Soles on Ice

For 20 years, prima ballerina Janie Parker's feet have been harnessed to the Houston Ballet. In one more month, she plans to set them free.

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.

But she could not, she says, have performed at the level she demands of herself. She could not, in particular, have kept dancing on her toes. Her body simply will not take it anymore. More than a quarter of a century of rising and falling and turning and gliding and making the most strenuous physical activities look like they take no effort, no effort at all, has left its mark. "I'm feeling the accumulation" is how she puts it. And so, beginning on May 23, Parker will dance a program that includes Image, a half-hour long solo piece inspired by the life of Marilyn Monroe, and then, beginning on June 6, she will dance the role of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. One modern piece, one classical piece, a chance to show the breadth of her talents, and then it will be over. Janie Parker's career as the prima of the Houston Ballet will be finished.

What promises to be the salvation of her feet has been a cause for sorrow among many Houston Ballet fans. Dr. Donald Baxter, the Houston orthopedic surgeon who watches over the Ballet's dancers, talks for almost half an hour about the problems that Parker has experienced over the years, and at the end he asks only one thing. "If you quote me," he says, "could you quote me as saying this: I saw Janie Parker dance her very first time in Houston, and I'll see her dance for the last time. And I'm going to miss her a lot."

He's not the only one, apparently, which is why the Houston Ballet has made the last two series of its 1995-96 season something of a farewell party for Parker. Those series will cap the 20th year she has danced in Houston, and that's one reason she picked this time to hang up her shoes. She had contemplated calling it quits last year, but that was the 25th anniversary of the Ballet itself, and she didn't want to draw attention away from the company or Artistic Director Ben Stevenson. So she decided to tough it out for 12 more months.

When she talks about her career in Houston, Stevenson's name is never far from her lips. Though she ticks off the names of her chiropractor and her orthopedic surgeon when asked who has made it possible for her to dance so long, Stevenson's is the name she raises when asked why she wanted to dance so long. The tale of their pairing -- how the choreographer helped make the dancer, how the dancer helped establish the choreographer -- has entered the realm of legend in Houston arts circles.

The details have taken on an almost rote familiarity: how Parker began studying dance in her hometown of Atlanta at age eight; how, at 13, she went away to the North Carolina School of the Arts; how she won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet in New York; how she then went on to become a dancer at La Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve in Switzerland; how, while there, she attracted the attention of George Balanchine, the most influential man in American ballet; how, in 1975, before Balanchine could lure Parker away to his New York City Ballet, a British choreographer named Ben Stevenson came to Switzerland to set his Cinderella on the company there; how the young dancer and the young dance-maker realized they wanted the same thing, to somehow fuse drama and movement; how Stevenson was chosen to head the nascent Houston Ballet in 1976, and how, as one of his first moves, he asked Janie Parker to be among his performers; how Parker, to the general disbelief of the dance world, chose Stevenson over Balanchine; and how, finally, the two decades since have proven how fortuitous that choice was.

"I don't know if I would have been around this long if I'd danced for Mr. B," says Parker. "He wanted dancers to be music on-stage. I remember seeing him once go over to the piano when we were rehearsing and look at the notes to see the positions they were in, and then using that to suggest our positions. But I wanted something different. I wanted to act, and Ben let me do that. In fact, he showed me how to do it."

In the process, Parker became one of the most visible figures in Houston. In the same way that, say, Nolan Ryan was known even by those who had no interest in baseball, or Hakeem Olajuwon is familiar to those who care nothing for basketball, Parker's face has grown recognizable even to those whose knowledge of ballet begins and ends with how the word is spelled. Well, not necessarily her face: her legs and feet, the supple line of which has graced programs, T-shirts, newspaper feature stories and advertising to the point that their swoop is almost one of the city's defining characteristics.

"Legs and feet, legs and feet," says Parker at one point. "There's been so much talk about my legs and feet that sometimes I wondered if I even existed above the waist."

Janie Parker's feet are completely flat.
"No sunshine under these babies," she says, staring down at where her soles touch the floor of Houston Ballet's rehearsal studio D. "No arch this way, no arch that way. A complete pancake."

