The Performance Club

Information

This article was written on 05 Jul 2012, and is filed under Guest Writers.

Current post is tagged

, , , , , , ,

We call it “dance therapy”

Photos by Troy Schumacher

By Troy Schumacher, as told to Claudia La Rocco

When I see these photos, especially the one of the foot missing a toenail—it makes me think how we as dancers are so used to seeing things like this. It just is such a very everyday thing to see, the way that the women’s feet have morphed into these shoes, and how their feet have almost, I don’t know the right word … just completely altered. A lot of the women, they definitely feel a little bit self-conscious about this. But for me it’s a mark: only a ballet dancer’s feet look like this.

This dancer, the nail on her big toe had just fallen off. This must have been on a Saturday afternoon before two performances, and she told me: I just have to tape it up and it will be fine. I know, as a male dancer, having anything wrong with my toe nail is the most excruciating thing, so I can only imagine what these women go through …

And I’m also struck by the effort to paint the toenail, as though that will almost hide it a little bit, or make her feel a little beautiful, even  though her foot looks quite … interesting…

That picture is taken before the foot is in a pointe shoe. The other picture is taken obviously after being in a pointe shoe for the day. I don’t think it’s the same dancer, but it’s a similar situation. These marks are pretty similar on all of the women, especially over the knuckles of the toes, these big mounds of skin that develop. Just incredible. And they all still wear their wedges outside in the springtime.

In many ways the feet most exemplify the small little changes that happen to your body as you dance every day, all day long. There’s a lot of things you can’t take a picture of: having to pop your hip every morning or else walking hurt, or just the way your body builds up these little tiny defenses against this absolutely unnatural thing to do… But you can take a picture of a foot. You can take a picture of a foot.

These markings really stay there. There’s a huge swelling factor when we are in the season. Some days you’re there at 10 o’clock in the morning and leave at 10:45 or 11 at night. A lot of the women, they can’t go get pedicures, because they need all of these little nubbins to really survive in their shoes. It really becomes a part of them. I think when a toenail like this falls off…these things happen, but it just seems almost like a special occasion.

The women in New York City Ballet are in pointe shoes all day long, and they go through multiple pairs. I am fascinated with the whole concept of the pointe shoe. How flimsy the construction is, and how beautiful they look—a brand new point shoe is a beautiful thing—and all of these terrible things the women have to do to these shoes to get them on. Sometimes a ballet dancer in the company, she’ll put on her shoe, and it will be done at the end of class. And sometimes it will last a few days. But often they will go through at least one a day, sometimes two or three.

We men build up a different musculature than the women do. It gets to a  point where some of the women would much rather be dancing in a toe shoe than a ballet slipper. It just puts a different stress on your foot, more so the demi pointe. I think every man has had his fair share of ingrown toenails and infected corns and that sort of thing, and all of us on the top of our first metatarsal have these callous scabs that we constantly rip open. But what the women put themselves through with their feet, there is really just no comparison. Certainly no visual comparison.

There’s definitely a huge amount of pain that goes into ballet dancing. It’s such an art form, you have to be so emotionally invested for it to work. You’re constantly dealing with something, whether it’s really small (maybe you have a splinter in your hand and you have to partner that day) or there’s something wrong with your knee that no doctor can figure out or your rib’s out and it hurts to breathe. Every dancer has these moments when literally everything hurts. You don’t know how you’re going to do it. Then you get on stage .. the dancers call it dance therapy, this interesting thing that occurs, you don’t feel it could do you any good to go out there and dance, and it can be hard, but then there are these moments when you go out and perform and when you get home you feel physically so much better. Obviously the opposite occurs as well (laughs). I forget who coined that term, but we all talk about it. There’s physical therapy, and then dance therapy. But it’s really only performing that does it. It baffles all of us. It’s obviously medically the most counter-intuitive thing to go and do. People talk about the here and now you have to be in when you perform, and that must have something to do with it.

For me taking photographs started as a conversation with the three composers I have been working with at Satellite. When we first collaborated, they had never seen a ballet before. And they were just amazed at the difference between  a performing situation, and when the dancers get offstage. It’s a completely different world. You can be smiling one minute, and the next minute you’re collapsing into the wings, screaming in pain or you can’t feel your feet or something is spasming. They thought that was the most interesting thing about ballet, this façade that dancers put up. In many ways that’s one of the great things about ballet: you see these people absolutely killing themselves on stage and you have no idea, because it just looks so easy. But for people of the younger generation, that’s maybe not so appealing, the making it look so easy. The image that our violinist gave was the guitar solo: you go to a concert and people just go crazy for these guitar solos, and the guitarists actually try to make it look harder than it is. And we do the complete opposite thing. So, for me, the photography is part of just trying to figure out very subtle ways to share that as respectfully as I can.

