New York City Ballet principal dancer Ashley Bouder couldn’t be happier with her pointe shoes. Like many NYCB dancers, she wears Freed of London shoes customized by a particular maker. A few years ago, both the makers she preferred retired at the same time, and Bouder suddenly had no shoes tailored to her specifications. After trying out many makers, she found “J,” who has been crafting her shoes ever since.
“J” is the mark of Michael Cripps, a Freed maker since 1979. “Being one of our older, more established makers, he takes care to make sure that every dancer’s specs are adhered to,” says Gary Higgins, manager of Freed’s factory in Leicester, England. He adds that Cripps makes 152 pairs of pointe shoes per week.
Freed makers are involved in the stages of construction that determine the shape and strength of the block, or toe box (see glossary on page 62). The maker builds the block by hand in layers that include Freed’s secret glue, forms the pleats and sculpts the block and platform. Although some differences are subtle, each maker has an individual style. A dancer chooses a maker based on this style, making her own requests for custom specifications. (Other pointe shoe companies also provide similar services to professional dancers.)
Bouder’s shoes have wing blocks with a hard box. She requires a low vamp for her short toes and a wide, flat platform “because I like to balance and turn,” she says. She wears a 3/4 double-strength shank to support her strong, high arches. (Although dancers may request lengths in 1/8-inch increments, Bouder likes the standard 3/4 shank.)
Bouder’s pointe shoes have a striking appearance because of the unusual cut of the satin. The sides are cut very low to highlight her arch. In fact, she says it was challenging to convince Freed to cut them as low as she wanted, just one inch. In contrast, the satin at the heel is unusually high, so that her shoes dip at the sides then swoop upward at the back. High heel fabric “makes me feel like the shoe is on my foot—otherwise I feel like it’s falling off,” she says.
Before wearing new shoes, Bouder steps on the box and works it with her hands, and bends the shank back and forth. She also reinforces the tips with glue inside the box. “I have a very specific place where I put in little bits of glue,” she says. “It makes all the difference in the world for me—it’s the difference between being able to turn and not being able to turn.”
The amount of glue varies for particular performances. “If I know I’ll be turning a lot on the same foot, such as doing 32 fouettés, I’ll put extra glue in that shoe,” she says. “Or for Rose Adagio I’ll put extra glue in the right shoe because I’ve got eight balances on that foot. If I’m doing something soft and pretty, I still add glue, but I don’t put extra glue and I make sure I bang them so that there’s no noise.”
Inside the shoe, she wears a gel pad with a piece of lamb’s wool between the little and fourth toes, to avoid corns. She sews her ribbons and elastics at the peak of her arch, using ribbon with elastic to help avoid tendonitis.
Because they are handmade, Bouder’s shoes aren’t all identical. Some pairs arrive looking as if they won’t work well at all. “I pick out the good pairs and wear those first, but I end up wearing all of them anyway,” she says. “You can fix anything on a shoe. If there’s a lump on top you just take a hammer, flatten it and glue it. You only have to wear them once.”
The one deal-breaker is an imperfect shank length. Too long, and the shank cuts into her foot. She doesn’t try to shorten a shank because of the original tapered cut. If the shank is too short, she goes over too far. “It happens rarely, but if [the shank length is wrong] I just take them off and don’t use them,” she says.
She breaks in a new pair during class then puts them away for that evening’s performance. For rehearsal, she wears the shoes from the night before. Though she’s not sure how many pairs she wears in a season, Bouder typically uses one pair per performance, but if she’s dancing a full-length ballet such as Swan Lake, she’ll use at least two pairs in one night.
It’s been two years since Bouder has had to request major changes to her shoes, so it’s clear that she and Cripps have found a good fit. As Higgins says, “Ms. Bouder has had a few spec changes over the years but seems happy now with everything we do to her shoes.” Bouder adds, “I hope ‘J’ is making shoes for a long time.”
Ashley Bouder’s pointe shoes by Michael Cripps (maker “J”) of Freed of London
•Size 5XX with a “heel pin” to make the size closer to 5 1/4
•Wide, flat platform,
at right angle with
front of box
“combined” 3/4 shank
•Vamp at 3 3/4”
•Side fabric at 1”
•Back fabric at 2 3/4”
Jennifer Brewer is a dancer, teacher and freelance writer based in Saco, ME.