You may have noticed that BBC Two and BBC Four are currently celebrating the beautiful art of ballet through their #BalletSeason. I started ballet classes as a toddler, and gave it up around the time of my GCSEs, only to find my way back to my old ballet school as a member of an ‘Old Girls’ class, and most recently at classes in London’s Irreverent Dance. These days, I very much dance for the sheer pleasure of it, no longer worrying about not being tall enough or tiny enough to conform to the stereotype. Five minutes in my ballet class will prove to you that you do not need to have the same body measurements as the handle of a garden rake to be elegant. What you need is strength and control and an amazing teacher. I have the latter and I’m working on the other two! A smile on your face and a ‘smug ballet face’ (with compulsory irony and humour) that you can pull out of the bag as and when required both also help. It was interesting to discover in Darcey’s Ballerina Heroines that prior to Anna Pavlova’s era in ballet, most ballerinas had a classical feminine body, curves and all.
Pavlova was not a technically perfect dancer, but she was a great performer. My favourite dancer had similar quirks in her dance style. On Friday night back at my parents’ home, I settled down on the sofa with them to watch a 1959 version of Sleeping Beauty with my ballet heroine, Dame Margot Fonteyn, dancing the part of Princess Aurora. I have always loved Fonteyn. As the President of the Royal Academy of Dance when I first started dancing, it was her signature on my early ballet exam certificates. My Dad gave me a beautiful print of her and Rudolf Nureyev when I was very young. It is an image I will never forget. Their chemistry was tangible, even though this was a mere snapshot of a performance.
Before my PhD, I worked for a company whose headquarters are in Reigate, Surrey, where Fonteyn was born. A statue of Fonteyn on the tips of her toes in a classic ballet pose – ‘en pointe’ – can be found in the grounds. I found myself mesmerised by Fonteyn’s pointe work during her performance as Aurora, particularly as her feet did not look ‘traditional’ in terms of a high instep, and in fact looked more like my low arched feet. I am in fact in awe of any ballet dancer that can manage to look so effortlessly graceful while being in agony. Because that is what dancing en pointe is like. It hurts like hell. Yet for some insane reason, ‘dance en pointe’ made its way onto my ‘List of 101 Things To Do, See, And Learn In Life’.
I started learning to dance en pointe before I gave up ballet as a teenager. I imagine the pain helped me make that decision, although there really is nothing like watching someone dance en pointe, so having completed a grade class at Irreverent Dance last week, I am facing one of my biggest challenges yet.
Tomorrow, I start pointe class.
I am excited, and nervous, and worrying about whether my low arches will be able to handle the task (although my teacher has checked and deemed that with lots of hard work we should be fine), and anticipating the kinds of levels of pain that I have not felt in a long time. Dancing en pointe is different to normal dancing. In regular ballet class, you have to engage your core and work the muscles in your legs and feet, which is incredibly difficult in its own way, but all of this is done in soft leather ballet shoes. Compared to pointe shoes, these are a dream. Pointe shoes are those beautiful ballet pink satin shoes with the ribbons that ballet dancers go onto their tiptoes in. The hidden hell of a pointe shoe is the fact that the toebox of the shoe is hard and moulded to give support to the dancer, so it feels like you are shoving your foot, which is probably not square unless you inspired Roald Dahl to write a book, into an angular wooden box. It hurts.
There are ways that you can reduce the pain by cushioning the foot in the shoe using lamb’s wool, or gel or foam padding. A great use of materials, I thought. This recently paled in comparison when I discovered that pointe shoe makers Capulet had collaborated with D3O to incorporate their brilliant bright orange material into pointe shoes to give comfort when dancing normally and support and strength en pointe, with exceptional cushioning and vastly reduced discomfort and noise. The bright orange material made by D3O is called non-Newtonian because it has flow properties that disobey normal laws of physics. If we first think about a Newtonian fluid such as water, which is one that behaves as we would expect, water flows with similar viscosity or thickness when we move it quickly as when we move it slowly. A non-Newtonian fluid behaves in a different way. Ketchup is an example of such a fluid that becomes less viscous when moved, which is why shaking the bottle always speeds up the flow of ketchup out of the bottle and onto your chips. D3O also misbehaves, but the material properties it displays are opposite to those of ketchup. Under pressure, D3O seems to become thicker, to the point where it actually behaves like a solid. Once the pressure is removed, or applied gently, the material flows more easily once more. A cornflour suspension behaves in a similar way. Give it a go at home! D3O has also been incorporated into everything from protective phone cases (which I have bought) to impact-absorbing running shoes (which I am desperate to buy, but cannot quite justify yet!). It really is one of my favourite materials.This video shows how the pointe shoe was created, and shows just how many different professions must collaborate to create something new; one of the reasons why I love working in Materials Science. I purchased a pair of these Capulet shoes however, the size that I was advised to buy by Dance Direct are too large for me to safely wear in class, and I have bought some new shoes, leaving my beloved painless Juliettes as a great personal showpiece in my Material Girl lecture that takes the audience on a journey through Materials Science and the impact that it has on their lives without them realising.
The shoe itself is only one reason that dancing en pointe can be painful and why it requires training and high levels of strength. As with so many things in life, it comes down to physics, and specifically the pressure felt on the toes when dancing en pointe. To calculate pressure, we use the equation:
pressure = force / area
The force is calculated by the equation:
force = mass x acceleration
Using these formulae and some of my own measurements (my mass – with scientific errors stated, of course – and some approximate areas measured using graph paper and a pencil), we can first calculate the pressure on the floor when standing normally on two feet:
The maths tells us that when balancing on one pointe shoe, I experience over 17 times the pressure that I would normally experience standing on two feet. It really is no wonder that it hurts so much! Thankfully through hard work, practice, a good pair of pointe shoes and some excellent guidance, I hope that in the next ten weeks I will be able to replace my pained grimace with a well honed ‘smug ballet face’ of my own. Wish me luck!