Serene and graceful – that’s how most of us would describe ballet dancers. With their high pirouettes and cat-like landings, their elegant degage, and refined entrechats, one might easily be fooled into thinking that they are in fact living the dream.
But a look behind the lenses proves an entirely different story. Ballet is in many ways an art form that requires complete emotional investment and certainly while it’s certainly rewarding to receive a standing ovation at the end of an excruciating set, this comes at a price – the price of their feet!
Don’t be fooled by their pointe shoes – those shoes are possibly at their most beautiful before being bought, most enticing even. Years of training does not prepare the dancers for what they will face in the professional circuit – blackened toenails, ingrown nails, corns, bruises, purple flesh and often cracked toes.
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 dancers to tape their feet simply 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 dancers admit to never being to for a pedicure as 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 shoes has altered the shape of their feet.
But for a lot of dancers, this has become a part of them and a part of how they survive these shoes. Most of them won’t allow their doctors to remove the thickened skin at their toe-heads because that is how they survive the 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 they wear soft canvas shoes. There’s a lot of jumping and lifting women involved and that results 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 simply lose a patient. They cannot afford that kind of luxury,” he says.
Self-treatment is very common with most dancers coming up with their eccentric rituals. Some 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 what is now to become 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 makes for a tiring routine, beautiful may it be to watch.
The hiding of the physical toll ballet takes on one’s body is almost a part of the training. Most dancers have simply resigned themselves to the fact that they’ll never wear slippers in public again. For dancers in premiere 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. Off stage, it’s cries of pains due to spasms and cramps.
For older dancers, hips are a source of problems, and many have had replacements or knee implants to further their career. 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 shoes.