Conjure up an image of ballerinas spinning effortlessly en pointe and you’re not likely to come up with, say blisters… or corns… or bunions. Yet the two go hand-in-hand like peanut butter and jelly. Regardless of the shape of one’s feet, though, the show must go on and every dancer if eventually faced with the unfortunate and painful prospect of having to dance with bloody toes.
There are work-arounds, of course. There have to be. That’s where a dancer’s best friend comes to the rescue: good old Dr. Scholl’s. No, they don’t just make arch supports and sandals that are the equivalent of wooden flip-flops (but comfy!). Many dancers rely heavily on Dr. Scholl’s Blister Treatment, Corn Cushions (and remover), bunion cushions, and Moleskin Padding to protect wounds and sore spots when the going gets tough and the tough must keep going.
Every time I put on my pointe shoes, whether for class, rehearsal or performance, there was an elaborate ritual involved (which had nothing to do with the preparation of the pointe shoes… this part was all about the feet). It would be professional suicide to just stick your unprotected feet into a pair of pointe shoes and dance so long and hard that you give the 12 Dancing Princesses a run for their money. Instead, there is a process. What worked well for me was to wrap each toe with medical tape and then use paper towels or gel pads to make the whole experience more comfy. I dealt with the occasional corn (man, those suckers are painful!) by dosing it with remover and by using an oval-shaped corn pad to relieve pressure.
I was one of the lucky one who got blisters on very rare occasions… until I moved to Miami to dance with Miami City Ballet.
Miami is commonly acknowledged to be a part of the Continental US, but the climate (and the culture) is tropical by nature. It’s warm year-round, which brings tourists and older folks in droves and its monsoon season (typically in July/August) would rival that of Mumbai, India, Bali, Indonesia or anywhere else that gets pelted with driving rains so fierce that even with the windshield wipers on high it would be lunacy to attempt driving.
Miami is also humid as h*ll… which means blisters. Lots of them.
My time in Miami was the first and only time in my life when I had blisters all the time. The tropical climate kept everything perpetually moist and feet were no exception. Every day brought on new and disgusting terrors and no matter how hard I tried to stay on top of it, I got more and more blisters.
I even had blisters on top of my blisters.
But the winning moment came one night when we were on tour in Palm Beach. I was putting the final touches on makeup and costuming, attempting to delay the inevitable moment when I’d have to put my bloody toes in pointe shoes and dance my part in Concerto Baroco.
For the record, Concerto Barocco is a beautiful Balanchine ballet set to Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, by Johann Sebastian Bach (achingly wonderful music). It is also one of Balanchine’s most taxing ballets for the corps de ballet. During the entire 20 minutes of the ballet, the corps never leaves the stage. The first movement is brisk and uptempo, followed by a second movement that is quite slow where the dancers are forced to hold static lunge positions for many long minutes at a time.
But the end of the ballet is a real killer; it is fast-paced, technically demanding, relentlessly aerobic and in its final moments, there are a million soutenu turns from side to side and endless hops on pointe.
In essence, it might be the worst possible ballet to perform with a nasty collection of gaping blisters.
When life passes us incredibly painful moments, sometimes there’s no choice but to belly up to the bar(re). Which is what I did. After painstakingly cutting out moleskin pads that were perfectly-sized for each and every blister, I wrapped every toe carefully, cushioned the whole mess with padding and said a silent prayer before heading backstage to psyche myself into the proper mindset to get through the performance.
First I tried some pique arabesques. Those were tolerable. If you’re comfortable with the feeling of having your foot pierced by a red-hot poker. The soutenu turns stepped things up a few notches. The hops on pointe were worse than natural childbirth (I know from personal experience) so I stopped doing them. After that I stayed off pointe and kept my muscles warm until the final moment of reckoning arrived.
A taste of Concerto Barocco:
But when the music started, it transported me away from my worldly troubles… at least for the first two movements. Some music is inspiring enough that it can do that, force us to forget the things we’d rather forget and let our bodies simply respond to the exquisite sound of a musical masterpiece. Add the theatrical elements of bright light, a company of fellow dancers and an enrapt audience and the pain disappears… almost.
Except for the third movement and those bloody (literally) hops on pointe where I could feel the raw meat of my wounded flesh grinding against the concrete confines that were the boxes of my shoes… well, that was special.
Final bows were one of the hugest reliefs I’ve ever experienced. I walked off stage- okay, no- I hobbled. When I looked down I noticed blood had seeped through everything, including the pink satin exteriors of my shoes. Now that was serious.
Such is a day in the life of a dancer.