The Pointe Shoe Diaries

In Houston Ballet's version of The Nutcracker, Clara receives the gift that many little girls dream of: a pair of pink pointe shoes. She places first one foot and then the other upon a rocking chair and quickly ties the satin ribbons before gliding into her solo of pirouettes and arabesques.

"It's shoe shock," says soloist Sharon Teague.

"That chair's shaking and you're counting the music hoping you get those things on in time," adds soloist Britain Werkheiser, who retired from the Clara role this year, "thank God." Even under the best of circumstances, with time and the right tools, getting pointe shoes properly prepared and put on can be a mini-production in itself.

These reinforced satin slippers help dancers create the floaty look of dancing on air. But they can also be quite painful. Former prima ballerina Janie Parker famously called them "little pink coffins"; others refer to them as "hooves." Just don't call them toe shoes. "That sounds so academy," says Teague.

But terminology isn't the only bone of contention when it comes to these tools of the dancer's trade. The brands, styles, break-in methods and even the way dancers think about their shoes are major points in the pointe world.

"I never really worry about my shoes, unless I don't have any," says soloist Sara Webb, who wears custom-made Freeds. One of the oldest makers in the world, Freed of London, Ltd. still makes its shoes by hand, with a symbol on each pair denoting the individual shoemaker. Principal Mireille "Mimi" Hassenboehler used to wear shoes made by a man with the moniker "Rabbit Tooth," but "he got senile and retired." She went to the London factory to check out other makers and now alternates between T, Castle and B, having not quite settled on a permanent relationship.

Houston Ballet will spend more than $90,000 on some 4,000 pairs of pointe shoes this year. Individual shoes run from $30 to $70 per pair, and they may be worn only once. Production assistant and shoe buyer Cyndi King says most of the dancers wear Freeds, but she also places almost weekly orders to Bloch, Sansha, Grishko and Capezio.

Capezio, an American firm that's been around since 1887, makes almost everyone's first ballet shoe. While you can order custom specs, they don't come from individual shoemakers like Freeds. There's some definite snobbery between Freed and Capezio wearers, despite the fact that Houston's leading ballerina, Lauren Anderson, is a longtime Capezio devotee.

But that's nothing compared to the controversy over the Gaynor Minden, a new shoe made with a lining of shock-absorbent urethane foam that's said to reduce the chances of injury. None of the HB dancers will go near the high-tech shoe.

"We call 'em the Nike pointe shoe," says Werkheiser. "They're almost like cheating." While most dancers agree the shoes are more comfortable than the traditional paste-and-fabric-layer shoes, they also concur that the shoes don't look good on their feet. And in the world of ballet, aesthetics are everything.

Of course, deciding which shoes to buy is only the first step. They will be sewed, cut, glued, rasped, slammed against concrete or crushed in doors, and covered in makeup before they see the stage. At the Wortham Center, Teague is pulling endless items from her shoe bag: a rasp from Home Depot, a fabric needle, a Bic lighter ("to melt the ends of the ribbons so they don't fray"), little scissors, extra ribbon and thick pink thread ("although dental floss will work in a pinch"). In a nearby dressing room, Hassenboehler, getting ready to dance the lead flower, can be heard slamming her shoes against a concrete wall to soften the glue and quiet the papier-mâché toe box. "The walls are great for this, although the sound can get annoying at times," she says. "But I can't be a clunky flower."

Stories of bizarre pointe passions abound. Former HB dancer Sandra Organ used to harden her shoes in the oven -- until one day when she forgot she'd been baking garlic croutons. Her shoes reeked. Dawn Scannell, now retired, was a shoe fanatic known for wearing hers inside her cowboy boots. But when it comes to obsessiveness, most point to Teague, also known in the company as Shoequandra.

"I used to sleep in my pointe shoes as a student," says Teague, who is still the first one on and last one off with her shoes. And while most of the dancers put pancake makeup on their shoes to dull the shine and make the different brands look more uniform, Teague refuses, claiming the small amount of water in the makeup changes their form. (She uses dry Coty face powder instead.) She also likes to "feel the floor," meaning she doesn't use padding inside her shoes. Werkheiser, who calls her friend Teague "a bit weird about her shoes," cuts off the toes of Christmas socks to use as padding during The Nutcracker. Otherwise it's "three squares of two-ply toilet paper, and you can't just double up single ply."

And if the life of a pointe shoe is more fleeting than a gardenia blossom, what becomes of these treasures after the dance? Houston Ballet sells some of the principals' slippers to starry-eyed little dancers at the boutique during intermission. But Teague has a different disposal method.

"They go to the dogs," she says simply. "They make great dog chewies."

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Marene Gustin