And the physical toll that ballet takes on our bodies, these markings—these are the things dancers are generally numb to looking at. The hiding of this is so ingrained into our art behavior. It’s almost a part of the training that occurs.

Finding these little moments and seeing how they affect me … I feel I’m in a really privileged position to be able to look at these and, I hope, to have my colleagues become a little more comfortable being real. I don’t walk around with a camera all day in people’s faces, but I really want to hide people’s pain a  little bit less, in my choreography as well, and try to make these dancers a little bit more human, even though ballet makes you able to hold yourself in ways  that are almost super human…it’s a very interesting version of human life.

 

Troy Schumacher is a member of New York City Ballet, and Director of the Satellite Ballet and Collective, a collaborative, multi-discipline company. An Atlanta native, he began his dance training with tap, before discovering ballet, and pursuing a career as a ballet dancer.  After training at both the School of American Ballet and Atlanta Ballet, Schumacher joined New York City Ballet in 2004.  At NYCB Schumacher has performed principal roles in several ballets, including Balanchine’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Stars and Stripes as well as Jerome Robbins’ Interplay. His choreography forms an essential relationship with music and multimedia space: he selects highly individual dancers with inherent, unique movement qualities and creates dancer specific movement to advance the language of modern classical dance.


19 Comments

  1. Such a great, humanistic look at what goes into this amazing art. Wonderful and insightful. I think that the majority of the population that loves dance has an appreciation for what goes into this art form, and the sacrifices that are made, but this is upfront and personal and very educational. Just to add a little something to the foot thing: I used to be able to tell who was in the bathroom stall next to me just by looking at the feet, and I didn’t have a pedicure until I was 40!

  2. Lynne Goldberg
    July 5, 2012

    Wow Troy!! What a well written and divinely honest world of professional ballet. As someone who talks to a lot of dancers, you hit the nail right on the head (or the foot!). It’s quite remarkable for us all to be reminded of how hard you guys work and the toll it does take on your bodies. Your description as well as the photos of what really happens to dancers feet (not to mention all the other parts) is a tribute in honoring your craft and showing it how it really is. Fairy tale onstage….maybe no so much off!
    Thanks for the thoughtful article AND all the effort, sweat and hard work you guys put into creating magic! And…keep writing!!!!

    xo,
    Lynne

  3. [...] to Claudia La Rocco about dancer feet over at The Performance Club’s website yesterday. Here’s the link to the post, which includes some of Schumacher’s up-close-and-personal foot [...]

  4. Amanda Hill
    July 7, 2012

    What an excellent project! What breaks my heart as dedicated and serious pointe shoe fitter, is that is sort of thing really need not happen these days. It is a result of kids being fitted incorrectly in their first pair of Pointe shoes, ( I have witnessed it countless times), and because the young dancer does not know any better, she continues her dance career, not knowing how a well fitted shoe should feel, and just accepting the pain that goes with it. All of those injuries are as a result of shoes not gripping and supporting the Dancer’s foot correctly so that she slips down into the shoe, taking unnecessary weight and pressure on her toes. The foot should be held securely at the metatarsal heads, so that the toes can remain straight and un scrumpled in the shoe. I have heard countless tails of dancers travelling long distances into big name stores in Capital cities, and being told by fitters in the store ‘ just pop that on and see how it feels’ the young dancer does not know how it should feel, I.e really snug and supportive, and opts for the shoe that feels most like her ballet slipper. She then returns back to her home town school where she attempts to dance for the first time on pointe, and finds that her foot slips down into the shoe and she bears all her wight on her toes! I get so many emails about these big name stores who cruise on their reputation. Last week an experienced dancer visited a big name store in a capital city. She queried a fitter who put her long tapered foot into a short square wide shoe. The dancer complained that the shoe was too big and the wrong shape, but was told by the very young fitter, ‘no, that’s fine, you just pad your foot out’. That is absolutely not the solution. The shape of a pointe shoe should mimic the dancers foot, and fit her really closely and snugly like a second skin. When a shoe fits correctly, it should not need much padding at all- just a little bit here and there on a hot spot. A good fitter will take the time to find the perfect shoe before merely fitting a lot of padding. Padding should be kept to a minimum. We have countless girls coming to our fitters , in shoes with massive amounts of padding in them, and when we fit them in the correct shoe, they are quite happy and secure with just a small pad on their big toe, and perhaps a piece of jelly tubing on another toe if necessary. Shoes that are not fitted properly and are filled with a lot of padding will not support the foot correctly, and will allow the horrific injuries you have shown us to continue. This needs to stop. Fitters and teachers alike need thorough training on how a foot needs to be supported by a pointe shoe. These girl’s feet are such a key tool in their trade, and what’s more, they need to be bale to walk on these feet for countless years after stopping their career. It is inhuman to allow girls feet to get to this state!

