Even the most graceful of stages holds some of the strongest champions.
Why do you see piles of football players holding trophies; boxers holding their gloves above their heads; Olympians receiving medals on pedestals? The thing is, when it comes to champions, where you find them only depends on where you look for them — because they’re everywhere. For dancers, their shoes are their trophies, their medals of honor and their proof of survival.
When you think of the ballet, what may come to mind are figures of high-toed dancers floating effortlessly across stage as sugar plum fairies in delicate ensembles. An audience sits in awe of the flawless movements — silently captivated by the beauty. The silence is broken only by the roar of applause at the end of the performance.
But you can’t see the true strength behind these dancers without knowing how they got there — how they came to be so seemingly effortless on that stage or how those shoes came to them.
The art of ballet takes its form in the mental and physical strength of the dancer — just as many competitive sports depend on the mental and physical capabilities of its players.
Most ballet dancers begin their careers at a young age. Rachel Clear has a bachelor of fine arts in dance from the University of Texas at Austin, says she began ballet at the age of four.
“I wanted to do ballet for the same reason every little girl chooses ballet — they want to be beautiful and wear tutus and stand on their tiptoes,” Clear recalls. “The only difference is that I continued on with it well past the age that many other little girls drop out.”
The long hours of training that come with the desire to continue a ballet career are very real, and felt at a very young age. But these moments, Clear explains, are what makes ballet dancers so incredibly strong in both emotional and physical capability even once off the stage.
One of the first and biggest challenges a ballet dancer faces is reaching the level of working with the pointe technique. This is a classical ballet method that involves the dancer supporting all body weight on the tips of his or her toes with fully extended feet, and it can be extremely painful and dangerous if not done properly. Depending on strength and skill level, those dancers who started young typically begin working en pointe around age 10 or 11.
Even with this kind of pressure at a young age, each ballet dancer will share a similar story and describe a similar story about their first pair of pointe shoes, which includes pride, confidence and validation.
“They made me feel like a real ballerina, and they made me feel validated and seen,” Clear says. “I would feel myself dancing, and know that I was talented and capable.”
Pointe shoes are specially made from layers of fabric and paper, glued together with a flower paste creating a shell that resembles something like a papier-mâché sock covered in satin. It’s flattened on the toe for the platform — where the dancer will put all of his or her body weight. So there is little to no support, with all the weight focused on one big toe.
“You have been trained in the technique and do it perfectly while on flat feet,” Toni Neal, a BFA dance major at the University of Texas, says, “But when you throw the shoes in the mix, you’re kind of learning the steps all over again.”
McKenzie Cornish, a recent BFA graduate of The University of Texas, explains how different brands of shoes have different variations and imperfections — having a new shape that the foot needs to be accustomed to. Each shape causes stress to different bones and ligaments, and switching it up, can bring dancing to a halt.
“Your balance and control can be thrown off completely,” Cornish says recounting the times she had no choice but to change brands. “There’s nothing more frustrating than breaking in a new pair and finding out that your ability is hindered by a shoe.”
Even if there is no switching around in the shoe brand itself, any ballet dancer can attest to the shoes are also quite painful to dance in.
Neal describes having to wear special gel caps for her toes just so her toenail wouldn’t dig back into her skin while dancing.
“A lot of sweat and soreness went into those shoes,” Neal says.
Clear tells of one Nutcracker performance when after over working in her pointe shoes, she had developed such painful shin splints she had run offstage in between her parts, cry, collect herself and get ready for her next scene.
“Every muscle is engaged when on pointe,” Clear says. “You’re actively pointing your toes, which causes your calves to flex. The necessary balance involves your abs, your arms, your shoulders, and your back. Everything has to be doing its job for your body to complete the movements you want it to.”
Clear also describes other times not only her physical strength, but her mental strength was tested to the limits. Some ballet teachers can be known to ask for perfection — and then more perfection after that. Some of Clear’s teachers that would throw things, some would tell her to diet, some would hold a needle close to her stomach so that she wouldn’t be tempted to relax her posture during a barre exercise, some would insult her and call her names. But she’s quick to point out, she didn’t quit.
“If I didn’t want to keep getting better, I wouldn’t have continued,” Clear says. “I cried in the studio bathroom more than once, but I also rinsed off my face and got back to practice, working just a little bit harder.”
Though the highs and lows of a ballet dancer are all behind the curtain, their triumphs are real. The amazing strength that the men and women dancers develop both in mind and body as they train through the years is unique, and not everyone can do it.
“I wouldn’t trade the training for anything, because it taught me a lot, and helped shape me into the person I am today,”Clear says.
Now as Clear continues to instruct students on the side, she knows what it means to be a teacher — one that ballet dancers look to guide them toward the next levels.
“I hope that beyond technique, I can instill in my students that ballet will help them in every facet of their life,” Clear says. “From good foundations for a different style of dance to the ability to take criticism well.”