Vanessa Zahorian, principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet, suggested the major theme for our Live Stream session herself. She insisted we talk pointe shoes in as much detail as only possible. Pointe shoes according to Vanessa are much more than a plain element of ballet attire. They are critically important for ballerina to ensure her safety and prevent possible injuries. Vanessa Zahorian is a prominent dancer and a true super-star of present-day ballet but unlike many others she is brutally honest about herself and her experiences. In the interview to Mateo Klemmayer, the founder of Zarely and her former dance partner in SFB, Vanessa Zahorian remains as open and sincere as she is every time she goes on stage.
How to Dance With a Broken Foot
Mateo: Vanessa, you are the best partner I’ve ever danced with. We were together on stage in “Diana and Actaeon” and it was in “Diana and Actaeon” again later on that you had seriously injured your foot. When was that exactly? And have you completely recovered from it?
Vanessa: Yes, I am completely back. I have recovered. That accident happened in January 2014 during The San Francisco Ballet Gala. You are right – I was dancing in “Diana and Actaeon”. And on stage I slid, rolled over my ankle and… broke the fifth metatarsal. But the thing was I didn’t know at the time! I kept on dancing. After the adagio I came off stage and my foot started to swell a bit. Davit Karapetyan, my husband, came back after his performance and ensured me it was okay and I could just go back on stage. So I finished the variation. You know it is a lot of jumping and coming back down – all on the right foot that I… broke. At the end of the whole piece I felt like something was wrong with my ankle but I thought I just jammed it or something. The doctors took a look at it and said: “Okay, we’ll see tomorrow how you feel.” When I woke up the next day and it was swollen like Shrek’s foot. I was supposed to do a Giselle run-through that evening but at that point there was no way I could possible do it. X-ray procedure showed that I had the fifth metatarsal fracture. The coming back and recovery took seven months. And now, two years later, I feel better and stronger than ever in my career. But I must confess the very process of recovery was much like going back from ground zero. I also feel that having had that injury I learned a lot about myself – what it is like going back to basics again.
Mateo: To me it is pretty uber-woman-like! Basically you had a broken foot and you still did the whole of “Actaeon”.
Vanessa: I did.
Mateo: And you finished it. It is crazy!
Vanessa: Well, that’s what we do. As dancers we were trained for that. The muscle memory allows us to go on without thinking much about any of those… things. If you fall, you just go back up and keep on going.
Mateo: Did the injury accident change the way you work today?
Vanessa:It definitely did! I can say that now I feel more conscientious. Let me explain: when I was going back from my injury I had to conscientiously control my placement every moment of the time to avoid compensating one way or the other such as rolling on my foot. I really needed to build back my stability standing on one leg. When you break your foot and especially the fifth metatarsal, your balance is way off. Even trying to walk again took me two months or so. So gaining back the strength for one leg and the confidence and the ability to stand at the barre just in the first position was a real challenge. The correct balance is all about the core and the sit muscles. So what I had to do was rebuilding my balance on one leg by doing lots and lots of exercises.
Pointe Shoes: The Complete Walk-Through
Mateo: That’s an insane amount of pointe shoes that you have with you today!
Vanessa:Yes, let me tell you a little bit about my shoes. I wear the Repetto pointe shoes. And I’ve been wearing them ever since I had broken my foot. After the accident I decided to change the pointe shoes I was wearing. So this is what they look like – the Repetto pointe shoes. I wear a size 5 (or the 38). Originally they come in this pink color but to match my tights I like to wear shoes of a little bit darker pink. So the women in the costume department dye my shoes. And I can show you the color.
Obviously you have to secure your pointe shoes to your feet when you’re dancing. And this is where you’d need elastique and ribbons. Usually I have two pieces of ribbon – the shorter one wraps my calves from the outside and the longer one from the inside. I secure the ribbons on the inside with a knot. And I tuck them in right there so they are nice and secure on my feet.
Sometimes for my performances I like to score the bottom of pointe shoes with scissors to increase floor resistance. That’s in case I don’t have enough rosin (which sometimes happens when I am a guest performer in other theaters).
I actually prefer to have harder pointe shoes for classical ballet and then softer (those that are broken in) for contemporary or neo-classical performances.
There are different types of color for ribbons: a lighter pink and a darker peach. So I chose them according to the color of pointe shoe I’m wearing. There are lots of choices!