    • robin satori
      July 14, 2012

      Thank you…
      I began learning Ballet in my mid 40′s…i love pointe work!!!
      My shoes do not cause a lot of pain and more dancers need to understand what you are saying!
      My Daughter has been dancing since she was 3 yrs old, now 17 & headed to Joffrey.
      Her feet get bruised & swollen, but mostly because she dances on “dead” shoes, or can’t afford custom fitting & makes due with what is readily available.

  5. Amanda Hill
    July 7, 2012

    I would like to edit my piece above. Please remove the words ‘ big name store in capital cities that occurs twice’. This is not an attempt to damage their reputation. It is an attempt to show the importance of proper pointe shoe fitting. Apologies

  6. claudia
    July 7, 2012

    Hi Amanda – I am happy to, but can you tell me what the new phrasing should be? I don’t think it works just to cut it – or you can let your two comments stand as clarification. Thank you for your thoughts, in any case!

  7. Linda Reid-Lobatto
    July 8, 2012

    What an honest, well written article Troy… I have a real passion for trying to prevent the damage that could be done to a young dancers feet due to wearing incorrectly fitted, or wrong styles of pointe shoes. these photographs really do upset me as it is just so unnecessary, but I do see it over and over again when dancers come to me for a first fitting. shoes full of huge padding seems to be normal, 10 min shoe fittings are also normal. Why when a parent wants their child fitted in school shoes, they make sure everything is perfect, then when they take them for a pointe shoe fitting, they just allow anything to be put on their child’s foot?
    Unfortunately we just seem unable to educate both teachers and dancers that pointe shoes do not need to cause such damage if fitted correctly. Damage is part of wearing pointe shoes, it is the normal way of thinking.
    Having thoroughly examined the needs of a pointe shoe to support the foot, I will now only fit one make of Pointe shoes. These shoes meet all the demands I require for a good, safe fitting. Pointe shoes should fit the foot snuggly with the boxes and vamp high enough to give the optimum support that the metatarsal heads of the foot require,. This is extremely important when working with the soft cartilage of young dancers feet until they reach maturity. The choice of styles of shoes available (to suit all shapes of feet), the different shank strengths and the widths every style comes in, a good pointe shoe fitter is then able to fit the majority of dancers perfectly. Pointe shoes need to be fitted correctly, when this happens the foot and shoe becomes one, creating the perfect ballet line, beautiful. I am always learning, each foot can bring me a different set of demands. I will spend much time with each dancer, finding out what they need from a shoe, what their problems may be , and sorting out the damage/difficulty that other makes of shoes may have caused them. I am extremely fortunate that the make of shoes I fit, will also adapt any pointe shoe, allowing me to find the perfect shoe for any dancer if required. All pointe shoe fitters could actually do this if they spent the time with dancers and were trained correctly. So lets hope these pictures will make parents stand up and demand a higher standard of fitting of their daughters pointe shoes, say NO when they feel the fitting is incorrect, ask the fitter to explain what she is doing and why? maybe then we can start to stop this horrific damage happening to feet, after all most dancers dance as a hobby and will need their feet for maybe 80 plus years to walk on. Thank you again for bringing this subject to our attention and lets hope that more feet can be prevented looking lie your pictures..

  8. Esther Juon
    July 9, 2012

    Thank you for this brilliant article highlighting the biggest secret in the dance world!
    I also totally support and applaud what Amanda Hill and Linda Reid-Labatto have just talked about and I would simply like to add:

    When I started my quest for saving young dancers feet in the mid 1980’s there were no real guidelines as to when a dancer should or could start pointe work. It seems so long as she has passed her Grade 5 exam pointe work can begin. There was also no system of fitting pointe shoes and I did attend all of the so called 1 day courses by the major shoe companies in London. On one of these courses I met a brilliant Physiotherapist Shirley Hancock and she sent me on my way with the idea that a pointe shoe should not be fitted too wide or too long but be used to support the foot in such a way that it cannot slip into the bottom of the platform and get wider and wider.

    No one seems to ask if the young dancer is in the middle of her second growth spurt or has completed it. There also seem to be no questions asked about how strong a dancer is physically or how good her technique is so long as she has passed grade 5, pointe work can begin. In my time as a pointe shoe fitter I have I think I have taken almost more dancers off point, before I put them on pointe again. I like it best if I can start the preparation of the dancer from before she is on pointe and gradually get her there in several steps of development.

