The secrets behind the Northern Ballet’s Pointe shoes

The world premiere tour of the Northern Ballet’s Little Mermaid is heading to Norwich Theatre Royal at the of September. It tells the well known story of young mermaid willing to give up her life under the sea to find true love. This original piece will be set along to a Scottish influenced classical soundtrack and performed on a modern, stylish and contemporary set. Whilst the costumes should be mesmerising, the ballerinas most important tools will be their pointe shoes. These delicate, pretty shoes have more to them than meets the eye.  Every year, Northern Ballet uses over 5,600 pairs of pointe shoes (over 230 per dancer!) Here a few secrets behind the Northern Ballet’s Pointe shoes.

The secrets behind the northern ballet's pointe shoes

How are they made?

A pointe shoe is essentially made out of fabric and something akin to papier-mâché. They have a leather sole around which layers of cotton and silk are attached which forms the pale pink shining pointe shoe to which ballet fans will be accustomed. However, inside the pointe shoe, aesthetic makes way for functionality.

Inside, a shank runs the length of the shoe similar to how an insole would lay in a regular shoe. In Freed of London shoes, which are worn by almost all of Northern Ballet’s dancers, the shank is made of a thick cardstock and is incredibly rigid and difficult to bend at first. It is the shank which stiffens the sole of the shoe and helps to support the dancer’s foot when she is en pointe.

The secrets behind the northern ballet's pointe shoes

The box is the part of the shoe which surrounds the toes and toe joints. The box is made up of layers of paper and burlap combined with a glue paste made of flour, starch, water and some secret ingredients. As the box is built up, the maker will flatten the platform (tip of the shoe) forming a flat surface on which the ballerina can balance. The shoe is ‘baked’ to dry and set the glue, leaving the box firm and strong, providing support around the toes.

Like most dancers at professional ballet companies, Northern Ballet’s dancers have custom made pointe shoes which enable the dancers to tailor the shoe to their exact requirements to perform at their absolute best. This is possible as pointe shoes are handmade and, with Freed of London shoes, dancers are able to specify which ‘maker’ will create their shoes ensuring they fit perfectly time after time. The ‘maker’ is identified by a stamp on the sole of the shoe which can be anything from a single letter, a little fish, an anchor, or even a wine glass!

The secrets behind the northern ballet's pointe shoes

However when the shoes arrive, they are absolutely rigid and require breaking in to mould them to the dancer’s foot and make them pliable enough to dance in. In addition, each dancer will attach ribbons and elastic to the shoe to ensure it stays on the foot correctly. Each dancer has their own preference for how they attach their ribbons and elastics.

Why does the company go through so many?

The secrets behind the northern ballet's pointe shoes

In spite of all the work which goes into making them stage ready, pointe shoes have a very short life. They naturally deteriorate through use, and due to heat and sweat from the foot breaking down the materials inside the shoe. Dancers will have multiple pairs of shoes ‘on the go’ at once and will rotate through several pairs each week. Once a shoe has softened to a point where it no longer offers the support a dancer needs, the shoe is considered ‘dead’ and can no longer be safely worn.

The secrets behind the Northern Ballet’s pointe shoes…

Hannah Bateman (Leading Soloist)

The secrets behind the northern ballet's pointe shoes

What make are your pointe shoes?

I wear Freed of London shoes in a size 4 with a heel pin which makes them slightly bigger than a standard size 4. My shoes are also customised with a ¾ forteflex shank which means it is ¾ of the length of a normal shank and extra strong. My shoes are made by the club maker and also have an extra deep vamp which gives me added support along the side of the foot.

How do you prepare your shoes?

First I take out the two nails at the top of the shank and work it into a bend so it sits flush with the sole of my foot when I put them on. I then shellac inside all over the toe area and along the shank. I also add super glue inside the shoe where my big toe will sit to prevent the shoe from losing its shape for as long as possible. I leave shoes in my airing cupboard or on a radiator to allow the shellac and glue time to dry. I cut the satin off of the platform and stick a 5mm round elastic around the circumference of the platform. I then stitch elastic to the inside of the shoe in line with the highest point of my arch and attach the other side around the back of the heel. Finally I sew on the ribbons and the shoes are ready to go!