And here is a darning thread and a needle you need to sew pointe shoes. I can show you up close the way I do it. You can tell I do a lot of work (smiles). I actually sew my pointe shoes all the way around to keep the elastiques and the ribbon in place because I had quite a few instances when a ribbon would come undone on stage. It is all trial and error, you know. It happens to the best of us. The first time my ribbons came off when I was on stage I remember thinking: “Oh my gosh, I’m gonna be fired!” And it was really scary for the audience because they could hear the ribbons flapping against the floor every time I made a step. And I was telling myself: “It’s okay, I’m not gonna fall or anything.” When I ran off stage the first thing I did was quickly tying up my ribbons. The best way to keep ribbons secure around your ankle is to sew them. And sometimes we put a masking tape onto ribbons – just like that.
Mateo: I think a lot of young ballerinas really appreciate your advice, Vanessa. All these techniques that you’ve just shared can help rising into being a professional dancer. At least when it comes to their pointe shoes. Let’s now go to the questions that our audience on socials had for you.
Padding in Pointe Shoes: Do’s And Don’t
Mateo: @imitation_ballerina asked: “I’d like to know if you wear padding in your shoes”
Vanessa:Oh! That’s a great question! Actually I was going to explain this, too. I wear a very light padding because I like to really articulate my toes while wearing pointe shoes. These are plain kitchen napkins. I cut off a little piece and then put it inside my pointe shoe. And that’s actually enough because I’m very used to it. Over the years I have built up calcium in my toes. Like the entire ballerina’s keen.
And the padding I use depends on the time of the year. I wear this (shows a napkin) when I’m rehearsing in the summer. Just one little piece. Because when I come back from vacations my feet are swollen. Let’s say I have two weeks off that I haven’t used my point shoes. My feet became… weaker. My toes are expanded and I’m trying to get back those muscles. The reason I wear a very light cloth is because my toes don’t fit. Otherwise at the end of the season which is in May I use this double-sided napkin as padding. My pointe shoes get too big for me. With all the ballets that I’m doing I just get very much in shape – I get smaller and everything gets too big (smiles). That’s what I use. No special toe pads.
Never Too Many!
Mateo: And how many pointe shoes do you need a year?
Vanessa:The Company gives us 15 pairs of pointe shoes per month. And we are working about 10 months of the year. So there you have it! That’s all my pointe shoes. Give or take, of course. During the months that I’m doing a full-length ballet, I’m going to need more pointe shoes. And when I’m doing contemporary, I don’t need so many of them.
When I recently went to TaipeiI had two performances (I was dancing two pieces – “Rubies” and “Onegin” pas de deux). And I took 8 pairs of pointe shoes with me. I wanted to be sure that I had enough pointe shoes in case one of them breaks. You know sometimes a pointe’s shank just collapses even before you wear it. So I took 8 pairs and I ended up wearing 4 of them. I wanted to have a new pair that was perfect for each of the two pieces I was dancing. And then the other two pairs I wore for rehearsals, for class. I like to wear pointe shoes in the middle of my rehearsal. That said I wear flat ballet slippers for barre exercises to wake up my toes.
How To Sew 150 Pairs of Pointe Shoes
Mateo: And you have to sew all of those 150 pairs of pointe shoes throughout a year!
Mateo: In what kind of a surrounding do you need to be – in a studio so that you can immediately try it on or you can do it at home in front of a TV?
Vanessa:Because I’ve been in pointe shoes for many years professionally, I actually don’t need to be in a studio to sew them. I could be sewing pointe shoes on the couch watching movie but that’s not my preferred method! What I prefer is to do my work such as sewing my pointe shoes when I’m at work. So I like to do it during my five-minute breaks or if I’m done with my lunch earlier and I have 15 more minutes. Then I’d sit down to sew my pointe shoes
Mateo: Another question from our audience. @ilovemath (which is great – somebody loving math!) asks: “What do you think of High Intensity Interval Training for dancers? Will it be as good as cross training or is it something a dancer shouldn’t do?” What is your opinion?
Vanessa:I think cross training is a great idea! There are some muscles that we don’t strengthen in the ballet training. And cross training is really good for the “other side” – to help balance out the weaker muscles.
Mateo: Looks like we have covered almost everything about pointe shoes, haven’t we, Vanessa?
Vanessa:Mateo, there is one thing I could add. In order to be able to differentiate my pointe shoes from one another (let’s say I have 8 pairs laying around) I make little messages like “good shoe” or “bad shoe” on the bottom. And I wear a bad shoe for rehearsal but I know that the shape is broken.
Watch the entire interview with Vanessa Zahorian for Zarely