Ballet and the history of shoes

Last week I went to see a performance of the ballet Cinderella. I mostly went along as I love the music, by Sergei Prokofiev, who is one of the very greatest ballet composers. His music has both spikiness and soaring romanticism, which lend themselves very well to the dance.

Unexpectedly, it got me thinking about my research on shoes. I should really have expected this, as shoes are central to ballet dancing, and Cinderella is more about shoes than any other ballet. The plot of course hinges on a slipper: the heroine loses her shoe as she flees the ball at midnight, and the prince scours the kingdom for the woman whose foot it fits.

The third act of the ballet involves a lot of trying on of footwear, until the prince finally finds Cinderella. The ugly sisters fail to get the shoe on, and their scheming mother decides to chop off her toe in the attempt. This version of the story stops short of her actually doing it, but in other tellings she completes the bloody deed – a symbol of the pain that wearers (and women in particular) often get from their footwear.

The reason why the prince is able to use the slipper to locate Cinderella is because the shoe has historically been identified with its wearer. Of course, in an era of standard sizing, there are plenty of people out there with a size 6 or whatever, so this is not realistic. But the shoe gradually moulds to the foot of the wearer, until it becomes a unique record of that foot. Shoes often stand for the soul of their wearer, which account for the many superstitions that surround them – and the common stigma against wearing shoes that have been worn by someone else.

In this production, Cinderella’s magic slippers are transformative. She wears standard soft dancing shoes at the beginning of the ballet, and this influences the type of dancing that she is able to do. But the magic slippers are pointe shoes, which enable her to dance in an entirely different way. The moment at which she puts them on transforms both the choreography and her entire body. Shoes are foundational, since they bear our entire weight and affect the way that the body is able to stand and move.

Photo by Budgeron Bach on

Seeing ballet dancers dance in pointe shoes is a remarkable experience, since it enables dancers to move it ways that human bodies are not supposed to be able to. It takes years of practice and pain, with risks of serious injury, in order to perfect the art of dancing on the end of one’s toes.

It also involves a very close relationship between the dancer’s body and their shoes. Pointe shoes are specially designed to enable this type of dancing, but they take a lot of wearing in before they are usable. Dancers spend hours wearing in their shoes, which then wear out very quickly, given the extremity of the strains that are placed upon them. As Gerri Reaves notes,

Through force and sweat, the dancer accelerates the disintegration that results in the shoe’s absorption by the dancer’s body, its being owned by the foot. As the shoe’s glue dissolves, its surfaces fray, and its inner cotton lining tears, it becomes the dancer’s skin, and encasement that hides the individuality of the foot. (1)

Shoes are often talked about as a second skin, but sometimes the boundary between the shoe and the foot breaks down.

This relationship between shoes and the body is the focus of the book that I am currently working on, which is currently entitled Shoes and the Georgian Man. I am currently writing a chapter on men’s dancing shoes from the period of the Regency, when balls were all the rage. I wasn’t expecting to get ideas for the chapter from a ballet written in the 1940s, but sometimes historical research is like that.

Matthew McCormack


(1) Gerri Reaves, ‘The slip in the ballet slipper: illusion and the naked foot’, in Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss (eds), Footnotes: On Shoes (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2001), pp. 251-71 (p. 259).

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