Normally, such flatness would mean a short career for a dancer. But Parker is so amazingly strong and flexible -- "Gumby body" is her phrase, "hypermobile" is her orthopedist's -- that she can muscle an arch into being, just as she can take legs that are naturally somewhat bowed and force them into a pleasing posture. When she was a kid, Parker says, she could sit down, stretch her legs out flat, set her heels and then bend her ankles and feet to where her toes also touched the floor. In recent years, though, her toes haven't quite reached, hovering a slight distance above the ground. "The muscles along the bottom of my feet have built up," she says. "I'm getting tight."

Of course, tightness is relative. Parker can still casually lift one leg to where it's pointing straight at the ceiling while balancing on the other leg and carrying on a normal conversation. None of this, though, comes without effort. Since she was around 13, she says, she's followed a fairly regular schedule that involves hours of exercise and rehearsal six days a week, every week. In the last few decades, that schedule has also included physical therapy, and then there are performances and public appearances and planning -- basically, what it's meant for the last 20 years is no life outside the ballet studio.

It's also meant more than a few injuries. There have been broken toes, which she danced on, and blisters too numerous to mention. There was a broken little finger, suffered when she pirouetted into a male dancer who had positioned himself too closely. And then there was the broken rib in Washington, D.C., when she leapt off a rock in the finale of Swan Lake into what were supposed to be the receiving arms of another dancer. Only her partner made the catch wrong, and a rib cracked. The next day in rehearsal she felt a stabbing pain; a trip to the doctor revealed the injury, and drew the admonition not to dance for a month unless she wanted to risk a punctured lung. But Parker was scheduled to perform the world premiere of The Miraculous Mandarin and wasn't about to hand that opportunity to anyone else. She tried to rehearse, but the pain was simply too intense. Standing in the wings and watching someone else dance her role was, she says, the biggest disappointment of her career.

It was not the most frightening time of her career, though. That had come earlier, when, during her third year in Houston, her feet began to hurt so much that she collapsed into tears after every class or rehearsal. She'd suffered a small tear in the tendon that ran down the back of her foot and connected her lower leg to her big toe. It was the tendon that let the foot point, the one used when she went up on pointe. Now, each flex caused agony. "I tried to dance through it, like I'd danced through everything else," she says, "but it was just too much. There were little egg-like swellings on the tendon, and there was just too much pain." So, in 1979, she had tendon reconstruction surgery, and for seven months laid low, dancing only non-strenuous roles.

She came back, she says, because what else was there to do? "It's not that you learn to dance with pain," says Parker. "It's just that's the choice you make. You dance or you don't dance. And people who want to dance want to dance. You just either do it, or you don't."

Parker has just done it, learning along the way the tricks of the trade: how to always cut her toenails straight across to avoid ingrown toenails; how to soak her feet in water spiked with table salt rather than Epsom salts, because Epsom salts make the feet soft while table salt toughens them like seawater toughens a sailor's hands. She learned to never, ever get near a pedicurist because "you want those ugly calluses on your toes. You don't want them smooth, you want that stuff to build up." She learned to tape her feet for support and injuries. She learned all about the levels of painkillers. "You learn you start with Tylenol," she says, "and if that doesn't work, you go to Advil. And if that doesn't work, you go to Naprosyn, and if that doesn't work, you go to Daypro. Man, we love Daypro here. I could live on Daypro. And I do."

But most of all, she learned to let none of this show. "It's really not the business of the audience to know about the injuries," she says. "We don't want them on the edge of their seats saying, is she going to make it? If I deem that I'm ready to dance, then the audience shouldn't see anything other than the performance."

One thing the audience will not see in her final performances are the large bunions that rise next to the big toe on each of her feet. The reddened lumps have grown over the years, curving the big toes so that they almost overlap their companions. Following her last turn, her last bow, in The Sleeping Beauty, Parker says, she has a number of things planned. One is to marry her fiance, graphic artist Dennis Sneed. Another is to honeymoon in Colorado. And then she plans to knock on Dr. Baxter's door and have him cut away at her feet. First the bunions will come off, then the bone of her big toe will be sliced, then it will be repositioned and finally a small metal screw will be inserted to tie everything back together.

It'll mean, Parker says, she can endure normal shoes again. It'll mean that she can give up Daypro. It'll mean that maybe she can wake up in the morning and not ache. And it may very likely mean that she can never, ever rise on her toes again to dance.

But that's okay, says Parker. She's done that. And after all this time, her feet deserve a little rest.

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