While the majority of a ballet dancer’s wardrobe–tutu, leotard, tights–is required mostly due to tradition, pointe shoes are an absolutely necessity. They are the only exterior tool a ballet dancer uses, and they must be perfect. Pointe shoes represent the entire paradox of ballet: something that looks so beautiful and light to the audience requires years of craftsmanship and is only perfected through physical distortion. And they are often only used in one performance before being discarded. The movie Center Stage shows what ballerinas do to mold shoes to their feet:

Colum McCann’s lovely and brutal novel Dancer, an account of ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s life, is famous long sentences that make up entire chapters. I especially love the 6-page sentence that describes a ballet shoemaker’s work. Tom Ashford, master pointe shoe maker, shivers “to think how [Margot Fonteyn] handles his shoes once she gets them, shattering the shank to make it more pliable, banging the shoes against doors to soften the box, bending the shoe over and over so it feels perfect on her feet, as if she has worn it forever…”

My favorite part of this sentence is the last bit, as Tom is contemplating the sketches he’s just gotten for the forty pairs of shoes ordered by Nureyev:

“by the sketches alone [Tom] knows the life of this foot, raised in barefoot poverty and–from the unusual wideness of the bone structure–bare on concrete rather than grass, then squeezed into shoes that were too small, coming to dance later than usual given the smallness yet breadth of the foot, 7EEE, then a great violence done by excessive training, many hard angles, but a remarkable strength…”

I love the idea of an artisan understanding his craft so well that he becomes like a reverse fortune teller: instead of reading the future from a palm, he reads a man’s history from his foot.