For ballet students, getting that first pair of pointe shoes is a big step

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It was a true Cinderella story -- reality-show style.

In the traditional fairy tale, the prince searched the world to find a beautiful maiden whose foot would perfectly fit a glass slipper. Today's budding ballerinas, sans prince, have to find pointe shoes that will perfectly fit their own feet.

Last week Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School's Level II group of about 20 well-mannered students took part in what is considered an important rite of passage in the ballet world -- trying on that very first pair.

Ballet students receive their first pointe shoes

Pittsburgh Ballet School students were fitted for their first pointe shoes last week in the Strip District. (Video by Rebecca Droke; 3/6/2013)

It was no small matter. These little bunheads, averaging about 10 years old, had already invested in several years of disciplined exercises at the barre. And just a quick scan revealed that virtually everyone had already participated in the company production of "The Nutcracker" at the Benedum Center.

But these soldiers and bumble bees have the Sugar Plum Fairy on their minds, whom they have seen performing en pointe. So expectations were reality-based as well.

"I think it's going to be painful," said Emma Begg of O'Hara before the process began.

Sewickley Hills' Madison Ray reasoned that it would be "hard on the bottom, but soft on the sides."

But Mt. Lebanon's Meghan King already had a signed pair from PBT and had tried to dance around the house in them. "The bottom is hard," she said knowingly. "But you get used to it."

How to get the right fit? Janet Groom, owner of The Dancers' Pointe in the Strip District, brought in extra trained staff members to handle the overload.

They divided the class into two groups of 10, each coming for about an hour. The girls were allowed to bring one adult to the tiny shop, mostly moms and one attentive granddad. Cameras were in abundance.

Surrounded by a rainbow of leotards and chiffon skirts, plus a mini-barre with full-length mirror, the girls sat down on a bench in twos and threes to get a personalized fitting.

Cinderella may have had only one option, but Ms. Groom, also the longtime costumier at PBT, carries all shapes and sizes, hundreds of them neatly stacked in a separate closet. There are five brands, usually ranging in whole and half sizes anywhere from size 2 to 8, with even more available to order. Capezio slippers, for example, come in seven styles and three widths, so the choices can be overwhelming.

"It's because the feet are so important," emphasizes Ms. Groom.

After all, that glass slipper might not have been the most malleable material, but then, Cinderella didn't have to walk on the tips of her toes.

First, each student slipped on a toe pad containing gel, the only source of comfort between the foot and the shoe. Once the shoe was on, the staff tried to give the students a sense of how it should feel. Made of several layers of muslin and glue, they are hard around the toes to provide support.

When students stood up, they were instructed to have the toes flat on the floor and squished together, but not jammed or overlapping. And the shoes wouldn't be as comfortable as street or athletic shoes.

Ms. Groom also likes to have a teacher on hand, because she or he knows the "personality of the foot." So Anastasia Wovchko, PBT children's division principal, was there to provide the final OK. "It's like the eye doctor ... more, less, the same," she laughed.

They made their way through tapered and square feet, long and short vamps, pinching, nipping and tucking through a process that resembled "a little bit of a guessing game," Ms. Wovchko said.

And after the girls finally rose to the tips of their toes -- with some help, of course -- the reactions were as expected. Only Ryann Heffley of West View found her pair on the first try. Elizabeth Stone of Aspinwall exclaimed, "I got shoes!" and gave her mother a big hug.

Madison Ray said that it "felt better than I thought it would be."

But the process had just begun, and patience will be the key. They can't just run home and start performing for friends and family. As Vivian Shao of Fox Chapel said solemnly, "We don't have the right floor at home." Nor do they have the ribbons and elastic attached.

Sewing the shoes will be a whole other episode of this reality series, set to play out over the next several weeks. Ms. Wovchko said that she is very particular about properly attaching the elastic and ribbons onto the shoe. And the next few months will mean more exercises, mostly releves (or rises) at the barre.

But another sense of fantasy may be just around the corner. These budding ballerinas have taken an important step toward a dream role, be it a Sugar Plum Fairy or a Juliet.

As it so happens, PBT is performing "Cinderella" in April. Perhaps they'll have a greater appreciation of all the balances and pirouettes in that production. And maybe one day, a few years into the future, they'll bourree toward their own living, breathing prince ... en pointe.

theater - lifestyle

Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at She also blogs at First Published March 6, 2013 5:00 AM


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