Building a dancer's foot
On the day that 13-year-old Kathleen Martin received her first ballet pointe shoes, she wore them all day, all over the house.
"I just loved them," said Martin, now 21. "It was like a big graduation."
The longed-awaited pointe shoes gave her blisters, calluses, aching muscles, bunions and ingrown toenails. And they transformed her into a ballerina.
"I love dancing, and it's worth it," said the newest member of Ballet West II. "This is what makes ballet interesting and special -- that we can train our bodies to move this way and not show the pain."
Martin attended Ballet West's Summer Intensive session in Salt Lake City last year and never returned permanently to her home in Gray's Lake, Ill. She received a surprise invitation from Ballet West to become a trainee at the end of last summer and jumped at it. This spring, she won a contract with Ballet West II, Ballet West's pre-professional company.
It's all part of Martin's progression toward her goal of a professional ballet career -- a path that leaves her footsore at the end of most days. "Wearing pointe shoes isn't natural for the body," she said. "They do hurt a little, but it's a small price to pay."
Dancing en pointe became popular in the early 1800s and grew out of a desire for ballerinas to appear weightless and ethereal, said Jan Clark Fugit, who teaches at Ballet West Academy. Male ballet dancers do not dance en pointe.
The delicate appearance of a ballerina en pointe belies reality, Fugit said. "We are strong, beautiful women," she reminds her dancers.
They have to be. The mechanics of balancing an adult female body on tiptoe for long periods requires a daunting combination of strength, balance, control and alignment, said Kevin Semans, a specialist in sports medicine and physical therapy who works with the dancers of Ballet West and its training programs.
Like all sports and physical activities, ballet can be stressful to the body, so proper training and careful advancement are essential, Semans said. His work with elite athletes in many sports during a 20-year career gives him a reference point for judging the strength and skill of dancers. "I will put a ballet dancer up against the highest athlete there is," he said.
Preparing a female dancer for pointe shoes begins years before she receives her first pair, said Peter Christie, director of Ballet West Academy. Young dancers go through a graduated sequence of ballet movements, resistance exercises with stretch bands, and muscle conditioning with foam rollers and rubber balls.
Dance students are evaluated carefully from a young age to ensure that their bodies will withstand the rigors of pointe-work. When doubts arise, a student may be sent to Semans for X-rays and further evaluation.
Everyone can enjoy participating in ballet in some fashion, Christie said, but a small percentage of girls have flat arches or other structural issues that rule out success en pointe. "Sometimes there is nothing you can do," Christie said. "That can be really tough for a young girl. But you can see that quite young and redirect their dancing studies."
Most female dancers at Ballet West Academy receive pointe shoes around age 11 or 12, but not until Semans and the school's instructors are satisfied that the young dancers have developed correct body alignment and sufficient strength, flexibility and maturity.
The satin-covered toe shoes are tough taskmasters. Girls are warned that they will get blisters until calluses develop and their skin toughens up. The shoes work foot and ankle muscles differently, too, and soreness is the expected result. "This is when [dance students] learn all about Epsom salts," Fugit said.
For Martin, who is in pointe shoes most of each day, foot-soaking is a nightly ritual, a hot foot-bath with Epsom salts, followed by an ice bath, then a repeat of both. The hot soak feels wonderful, she says, but the ice bath is miserable.
"I eat dinner while I do the ice, to keep my mind off it," she said.
At Ballet West Academy, light padding in the shoes' toe-box is allowed at first, but girls are encouraged not to become dependent upon it. Professional dancers need to feel the floor through their shoes, and Christie sees the academy as a training ground for future Ballet West dancers.
Dancers whose feet are prone to develop bunions wear toe spacers to keep bones in proper alignment. Any infections are treated promptly. The pressure of pointe-work causes the toenails of smaller toes to tend to shrink away to nothing after a while.
Careful training and diligent foot and muscle maintenance help dancers withstand the physical demands of their art form, Semans said. The feet can't do the work alone -- dancers also need a program of cross-training to strengthen their upper bodies, develop core muscles and exercise opposing muscle groups.
Male dancers work with weights to give them strength for lifting partners. Women work with resistance bands, and both do cardiovascular training.
As the art of ballet has evolved, demands on dancers' feet have multiplied, Fugit said. The athletic movements of contemporary ballet create sharper angles and keep dancers off-balance. Extreme strength throughout the body is a necessity.
To achieve it, Semans creates personalized cross-training programs for Ballet West dancers, and Martin is convinced that the gym workouts designed for her are yielding benefits.
"I'm seeing a huge improvement from working every muscle, not just the ones used in ballet. I have upper-body strength now," she said, showing off a taut bicep. "That's a first."
The discipline required to achieve such strength can lead to lifelong good health if approached correctly, Semans said.
"If dancers have taken care of themselves and done the right things, they will have very strong feet and ankles and good body strength throughout life," he said. "If they haven't, they are in line for long-term problems that could bother them after their dancing careers." Those include chronic maladies such as joint compression and bone degeneration.
Martin should be able to avoid those issues if she keeps up her cross-training and foot maintenance. But it's likely that her graceful, elegant feet will bear battle scars when her dancing years are over.
In his long career, Christie has seen a lot of feet and knows that the lumps and bumps and calluses that make pointe shoes survivable don't always disappear when a dancer stops wearing them.
"I've seen some pretty gnarly feet," he said. "But that doesn't happen to everyone."
Ballet West Academy's spring performance features advanced classes performing the wedding suite from "Sleeping Beauty" and younger classes in "Fairy Festival with Elfin Mischief." The production uses Ballet West sets and costumes.
When » Thursday and Friday, June 3 and 4, at 7 p.m.; Saturday, June 5, at 1 and 7 p.m.
Where » Rose Wagner Center's Jeanné Wagner Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets » $20 for adults and youth; no babes in arms. Call 801-355-ARTS or visit www.arttix.org.
Ballet West Academy and the University of Utah co-sponsor summer training programs for young dancers. Auditions have already been held for Summer Intensive, an advanced program drawing an international roster of dancers. Registration for Summer Less-Intensive and Pre-Intensive programs for ages 4 to 16 is open until June 1. For more information, visit www.balletwest.org/Academy/PreAndLessIntensive