Tonight my daughter will sew her first pair of pointe shoes. I won’t be there to guide her, but her teacher has supplemented sewing instruction with YouTube.
If it’s a good video, it’ll tell her to cut the ribbons into four equal strips. To burn the tipsso they don’t fray. To sew the ribbon to the inside of the shoe. But will it tell her to make anaccordion fold out of the ribbon? That she can use the pad of her thumb to approximate one square inch?
If I were there I would show her. “Satin doesn’t fold flat the way paper does,” I’d say. “You need to bite the folds. Your teeth will stamp a crease and the spit makes the satin less slippery.”
The video will probably mention that the sides of the shoe have two layers of cloth and that she should only affix the ribbon to the inner layer. But if I were there, I’d tell her to tug thecanvas away from satin the way you might open a bag of chips. The trick is to separate the layers before you sew.
If I were there, I’d show her that if she looks closely, the canvas on the inside is a loose weave, a grid. This is how she can make sure her stitches—six along the two sides, four along the top and bottom—are perfectly even. “Insert the needle sideways, like you are skimming the top,” I would instruct her.
I don’t remember learning to sew my pointe shoes, but I remember my teacher, always sograceful and gracious, uncharacteristically stern as she said, “Never let anyone sew your pointe shoes for you. Always do it yourself.”
But here’s what neither the video nor my careful demonstration can tell her: sewing shoes is a sacred thing. As a solo endeavor, it is meditation. In the company of dancers, it is a rite of communion powerful enough to make her forget the backstage politics and back-hand compliments, the sore muscles and swollen feet. This is the right frame of mind for dancing. In the end, it has very little to do with the body.
Tonight the chore is a means to an end. Pointe shoes need ribbons before you can wear them. The activity triggers nothing. But one day, my daughter will sit down to prepare the tools for her feet. She will hear the crackle of the plastic shoe bag. The tiny wisps of smoke will float up from singed satin, its tart burn competing with the musky scent of leather and glue. She will feel the weight of the shoe in her hand and the slight taste of salt as she chews on the ribbons. A snip of thread. An end knot balled between her thumb and forefinger. The needle cleaving the canvas in just the right spot each time.
And it will feel like ceremony.
Janine Kovac is a former professional ballet dancer and software engineer. She is the author of SPINNING: Choreography for Coming Home, which was the memoir winner for the National Indie Excellence Awards and a semi-finalist for Publishers Weekly’s BookLife Prize. Janine is an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, Hedgebrook, and the Mineral School. A recipient of the Elizabeth George Foundation Fellowship and co-founder of Moxie Road Productions, Janine lives in Oakland, California, with her family.