    Now also demi-pointe shoes are no longer required until the dancer has been on pointe for at least one if not two years. For me, that is asking the horse to push the cart up the hill rather than pulling it….

    I truly believe that if each dancer was properly assessed for strength alignment and technique, given the correct exercises to prepare the body and feet and then start working in correctly fitting demi-pointe shoes (during grade 4 & 5) and only after a further year of working in demi-pointe shoes into pointe shoes again fitted correctly fitting pointe shoes, than most if not all of these horrendous injuries could be avoided.

    It is very sad to think that we can fly to the moon but not get a young dancer on pointer safely and correctly without causing all this harm. I have been working with feet and pointe shoes for almost 30 years and none of my dancers have suffered any such injuries.

    I believe that all this can be changed for ever as soon as dance teachers start to take real responsibility for their dancers feet, make them do class in bare feet so they can see what is going on with the feet. No one should fit shoes unless they have been fully trained to assess a dancer feet and needs. If possible we should also stop the sale of pointe shoes over the internet.
    From the moment when the dancer, parent and teacher work together with the fitter and possibly other health professionals, things will improve dramatically and change forever.

    Esther Juon

  9. Lynne Goldberg
    July 9, 2012

    Esther!!! Your last point, as I’m finishing my dinner with a former soloist at NYCB (male), hit such a valuable point.

    Rather than be sad, and please don’t misunderstand that I very clearly hear you.

    Rather than be said….let’s join forces to inform people by these and other and other and other type venues. There is enormous value in social media and information and someone has to be the Rosa Parks in the ballet world…feet, mind, self esteem, self respect….I think you get my drift.

    A dancer is just not about any one part of the above and every part of the above….in my two cents.

    I adore this ongoing dialogue and the possibility of supporting, informing and educating young and not so young. When we stop growing….we die! (Einstein..not Goldberg!)

    Wishing all of you my best,
    Lynne
    LynneGoldberg.com

  10. NYC Dancer
    July 10, 2012

    As a professional dancer, and the dancer in the photos, I would like to clarify the comments some people have made about shoes being ill-fitting. It is very true that some young dancers do not have properly fitting shoes, but as a dancer’s training continues, she generally comes to understand what makes a proper pointe shoe and the best way, individually, to pad her shoes. Personally, I choose to wear one paper towel on each foot, which absorbs sweat and helps the shoe mold to my foot. I never have problems with bagginess, slipping, or other problems people have mentioned with ill-fitting shoes. Furthermore, we get fitted by professionals from Freeds, so I have a second opinion on the way my shoes fit. The reason my feet look like this is not because of the way my shoes fit, but because of the hours a day I spend dancing on my feet, and the length of time I’ve been a professional dancer with this kind of schedule. We are wearing pointe shoes for around 8-10 hours a day. I don’t get blisters, which comes from rubbing, but I do get callouses, which help my feet stand up to the long hours. With this kind of career, there is no way to keep perfectly manicured feet.

  11. Esther Juon
    July 11, 2012

    Thank you Lynne for your wonderful respoce it gives me hope that perhaps in time we can change the world!

  12. vanessa Desormeau
    July 14, 2012

    the only mistake in this article it goes for all dancers specially modern as well, because although we do not dance ballet professionally we train like them in point shoes as well or flats, and it is the same end results.

  13. Marliese
    July 14, 2012

    I deeply respect the professional dancers! What a sacrifice they fulfill to appear
    perfectly ….. they are angels!!!
    I adore ballett and I go regularily to Viennese Opera to see the ballet dancers.

  14. Esther
    July 14, 2012

    Claudia, I have a reply which involves photos being sent to you. My answer makes no sence without the photos. Can I email you a PDF? would need an email address!

    Many thanks

    Esther Juon

  15. claudia
    July 16, 2012

    Hi Esther – you can reach us at contact@theperformanceclub.org. However, you can insert images in your comments: Click on “insert image” near the middle of the header, then
    enter the image URL. You will need to upload the image somewhere (to
    Flickr?) to get the URL.

    Cheers,

    clr

  16. [...] couple of weeks ago, I posted two of Troy Schumacher’s photographs of fellow ballet dancers’ feet, accompanied by some of his thoughts. Since then, there has been a lot of discussion in the [...]

  17. Esther Juon
    July 19, 2012

    Please see my reply on the front page of this publication under the tittle of : A Better Option?

    I am very greatful to be allowed to share my passion with you!

    Esther Juon

  18. [...] en pointe and was at Irish dance class 4 times a week that they were covered in cuts and blisters. A dancer’s feet are treated pretty harshly.  Other people’s feet freak me out for real and it definitely bothers me if anyone touches [...]

Leave a Reply


+ seven = 8