By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Janie Parker has beautiful feet.
You're not likely to get much of an argument on that point from Houston Ballet fans, who, over the last two decades, have watched as Parker not only danced her way to the top of the heap in Houston, but also helped dance the Ballet itself to a position among the top four or five companies in America. You're also not likely to get much of an argument from the dance critics who have written about her "fabulously arched feet" (Terry Truco in Dance Magazine), her "exceptionally round instep and beautifully arched foot" (Anna Kisselgoff in the New York Times), her "eye popping extensions" (Alan Kriegsman in the Washington Post) or simply her "innocent radiance" (Martin Bernheimer in the Los Angeles Times) or "lyrical phrasing" (Pam Lambert in the Wall Street Journal).
Nor would you have gotten much of an argument from the dance experts who gathered in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1982 for the International Ballet Competition, an event sometimes referred to as the Olympics of dance. Held every few years, the Ballet Competition differs from its weightlifting and decathlon-running counterpart in that it doesn't award gold medals to whomever comes in at the front of the pack. It awards them only to dancers it considers truly deserving. It's not uncommon for no gold medals at all to be awarded, but, in 1982, one was, to Janie Parker, making her the first adult American woman to win the prize. A documentary film of that competition catches a few judges walking around the grounds of the small college that hosted the event and, in tones part lustful, part respectful, asking each other, "Have you seen that girl from Houston's feet?"
Actually, they hadn't. Neither have the national dance critics, nor the Houston dance fans who have followed Parker's career. What they have seen is the illusion that Parker's feet can create when sheathed in a pair of flat-toed Freed's pointe shoes. "Little pink coffins" is Parker's rueful name for her shoes, which she has specially made, with the left pointe shoe a half-size bigger than the right. The left foot is her turning foot, the one she twirls on in a pirouette, and while her feet were likely a slightly different size from each other from the beginning (as is the case with most people), the turning has also helped make her left foot more muscular. In normal shoes, the half-size doesn't count for much. But in pointe shoes, as Parker says, "you don't want to get the sense that your feet are swimming around."
Parker knows about things like this because she, unlike the legions of admirers who have waxed eloquent about her lower extremities, has actually seen the feet in question. And beautiful is not the word she uses to describe them.
"From here on down," she says, drawing an imaginary line just above her ankles, "they're Frankenstein feet."
Sitting in the physical therapy room at the Houston Ballet offices on West Bell, she stares down frankly, if ruefully, at the instruments of her fame. They are nine and a half inches long by two inches high in the middle by four inches wide across the base of the toes. That four inches can be a problem, because her pointe shoes, though also nine and a half inches long, are only three inches across the widest part of the toe. "That's a lot of foot to shove into those tiny little shoes," Parker admits.
She takes a visitor's hand and grasps it tightly just below the knuckles. Push, she says. Feel the pressure at the top of the fingers? she asks. That's what happens when a dancer with four inches of foot gets up on her toes in shoes with only three inches of space. The shoes pinch. The skin slides. There are calluses. But calluses, she notes, are good. Dancers love their calluses. It's not simply that they're a badge of honor of sorts, though they are; it's that they're protection. Callused skin is less likely to break, less likely to tear.
And things do break and tear. Parker extends her left foot. "My feet are rather full of scars," she says matter-of-factly. "You can see one there" -- she traces a long, light, crosshatched line that rises along the inside of her ankle -- "one there" -- she points to a spot between her second and third toes -- "one there" -- her finger moves over to a spot between the next two toes. "I think that's enough for right now."
She tucks her foot back beneath her. "Poor little footsies," she says with a laugh. "I can hardly wear anything on them anymore. Hiking boots and thongs, that's about it. Anything else hurts. Even tennis shoes have a place that rubs the wrong way."
"But soon that'll change," she adds with a sudden, radiant smile. "Soon, I'll feel comfortable again. And I'll never, ever put on another pair of pointe shoes. That part of my life will be over."
On January 23, Janie Parker turned 41. For a professional athlete (which is, after all, what a ballet dancer is), that is an exceptionally advanced age. It's not that dancers necessarily have to quit when they reach 40. Margot Fonteyn, though admittedly an unusual case, danced into her sixties, and other 40-year-old ballerinas are still on-stage. And given her unusual flexibility and stamina, Parker admits that she, too, could probably have performed for another decade.