RITA KEENAN never became a professional ballet dancer. She trained until she was 16 but went in for nursing instead. It was her daughter who became a professional dancer. Today, however, Rita owns a shop called ``Pas de Deux.'' No prize for guessing it specializes in dance wear - leotards, sequins - and, of course, toe shoes. Rita recalls vividly her own first pair of toe shoes, also called pointe shoes. She was 11 and tremendously proud to have ``graduated'' to pointe work - dancing on the extreme tip of the toe.
But in those days, in Glasgow, the only place to buy ballet shoes was ``up a stair in Sauchiehall Street,'' she laughs. ```Theatrical Hires,' I think it was called.'' They didn't fit ballet shoes - they just slapped on the counter whatever size a girl asked for: average shoes, with short vamps so that toes were likely to move all over the place, and rub unmercifully. ``I ... went up into my bedroom with them and danced and danced - until the blood was running right through! When my mother saw them she was so angry she threw them out of the window. I had to run down into the garden to rescue them!''
So Rita feels quite strongly about toe shoes being fitted scrupulously. Her shop stocks several makes, with an extraordinary range of sizes and widths and subtly different variations on the stock design.
Toe shoes continue - as they have for a century and more - to be handmade. They are essentially slippers made of satin, cotton, hessian (like burlap), paper, and flour-paste glue, with leather backs and insoles made of cardboard or leather. It has a vamp into which the dancer's toes fit, ``the snugger, the better,'' says Rita. And at the toe is the ``block,'' a small, flat platform shaped out of layers of hessian, paper, and paste.
If there is one manufacturer of pointe shoes better known than any other, it's Freed of London. Rita thinks very highly of Freed shoes - though she also praises the Italian make Porcelli for ``excellent, really beautiful'' shoes. Also ``muscling in,'' as Rita puts it, on Freed's supremacy, is another, British, company - Gamba. To Rita, even Freed's ``rejects'' are better than the best made by any other company. And she sells Freed seconds to students - their price is attractive, at 9 (15 for perfect ones).
Freed has one of its factories in Hackney, East London. The company is 60 years old, founded by Frederick Freed who originally advertised in the window of his shop that he would be ``able to fit any foot.'' One of his earliest customers: Dame Margot Fonteyn.
The Cypriot-born George Gorgiou is today one of Freed's approximately 40 ``makers,'' and he followed in his father's footsteps as a maker for Fonteyn. Each maker has his own stamp, so that a dancer, once she has arrived at a shoe that suits her (often a long process), can re-order shoes from ``B-maker'' or ``Castle-maker.'' George has two symbols - an ``H'' and a rectangle. Does he make for any well-known ballerinas now? His answer is diplomatic: ``I don't know - they're all famous!''
He may well be right - the names of particular dancers are written on each of their shoes - dancers from the Pacific Northwest Ballet, New York City Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, London's own Royal Ballet, Dance Theater of Harlem.
``Two-thirds of our production are `specials'; that is, not `stock' shoes,'' says Patrick O'Neill, director of publicity for Freed, taking a reporter on a factory tour, which (in spite of a recent takeover by a Japanese company), doesn't look as though it has changed for decades.
Ballet-shoe making - at least at Freed - is male-dominated: All the shoes are for women (men almost never dance on pointe), and all their makers are men. Some of the intermediary steps and the finishing are done by women. Mr. O'Neill says: ``Not many people consider ballet-shoe making as a career. It is a manual skill, and requires a lot of physical strength.'' George says it uses your elbows - ``and your fingers, your fingers all the time.'' He has been making shoes at Freed for 25 years.
There isn't a quick turnover of the makers - once they're in, they stay. And problems occur when one retires. ``We always say that if a man dies, he certainly has to be back in the afternoon,'' O'Neill comments. Some 500 ballerinas may have to be transferred to another maker, and each ballerina may wear out between 40-90 pairs a year. Freed recommends the ``nearest,'' but it's not always simple.
O'Neill crouches down suddenly to point out the interior of a long oven where, at one stage, the shoes dry for a night so that the paste in the block can harden to enable further shaping. Later, they will require a further 10 days' natural drying.
It takes one pair of shoes four or five weeks to go through the factory. A woman worker marks the height of the vamp with a ballpoint on shoe after shoe, and another shapes them with scissors, and yet another sews in the drawstring. (The dancers themselves always sew on their own ribbons.) They are handled by many more hands than the ``makers'' - so O'Neill describes them as ``very handmade.'' There is some machinery, but nothing which seems much more elaborate than a sewing machine.
A ticket moves through the factory with each dancer's batch of shoes, with her detailed specifications, and any small changes she wants - an eighth of an inch more on the wing-vamp, or extra length at the heel, perhaps.
It can take up to six months for an order of shoes to be met by the company. One maker may have 200 dancers who prefer his shoes, so each has to wait her turn. If Rita Keenan in Glasgow has any criticism of Freed it is that they are slower than ever at supplying shoes.
Wendy Dawson, of Scottish Ballet, agrees. She prefers Gamba, and tells you so. She is a dancer and she also orders and organizes all the pointe shoes for this company of 40 dancers. They ``haven't got two girls that wear the same shoe,'' she says. Many wear Freed shoes. The director thinks they look best. And even the fiercely anti-Freed Wendy has to admit that they do ``have the run of the market.''
Patrick O'Neill had described how dancers thwack their shoes on concrete to soften them up. I ask Wendy if this is a myth. Some dancers do it, some don't, she says. She demonstrates the process on one unwitting shoe, and vigorously bends it back so there is an awful cracking sound. ``It loosens the toe, to give you a better pointe,'' she laughs, ``and if the back is made more pliable, you get a nice arch to the foot.'' Also, if a shoe is too hard, it can hurt and can be very noisy.
``Most of us break in our shoes during rehearsals - from 10 to 5:30 each day - ready for the evening's 2 1/2-hour performance,'' Wendy says. ``The thing is, that a shoe that is broken in is molded to the shape of your foot.''
``It's really tragic,'' had been O'Neill's wry comment, ``what dancers do to our shoes.''