Have you ever given a thought to a ballerina’s feet? Serene and graceful – that’s how most of us would describe ballet dancers. With their high pirouettes and cat-like landings, elegant degage, and refined entrechats, one might easily be fooled into thinking they are living the dream.
But a look behind the lenses tells an entirely different story. Ballet is in many ways an art form that requires complete emotional investment, and while it’s rewarding to receive a standing ovation at the end of an excruciating set, this comes at a cost – the price of their feet!
Don’t be fooled by their pointe ballet shoes – those shoes are possibly their most beautiful before being bought, most enticing even. Years of training do not prepare the ballet dancers for what they will face in the professional circuit – blackened toenails, ingrown nails, corns, bruises, purple flesh, and often cracked toes.
Here is what a Ballerina Feet goes through
Peter Norman, a leading UK podiatrist who has been treating the Royal Ballet for 16 years, has seen a lot in his days. He says it’s common for ballet dancers to tape their feet and go on pointe with broken toes or stress fractures. He says it’s due to the pressure and insecurity of their jobs. People push their limits to keep their position.
Most dance companies have begun to hire masseurs and podiatrists among their staff. Many professional ballet dancers admit to never getting a pedicure because they are ashamed of their ‘unsightly’ feet. Dance hours are long, and one may stay up to 12 hours in pointe shoes.
The constant pressure on the tip of their toes and the quick bursts of jumping in the air and landing perfectly, the stretching of their tendons and feet fit into impossible-shaped ballet shoes alter the shape of their feet.
But for many dancers, this has become a part of them and a part of how they survive these shoes. Most of them don’t allow their doctors to remove the thickened skin at their toe-heads because that is how they survive the ballet shoes. Norman claims he has seen patients whose feet require at least a few weeks to a month’s rest, but they refuse to take more than a night.
Among men, it’s different for them to wear soft canvas ballet shoes. There’s a lot of jumping and lifting women involved, resulting in ankle and tendon injuries. William Trevitt, the owner of Ballet Boyz, claimed he danced for 18 months with a torn tendon until he finally decided to undergo surgery, and by then, almost nobody wanted to do it due to the deteriorated condition.
“Reassuring dancers is tough,” he claims since most doctors are insensitive to their plight and only tell them to give it up or do not treat them in a way commemorative to their lifestyle. “You cannot say a prima ballerina that the current treatment requires a week of bed rest. You will lose a patient. They cannot afford that kind of luxury,” he says.
Self-treatment is very common with most dancers that come up with their eccentric rituals. Some ballerina dancers stuff wool in their shoes, some take painkillers and say they never stay on the same brand for too long, but disturbingly some attack their feet with glue or razor blades! Taping broken toes together before a performance is very common.
Members of the Royal English Ballet have claimed that they have had instances of toenails falling off and never realized it until they got home. They say the first injury is the worst because it scares you and introduces you to becoming a part of your life. Many secretly harden their shoes (Pointe shoes are made of thin cloth) using furniture polish.
Dancers unanimously say that Swan Lake has the hardest routine. The constant pirouettes, running around on a huge stage in pas de bourrés (running on tiptoes), and the fact that the chorus appears in each of the four acts of the story make for a tiring routine beautiful may it be to watch.
Most ballet dancers have resigned themselves to the fact that they’ll never wear slippers in public again. For dancers in premier institutes like New York City Ballet, going through 2 or 3 pairs of shoes in a day is common. Sometimes practice starts on bare feet.
Critics say that’s a fascinating thing about ballet – the façade – most people strive enough to hurt themselves to go on stage, but of course, nobody knows it. They make it look so easy, so appealing. On stage, all is a mask of serenity and placidity. Offstage, it’s cries of pains due to spasms and cramps.
For older ballet dancers, hips are a source of problem, and many have had replacements or knee implants to further their careers. The average age of retirement from ‘professional’ ballet is in the mid-20s for women and early 30s for men.
A demanding profession and certainly one whose façade has been successfully maintained over the years. Next time you see a ballerina prancing around with ease, imagine what goes on in those satin-lined ballet shoes.