I slept with my first pair under my pillow,” says Bethany Kingsley-Garner. “I remember thinking it was the best day of my life.” And so started a career-long connection between a young ballerina and her pointe shoes. A pupil at the Royal Ballet School at the time, the 11-year-old Kingsley-Garner soon discovered that the shiny satin and pink ribbons belied the pain that was to come.
“I was so excited putting them on,” she says, “but then I remember feeling as though I’d broken all my toes – it was the most bizarre sensation.” Now a principal dancer with Scottish Ballet, Kingsley-Garner spends eight hours a day with her feet encased in pointe shoes – and watching her rehearse the lead role in the company’s upcoming production of Cinderella, it’s clear that pain is no longer an issue.
Fellow principal Constance Devernay was ten when she got her first pair – a day out she still remembers. “There were no dance wear shops in my town, so my parents took me on a trip to Paris, which was a massive thing for me,” she recalls. “I can still picture the touch and smell of them, the varnish and satin, it felt like treasure.”
Similarly, a rude awakening awaited Devernay. “I really didn’t like it at first,” she says. “It was horrible and painful, with blisters and bleeding toes. It took a long time for me to feel like the shoes were part of my body – it just felt like somebody had put two massive bricks under my feet.”
Today, pointe shoes are an intrinsic part of life for both dancers, and for every other female dancer in Scottish Ballet – not just the wearing of them, but the time and care that goes into ensuring each pair is just right. Three times a year, Sophie Simpson, a representative from dance shoe company Freed of London, heads north to visit the dancers and check all is well.
“Finding the perfect pointe shoe is a constant journey for every dancer,” says Simpson. “And it’s my job to support them on that journey. We often work in conjunction with physiotherapists and osteopaths if, for example, a dancer is coming back to work after an injury or pregnancy. It’s the nuance of the shoe we’re changing – and most dancers will have the same pointe shoe maker throughout their career.”
Dancers talk at length about their “makers,” and the importance of their relationship with a man or woman most of them will never meet, yet who is fundamental to their well-being.
“I met Bethany Kingsley-Garner at the Royal Ballet School, when I fitted her first pair of shoes,” says Simpson. “She’s had the same maker throughout her career to date, and we’re hopeful that he’ll outlast her. Because there’s nothing more traumatic for a principal dancer at the pinnacle of their career than to suddenly find out that their maker is retiring, it’s horrible for them.”
That said, even once the bespoke pairs of shoes have been hand-crafted by the maker in London, the dancers still devote hours of time to getting them just right. Pulling a brand new pair of pointe shoes from her bag, Kingsley-Garner talks me through the process, from sewing on ribbons and elastic, to pouring Shellac inside the sole, shaving the leather underneath with a Stanley knife, coating the tip with glue and hammering the block. Couldn’t she just ask her maker to do that for her?
“Oh no!” she says with a gasp, “I wouldn’t want them to. They say they can do anything we like – but we always say no thanks. It’s part of our ritual and we do each pair in exactly the same way.” In truth, it’s the only way the dancers can be 100 per cent sure the shoe is exactly as they need it to be – for them to feel confident on stage and for the shoe to protect their bodies.
“Everything comes from the feet,” explains Devernay. “So if you’ve got a bad pair of shoes on, you might use your calf muscles in the wrong way and it goes up into your knee joints, your hips and keeps going upwards. I would say getting the right pair of pointe shoes is the most important thing for a ballerina to prevent injuries.”
According to Kingsley-Garner, it can also have an impact on how they feel mentally. “It’s like giving a tennis player a racket with a few strings missing, they’d go onto the court feeling nervous,” she says.
“With the right shoes on your feet, you go out feeling confident – you know how they’ve been made, you’re confident in your maker and you’ve prepared them yourself.”
At any given time, a dancer will have five or six pairs on the go, each in a different state of malleability. One pair will be used for warm-up, another for rehearsal, another for performance and so on. For Devernay and Kingsley-Garner, dancing the lead role of Cinderella will see them use a new pair for each performance – such are the demands of the choreography.
Over the next few months, as it takes Cinderella out on tour, Scottish Ballet will get through 600 pairs of pointe shoes. At £40 a pair, that’s a shoe bill of £24,000. Small wonder, then, that the company has launched its “Pointe Shoe Appeal” to seek public support to help cover those costs.
“I’m often asked why technology hasn’t found a way to make the perfect pointe shoe,” says Scottish Ballet’s artistic director, Christopher Hampson. “But it’s like a thumb print, each dancer’s foot is entirely unique - their skeletal make-up, the way their weight is distributed across the bones in their foot. It’s so individual, you can’t manufacture for that, it has to be done by hand.
“I always think the most impressive thing in ballet is to watch the amazing shapes a dancer creates – and to see they’re supported on one tiny little spot on the stage is amazing. But for that to be achievable, the shoe has to be rigorously tested and well made. Because the only thing touching the floor is their shoe, it’s quite literally pivotal.”
Scottish Ballet’s Cinderella is at Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 8-30 December; Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 4-12 January; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 16-19 January; Eden Court, Inverness, 23-26 January. To contribute to Scottish Ballet’s Pointe Shoe Appeal, visit www.scottishballet.co.uk