Niche Market | Ballet Pointe Shoes

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A ballet shoe with the "crown" stamp.

New York is a city of specialists from foodies to academics, laborers to shopkeepers. Every Wednesday, Niche Market will take a peek inside a different specialty store and showcase the city's purists who have made an art out of selling one commodity. Slideshow below.

Freed of London Ltd.
44-01 21st St., Suite 302
Long Island City, NY 11101

There's a room at Freed of London with shelves specifically designated for the students attending the School of American Ballet. They order hundreds of pink pointe shoes monthly. Brown bags are labeled with the students’ names, their shoe sizes and a mysterious combination of symbols and letters.

Professional pointe shoe fitter Brenda Neville, a former dancer who is also Freed's retail manager for the U.S. and Canada, has an intimate knowledge of the SAB dancers' feet and their preferences. She knows, for instance, that Anna Maria, size 5XX, loves "Anchor" and "Crown" shoes, but detests the feeling of a "C" or a "V."

The symbols identify the individual cobblers who labor over Freed’s delicate pointe shoes, the tools that allow dancers to rise with grace and a modicum of comfort onto the tips of their toes.

If ballet is about the perfection of form entwined with artistry and individual expression — the same can be said for Freed shoes. Like a dancer, the process of preparing a shoe for performance takes weeks, and the shoe, like a dance itself, has a fleeting existence. A professional dancer might wear down a pair of shoes in just one performance. The average life of a shoe is 1-2 weeks, and this is not an inexpensive career: each pair costs $94.

Every single shoe at Freed is handmade using a special "turn-shoe" method, where the structure of the shoe is actually built inside out. Each cobbler has his own style, and marks the bottom of his shoes with a unique stamp, such as a "Crown.” The factory is outside of London, and over 250,000 shoes are made annually using the same five step process that Frederick Freed developed in 1928. 

The cobblers spend most of their attention on crafting the "block" or "box" of a pointe shoe — the hard part at the tip that encases the dancer's toes. The block is made of layers of hessian fabric, a paste of flour, water and some secret ingredients. Some cobblers make shoes more tapered, some more square, some harder than others.

A dancer's choice might depend on the strength of their foot or their repertoire. "Like the classical pas-de-deuxs, a lot of time you're just standing on one leg for a very long time not coming down so sometimes dancers want a shoe that's maybe harder and more supportive for that. Whereas, if you're doing a lot of very quick and intricate foot work, small jumps and things like that, they want a shoe that's softer and can more adapt and mold to the foot," Neville said.

Dancers come to Freeds daily for fittings, and Neville will spend between 30 minutes and an hour with them, trying to find the perfect pair. Neville’s background as a dancer helps her understand what they mean when they say things like "I feel like I'm sinking," or "when I'm doing my pirouette it's knocking me this way." An ill-fitting shoe can be dangerous for a dancer — too much pressure on their toes could result in blackened toenails and deformities.

Shoes stamped with a "Bullhorn" were the favorite of Kristen Klein, a former ballet dancer who now works at Freed. "It was fabulous. It just fit perfectly on my foot. I had struggled for years finding shoes that fit well, were comfortable enough, etc., and when you find that one shoe that really feels perfect you don't want to go to anything else," she said.

Freed sells shoes to dancers of all levels, but the majority of their clients are professional. They even have a special "custom" shoe department run by Marie Johansson, a former soloist at the American Ballet Theater, where they will customize shoes even further, such as cutting down the shank or sole, for individual ballerinas. "The support is very, very important. Without the shoes you can't dance en pointe, period," Johansson asserted.

Ultimately, the shoe should feel like an extension of a dancer's foot. "If you're thinking of your shoe, whether you think it's not supporting you or it's not allowing you to be on the balance or placement that you're trying to get to, or your toes are hurting, it's going to be very distracting. And you don't want your shoes to distract you from your dancing. So I think the sign of a really good shoe is one that you can almost forget about," Neville said.


Interview with Brenda Neville, professional pointe shoe fitter

Why is every single shoe made by hand?

It brings a lot of individuality and a lot of options and different choices for the dancers. Also just quality of the shoe, they're really hand shaped. Instead of it being factory made where they would be more consistent but you wouldn't get as much variety to choose from. The different cobblers they're all able to choose how they want to shape the block, or the box of the shoe, which is the part of the shoe in which the toes are actually encased. So each cobbler — and we have about 25 different cobblers — some of them will shape it a little more on the tapered side, some more square, some use more paste, less paste, and different dancers will tend to have a different favorite cobbler. Whereas, if they were all just made on a machine you wouldn't get to have those choices and options.

How long does it take to make these shoes?

Each shoe takes several weeks. They do make many shoes a day, but the process in and of itself: turning the shoe, putting the paste on, letting it dry, it has to be baked in an oven overnight, it has to be then stitched and binded, and then dried even further for several weeks to make sure it really hardens and everything sets properly.

How long do the shoes last?

That really depends on a lot of factors. It depends on the dancer's foot, how strong they are, how flexible they are, how hard they wear their shoes, what their preference is. Some dancers prefer to have their shoes not very hard from the get-go, so it might not last as long. Some dancers will do things, they'll really break it in before they wear it and soften it up, then they might re-harden it with things like shellac or what's called jet-glue to re-harden it. So, it really depends but it can be anywhere from just one performance to maybe a couple weeks.

What's important in a pointe shoe fitting?

It's very important to have a good understanding of the brand of pointe shoes you're going to be fitting someone in. You have to have an understanding of how the shoes are going to break in, how they're going to alter. Different brands of pointe shoes do break in differently.  

It's also good to have an understanding of how different shoes will break in on different shapes of feet. Some people have more square feet, some people have more narrow, some people's feet are what's called collapsible, they tend to get even narrower when they take they're weight and they go up en pointe. More compressible. So you have to have an understanding of how the feet alter, the needs of the foot and how the shoes react and break in. And then you start looking at the perfect marriage between the shoe and the foot. Also what comes into play is the strength of the dancer's foot and the dancer's level and experience in dancing. If it's a brand new dancer, who has never worn pointe shoes before, their needs from their shoe might be different from someone who is a professional dancer. Even just in strength and what they're looking for in a shoe. Most dancers when they're first starting they're muscles haven't developed yet so they might need a shoe that's more supportive, a little bit harder as they become more professional, they'll have more strength they'll be able to manage themselves better and sometimes they'll want a little bit less from a shoe. It's very individualistic, each case is very different. 


( Sarah Kate Kramer )
Freed sells pads to increase the comfort of a shoe.
Freed sells pads to increase the comfort of a shoe. ( Sarah Kate Kramer )
A pointe shoe on a last.
A pointe shoe on a last. ( Sarah Kate Kramer )
A ballet shoe with the "crown" stamp.
A ballet shoe with the "crown" stamp. ( Sarah Kate Kramer )
( Sarah Kate Kramer )
Brenda Neville handling a shoe.
Brenda Neville handling a shoe. ( Sarah Kate Kramer )
Brenda Neville, a professional fitter at Freed of London.
Brenda Neville, a professional fitter at Freed of London. ( Sarah Kate Kramer )