative bunions” he loved so much. Nowadays most NYCB dancers wear Freeds; at least, that’s what I’ve heard. It’s kind of crazy because Freeds are known to be fragile, and NYCB’s Balanchine repertoire is known to be very, very hard on shoes.

      Yeah, the shoe prepping drives me nuts. The Royal Ballet actually requires that their dancers hammer their shoes (again, usually Freeds from what I’ve heard) to make them quiet. For chrissake, it doesn’t work. Honestly I’ve only ever seen one video where the pointe shoes were so loud that I couldn’t watch the whole thing, and that was a video of Susan Jaffe.

      I’ve actually seen videos where dancers use special tools to remove the nails from the shanks, etc., and spend oodles of time chopping away at the shanks with little, nasty-looking knives. It looks dangerous, tiring, and time-consuming. Just order the shoes with 3/4 shanks, okay? Most manufacturers will do that for pros! And then I’ve seen some dancers pouring shellac into their shoes…OMG. That’s frickin’ poison. In my day it was Fabulon floor cleaner — probably no better for you. And you didn’t get much more use out of the shoes anyway.

      I agree that the shoe rituals seem to have a superstitious air about them, like the old wives’ tale of putting a knife under the mattress to cut the pain of childbirth.

  3. KatiSzed Says:

    When I was a ballet student back in the day I tried pretty much every shoe available because I had a lot of problems – short toed and wide metatarsal, slightly flat-footed and weak ankles. (Gee, I wonder why I didn’t become a dancer…)
    For a while I tried GM and they are very comfortable, it’s a good comparison to nike air sneakers. If I had become a corps dancers I think they can be good because you can wear them for long periods of time and the life-span is surprisingly long. The negative is that I got ankle lazy, the sole feels ‘bouncy’ meaning the shoe helps get up on the box. Also, rolling through the foot is a very different feeling than in a traditional show which is really very molded to the foot.
    I prefer the traditional show because it really molds to the foot. I also had more ‘floor awareness’ because they’re not so bouncy and padded. I did a lot of shoe tweaking myself because 3/4 shanks were not yet available (or at least not that I knew of) and my feet changed a lot depending on training etc. Depending on what we were dancing I maybe wanted the shank support a bit higher or a bit lower and it’s nice doing those adjustments. Surely it’s also a psychological thing ‘I’m doing what I know works best for me’
    However I did not darn the tips – I actually found the thread darning slippery and unstable – I just cut off satin.

    • theworstat Says:

      I’m with you on the weak ankles. Mine were so torque-y that I was given special saddle shoes as a kid, and later when I took up figure skating I was advised to get the strongest boot I could. Figure skating used to build up the ankles back when skaters actually practiced figures for hours every day; it does do so well at that now that they only spend a few minutes doing “edges.” And strong boots actually cause your foot muscles to atrophy…but anyway, I’m digressing. Pointe did not help my ankles, either.

      Thanks for the explanation of why dancers 3/4 the shanks on their shoes. It’s something I would never have done, lol. Too lazy,and I tend to get hurt using knives.

      I cut off the satin too. Still not sure why manufacturers put it there. I do know some manufacturers now put sueded material on the platform; actually Capezio made shoes with suede platforms years ago. I tried to get them but was told they were for beginners (i.e. little girls) and my feet were too big, lol.

      • theworstat Says:

        I meant figure skating no longer builds up the ankles due to the relative absence of the practice of figures.

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