Wednesday, December 1, 2010


The following is a draft from a series of 500-word essays I am writing for my Design Writing Criticism course. If you have any critical feedback, please comment below or e-mail me. I would love to hear your suggestions or edits:

Standing at the intersection of St. Martin’s Lane and Cecil Court, I steal glances inside a shop where tightly bunned heads, framed by amber-lit windows, gracefully bob up and down. Slender arms lengthen into arabesques. The lithe limbs belong to ballet dancers of all ages — nine-year-old girls in pink tights who’ve not yet lost their babyfat; and women in their 20s who roll onto their toes with the ease of a prima ballerina — and they’ve come to Freed of London to buy pointe shoes.

I duck inside, attempting to nimbly weave between agile bodies, maneuvering past Christmas-themed displays of black leotards and heeled character shoes. But no one notices the displays or me. They are looking at their feet.

Freed of London has handmade pointe shoes since 1929, and in 81 years, the methods have barely changed. Each shoe is constructed, uniquely, from the inside out. Each pair is made by one of 34 shoemakers. And each year, Freed of London sells more than 250,000 pointe shoes — more than any other manufacturer in the world. As official shoe providers to companies such as the American Ballet Theater and down the road at the Royal Ballet, Freed of London has a close relationship with the professional dancing world. But they aren’t only for the pros. If the shoe fits, any girl can own a pair.

Back inside the shop, all of these dancers want the shoes to fit. A clerk thumbs the wood block that surrounds a dancer’s foot. “Are you sure? You seem to be sliding down when you roll en pointe,” she says.

“No, no,” the dancer insists, furrowing a brow pulled taut by her slicked-back hair. “These definitely fit. They’ve got to.”

Because of the one-off shoemaking process and the who’s who-type list of dancers who wear them, Freeds are synonymous with beauty, and dancing in them is foreshadowing for the rest of your ballet career: If you can fit into Freeds, you have an ideal foot. Slide them on, and from the knee down you stand a chance at looking like Sarah Lamb in the Royal Ballet’s Giselle.

Still, it’s not just about pretty feet; pointe shoes are tools of a rigorous trade. At the height of ballet season, a principal dancer averages one pair per performance. So if a ballerina is lucky enough to find the perfect pointe shoes, they must be replaceable. All of Freed’s shoemakers bake a mark into the sole of every shoe, allowing dancers to identify what they need simply by looking.

When a ballerina leaps on stage, an unspoken partnership blossoms at her feet. The makers of Freeds — some of whom have made their mark for 40 years —are dedicated craftspeople that represent the role design plays in the performing arts. Theirs is a supporting part that exists in the basements of shops like the one on St. Martin’s Lane, where timeless methods are used to make the pink satin icon most girls dream about and few are lucky enough to roll up into.

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