The National Ballet School’s Shoe Room on Jarvis Street is a treasure trove for young dancers
“I really have to go to the bathroom. We drove such a long way,” a frazzled mom exclaims as she bursts through the door of the Shoe Room at Canada’s National Ballet School (NBS), nestled behind an elegant veranda on Jarvis Street.
Parents often drive from far and wide to buy shoes for their young dancers from this boutique with a stellar reputation. The Shoe Room houses 8,000 pairs of ballet shoes in 92 different styles. Dancers come from across the province, country, and even from abroad to find the perfect pair.
“I fit people from Brazil, Ireland. They book an appointment when they come in town. On the general day-to-day, we see people from Buffalo, N.Y., to Kingston, Ont., and Sudbury — all across Canada,” said lead fitter Corinne Jaggi. She had been a fitter for four years but recently stepped into her new lead role.
The Shoe Room was originally opened to provide shoes for the NBS, but in 1998 it was opened to the public to provide access for other dancers. It is now the pre-eminent supplier of ballet shoes in the country, a candy store for young dancers whose eyes open in wonderment as they wander through the racks of shoes, bejeweled leotards and other dancewear.
“I really like when kids come in and they’re from a small town and their dance store doesn’t have a large selection so they’re not necessarily in something that’s working well,” Jaggi said.
She says young dancers in this predicament are hard on themselves, believing something is wrong with them, when it is actually the fault of their equipment. “They come in and they say, ‘Oh, actually three or four pairs of shoes work for my feet, maybe my feet don’t actually suck. I feel comfortable, I want to go back to my class.’”
The walls of the boutique are lined with silky, satin pointe shoes in as many shades of baby pink as the human eye can see. Lush chairs surround a fitting room with an elaborate mirror straight out of a Disney movie, where dancers meet Jaggi for one-on-one fittings.
Dawn Quinn is the manager of the Shoe Room, but the training required for her position goes far beyond that of a normal retail manager. She was a serious ballet and highland dancer before studying fashion business at Humber College. Quinn loves what she does; she often sees it as solving a puzzle.
“In terms of fit, it’s looking at the anatomy of the feet for the dancers and making sure we understand what’s best. We take about three to six months of training for any fitter … no one puts shoes on feet for quite a few weeks,” Quinn said.
This training involves shadowing seasoned fitters and reading a supplemental textbook, reminiscent of sushi chefs-in-training who are not allowed to touch a piece of fish before watching the pros for years. Supervision decreases over time as the fitters learn.
“I currently have two performing, auditioning, working dancers. They work here part time. For the fitters it’s mandatory, they have to have ballet training so that they understand what they’re using the shoes for and so that they know what it feels like [to be en pointe].”
The busiest season runs from mid-August to December. First, when dancers head back to school, and then when hundreds of Nutcracker performances pop up all over the country in anticipation of the holiday season.
Dancers at the NBS, or at any similar level, dance from two to four hours per day. A typical pair of pointe shoes lasts for 15 to 20 hours of dancing, if taken care of properly. These shoes range in price from $80 to $160, with most styles falling in the middle, at $110.
“Usually a first-timer, their shoes may last a year. There’s other factors like the strength of their feet, but usually they grow out of them before they wear them out,” Quinn said. “We don’t fit anybody below the age of 10 because the growth plates in the feet are not fully developed.
“The most rewarding part of my job is seeing the first-timers leave, [and] maybe the whole experience of the first-timers here. They’re just buzzing with this energy that’s emitting from them about the excitement of being able to get pointe shoes,” Quinn said. “Every dancer has to be approved by their dance teacher to let them know they’re ready and strong enough to go up en pointe, so they’re just so excited about the first time that they kind of squeal.”
Stephanie Serio, 23, has been dancing for 19 years and now teaches dance at La Pirouette Royale, Ballet & Dance Arts in Toronto. She vividly recalls her first fitting experience. “Once the dancer has chosen a pair they feel most comfortable in, the consultant will take a cute little picture of the dancer in front of the mirror standing en pointe in her new shoes.
“The whole experience is a dancer’s paradise and brings the same excitement a child feels on Christmas morning,” Serio said. As a teacher and dancer, she understands the importance of proper shoes.
“A good shoe is crucial to a successful exam or performance, because you don’t want to be thinking about what could go wrong if your shoe doesn’t fit right,” Serio said. “Their expertise always leaves me more educated and filled on tips about pointe safety.”
As for tips, Quinn really is full of them. “What not to do with your first pair of pointe shoes … don’t leave them near dogs; moisture is pointe shoes’ enemy….” To emphasize her point, a pair of viciously chewed pointe shoes hangs on the mirror in the fitting room as a fearful reminder to all dancers to leave their shoes out of the reach of pets.
As pointe shoes take a little while to break in, dancers have been known to take drastic measures, such as slamming brand new shoes in doors or beating them with a hammer. Quinn says she has seen people ruin their shoes. The overarching message? Don’t try this at home.
“Not everything you see on the internet is something you should do. The manipulations that you do to your pointe shoes should be very specific to your feet, so what might work for one dancer isn’t something that will necessarily work for you,” Quinn said.
While the Shoe Room can help dancers make adjustments sans violence, your pointe shoes are never going to feel like your favourite fuzzy slippers. “There is nothing comfortable about pointe shoes,” Quinn said.
“We have some medieval tools called a bunion buster that we take to the shoes as well to soften the edges of the shoe if someone has pain coming from bunions. But kids usually get a bit freaked out when they see that thing come out,” Quinn said.
Kids, more recently, does not just mean little girls. CBC reported that, for the first time in history, the graduating class at NBS has more boys than girls. Quinn said this is a trend she has noticed in the shop. The Shoe Room has fitted a few boys in the past year, and even had someone from the teacher training try pointe shoes so he could have a better idea of what he was teaching.
“Men typically wear a canvas slipper, but you have seen a few more men starting to wear pointe shoes. There are roles in some ballets, like the role of Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream — that’s a male that dances en pointe. We’re starting to see an influx of that,” Quinn said. ”It’s still not a lot but it’s a good change that we’re seeing.”