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Keeping the world's greatest dancers on their toes

From Lianne Turner, CNN
  • Freed of London has supplied ballet shoes to dancing greats including Margot Fonteyn
  • All Freed pointe shoes are hand made and tailored to each dancer's foot
  • Ballet dancers can go through around six pointe shoes a week
  • They will often smash, bend and cut shoes to better mould shoes to their feet

London (CNN) -- They are the most important element of a ballerina's costume: Pointe shoes, which allow dancers to stand on the tips of their toes, can make the difference between an amazing performance and a dismal show.

So important are the pink silk shoes in the life of a dancer that most ballerinas will only ever wear established and trusted brands -- and for the greats of the ballet world, this brand is Freed of London.

Shoemaker to the stars for over 80 years, Freed has supplied shoes to dancing greats including Margot Fonteyn, Suzanne Farrell and Leanne Benjamin as well as Patrick Swayze and U.S. actress Natalie Portman, who wore Freed shoes for her Oscar-nominated performance in "Black Swan."

"You really need to have someone who knows how shoes work and knows what you need," said Tamara Rojo, Principal Dancer at Britain's Royal Ballet, who has been wearing Freed shoes for almost 20 years.

In the shoes of a ballerina

According to Rojo, a good pair of pointe shoes is essential -- both physically and psychologically.

"A good pair of shoes makes you stop thinking about it. You are free to dance, to do what you have been working on for weeks and weeks ... you can really achieve something special."

But, says Rojo, a bad pair can not only hamper the technical ability of a dancer, but can cause irrevocable damage to their feet.

The reason dancers flock to Freed is the exceptional level of craftsmanship, with shoes individually tailored to each dancer's foot.

Each year, Freed produces over a quarter of a million pairs of shoes in their British factories alone, all of them hand-made.

Two thirds of their shoes are made to measure, with many of the world's greatest ballet companies, including The Royal Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet and the New York City Ballet, using Freed as their official supplier.

But making pointe shoes is a delicate and painstaking process.

The block at the front of the toe has to be carefully built up with hessian paper and glue, then finished in an oven where it sits overnight. Depending on the craftsman -- the size of their hands, their strength and how they apply the glue -- each pointe shoe will have a different feel.

For Rojo, these differences are essential as each role she dances requires a particular type of shoe.

There are some shoes that are almost like magic and they last for many shows. Those shoes are like treasures.
--Tamara Rojo, Principal Dancer at The Royal Ballet.

For the technically and physically demanding role of the Black Swan in "Swan Lake," a strong shoe with a lot of support is required, whereas the role of the sylph in "La Sylphide" has more jumps and less pirouettes, so a light, gentle shoe is needed.

As Rojo explained: "You can say I need less glue at the back (of the shoe) but more on the front because ... I really don't want to make any noise, and in Black Swan it is the opposite -- I want all the glue you have, everything you have!"

In London, the Royal Ballet buys over eight thousand pairs of pointe shoes each year.

It's a lot of shoes, and with the average classical dancer going through as many as six pairs a week, shoes alone cost the company more than $400,000 a year.

But despite the huge numbers and costs involved, ballet dancers are anything but gentle with their shoes.

Rojo will have 60 pairs at any one time and will cut, beat, squash and stretch them in order to get the best fit possible.

"I cut down the sole to give it that flexibility ... and then another thing that I do is smash the side of the shoe a lot so that they bend easily and give me ... a bit more sexy movement."

"I have shoes that I prepare for the shows which might last me one show. If I overdo it, if I smash them in, it's not a big problem, I just grab another pair."

But despite the personalized fittings, the pulling and the prodding, sometimes the perfect pointe shoe is just luck of the draw, according to Rojo.

"There are some shoes that are almost like magic and they last for many shows. I don't know what it is. They just sit so well on your feet and they just perform with you. Those shoes are like treasures."