How long does it take you to prepare a pair of shoes?

An hour per pair!

When do you prepare your pointe shoes?

Whenever I can! It is a constant battle to keep up! I’ll get up an hour earlier; stitch a bit in my lunch hour or between rehearsals; prepare them at home whilst watching a bit of television; on a train journey – wherever, whenever!

How long does each pair of shoes tend to last you?

This is tricky because it depends on the work load; different ballets can put different pressures on your shoes. I can’t really wear a pair for more than two hours as the shoe starts to go soft with the heat of your feet so I have to switch them quite often. For a typical Northern Ballet performance I can easily wear one pair per show because the shoe has to look fantastic and be capable of sustaining its shape and strength. For rehearsals you can be less fussy about the look but we’re five weeks into this season and I have already used 30 pairs!

What else do you want to say about your pointe shoes?

They are incredible! I have had mine made by club maker for the whole of my professional career and each pair is handmade by him in the Freed of London workshop in Norwich. The smell of brand new pointe shoes is really beautiful, the leather sole and the crisp satin, there is nothing like it! My Dad has collected my pointe shoes from every principal performance of mine he has ever seen. I’ve been dancing professionally for over 16 years now so he has a fair few, including pairs from my first shows as Juliet, Cleopatra, Jane Eyre, Marquise and Beauty.

The secrets behind the northern ballet's pointe shoes

Miki Akuta (Corps de Ballet)

What make are your pointe shoes?

I wear Freed of London shoes by the wine glass maker.

How do you prepare your shoes?

First I sew the ribbons and elastics and then I stitch the platform of the shoe to make them look better. I also cut out the end of the sole. Dancers spend a lot of time preparing their shoes!

How long does it take you to prepare a pair of shoes?

About half an hour per pair.

When do you prepare your pointe shoes?

I usually try to do it between rehearsals whenever I have a bit of time so I don’t have to do it at home in my spare time. If I don’t manage to finish the shoes I need, then sometimes I will do it at home while I talk to my family on Skype.

How long does each pair of shoes tend to last you?

My shoes last about a week but it totally depends on what ballet we are doing and whether we are performing on a flat or raked (sloped) stage.

What else do you want to say about your pointe shoes?

One day my friend and I tried to exchange our pointe shoes just for fun. We found out that even though they were the same size and width, because they are customised to our own feet, the two pairs looked totally different and there was no way we could exchange our shoes!

The secrets behind the northern ballet's pointe shoes

Dominique Larose (Corps de Ballet)

What make are your pointe shoes?

My pointe shoes are by Suffolk, they are the Solo model. I have worn the same kind of shoes since I was 13!

How do you prepare your shoes?

I don’t actually do very much to prepare my shoes! I shellac inside the box and the shank before I wear them and then I sew the ribbon and elastic on. Just before I wear them I bend the shank by hand, step on the box and put a little water on the box. Sometimes I wear them for class first but sometimes I wear them brand new for rehearsal – it depends what we are rehearsing.

When do you prepare your pointe shoes?

I like to prepare all of my shoes early because I don’t want to be rushed. It usually takes me a couple of weeks to get them all done. For a few weeks I’ll be in and out of the shoe room in the Wardrobe department like crazy!

How long does each pair of shoes tend to last you?

Usually a pair can last me a week but it depends on what ballet we are doing. When it’s hot in the summer I will go through shoes faster but I try to make them last as long as possible.

What else do you want to say about your pointe shoes?

All I can say is I love my pointe shoes, they are very special to me. I need them to perform at my best so I really treasure them. I still have my very first pair of pointe shoes – I heard it’s lucky to keep them!

The secrets behind the northern ballet's pointe shoes


Northern Ballet’s The Little Mermaid, Tuesday, September 26 to Saturday September 30, 2017. Eves 7.30pm, Mats Thur & Sat 2.30pm Tickets £8-£38.50. Book online or call the box office on01603 630000. 

Photos by Lauren Godfrey and Martin Bell. 

With thanks to the Northern Ballet and Norwich Theatre Royal for the information and interviews. 

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