The way and why of the optimum pointe fitting
I have to admit to being emotionally conflicted about the pointe shoe.
On the one hand, after all I’ve learned about the anatomy and functionality of the foot, sometimes I can’t help seeing the moulding of a foot into a pointe shoe as akin to the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding – though perhaps the 1950’s Winklepicker style of male shoe isn’t much better. It can seem an archaic form of masochistic endeavour to want to work in pointe shoes, which perhaps harks back to a cultural construction that wanted to see women bound, limited and needing a man as support to help them balance.
And yet … as a dancer with a long and deep appreciation and love of the classical ballet craft I’m also in awe of pointe work; of its ethereal quality, it’s elegance, the exquisite line the pointe shoe creates, and of the incredible power pointe work can convey in creative hands. Indeed, arguably practitioners of pointe work have managed to spin what might easily have remained a physical limitation and vulnerability, into a positive attribute and source of iconic female strength.
And so, with this emotional conflict in mind, I eagerly anticipated meeting with world renowned pointe shoe fitter, Esther Juon via Zoom to discuss her journey and thoughts on the importance of the right fitting and what that entails. Her story did not disappoint.
For those less familiar with Esther; she’s the owner of the Juon Pointe system, a pointe shoe fitting method, pre- pointe preparation and pre-pointe assessment developed over the last 35 years. Esther also runs mentoring sessions for dancers and teachers and a separate complete Custom Pointe Shoe fitting course for pointe shoe fitters. After a life in dance that spans almost 60 years Esther is still passionately consumed by her love of the dancers’ craft and remains resolved to ensure dancers have a better appreciation of their anatomy before rising onto pointe for the first time.
“Understanding how your body works, what it needs and how to look after your instrument is key, before the journey onto pointe can begin!”
Esther grew up in a small town in Switzerland part of a relatively low socio-demographic area. Yet despite the lack of wealth, or perhaps because of it, she has fond memories of her early years, recalling how they would make everything themselves and how those years instilled in her a commitment to hard work, which she’s not shied from till this day.
Yet dance was part of Esther’s life even before she saw her first ballet or took classes. Laughing, she recalls how as a young child her parents would go out once a week for Choir practice – her Father wanted to be a singer, but at the time his faith wouldn’t allow it – and Esther would move the furniture out of the way, put on Beethoven, and commence, “flying about the living room”.
In time Esther became enamoured with classical ballet. This was in part driven by that love of classical music passed down by her father who loved to sing and listen to Beethoven and Mozart, and her Mother who played piano. Yet it was watching the ballet Coppelia at the age of 7 or 8 performed by the Zurich Opera Ballet at the Zurich Opera House, “a lovely Baroque theatre” with its crystal chandeliers, ornate architecture, elegance and architectural harmony that sealed her destiny. From that moment Esther knew she wanted to be part of the theatre world and the dream consumed her.
“Coppelia was such a happy ballet. And it had lots of different characters and a story. It was the first ballet I saw and that was it; I knew what I wanted to do!”
Esther then tells the story of how she sought out a ballet class, but that it required her to walk 1 ½ hours to the class – and back again – in the rain, hail or shine because her family couldn’t afford the train fare. Esther and her friend continued this for a year until one day Esther told her Mum that she didn’t want to go because it was raining and her Mother insisted that not doing so because of rain was a poor excuse and that they wouldn’t continue to pay for classes if that was her attitude.
“Take an umbrella, put on boots and get on with it!” my Mother said. We were certainly brought up to understand where money came from.
I began to wonder if it was Esther’s financially humble conditions that drew her to the ballet; aspiring to a world of chandeliers and overt wealth? Esther becomes quite passionate at this point explaining that while it was indeed another life to aspire to, a kind of fantasy world, she’s also adamant that she never thought about it leading to wealth. Instead it was the elegance – a word she returns to often – and the “colours and the energy, and the lights and the costumes” which she found “amazing”.
“We didn’t go on holidays, not until we very much older. We didn’t have the latest toys. All of our Christmas presents were made by hand, at home, even for our relatives. We learned how to use our hands, and to be innovative through that. If you can’t buy it, you make it.”
Esther also trained and distinguished herself in acrobatics due to her pliable body, before spending time at the Ecole de Dance in Zurich, which she felt was quite unstructured, before she met her earliest mentor at age 16, “a fantastic man, who is a friend to this day”, Armin Wild. Widely respected as a jazz teacher in the area, it turned out Armin had been a company Soloist at Zurich and Wiesbaden and had been trained at the Royal Ballet School in London and, “he just oozed elegance”. He was the first teacher that would do more than simply provide steps, “but could break them down and put them back together” clearly articulating as he did so.
“I’d finally found the teacher I really wanted to work with.”
Esther removed herself from the Ecole de Dance where they did nothing but shout at the students and went to train with Armin. Esther describes him as “magic” and tells how they would go off to attend a guest course in Basel and then, on the return trip on the train, how they’d piece what they’d learned back together, dancing up and down the aisle of the empty carriage late at night.
And yet, as positive and supportive as Armin was, he was also always very honest with Esther and one day he told her:
“Look Esther, you’ll never make it as a dancer. You’re too much of a softy. You don’t have the Elephant skin that’s needed to be able to take what’s coming if you join a company, because it’s really tough out there. But you will make a damn good teacher!”
Armin saw in Esther an ever-questioning mind that would always ask “why”. Why this way and not that? Esther explains that for her, she needed a “hook to hang things on”, a reason connected to an action, and that merely doing something because she was told to was never enough.
By age 18 Esther moved to London to take the RAD Teachers course yet just missed the intake and had to wait a year for the next one. In the interim she busied herself taking classes with Rambert and at The Dance Centre and initially worked as an Au Pair and later at a Hostel, where she did a lot of heavy cleaning work. This work made her back tired and sore, and during one class at The Dance Centre that was capacity-packed with 50+ people that she describes as, “you pay your money and nobody cares if you can do it or you can’t” Esther had a dramatic fall coming out of a turn and did serious damage to her lower back; damage that would reshape the course of her life.
“What caused the injury was doing something I was not capable of doing. Not having the information. You can’t blame anyone. I walked into the class. But it’s taught me a valuable lesson and so I’ve never taught a class with more than 5 to 10 people.”
She recalls almost crawling out of the class, and then needing to be in a corset for three months and barely able to walk. She wanted to return home to Zurich, but the Nuns who ran the Hostel had applied to the Home Office for an extension for her to stay in London, yet the Home Office lost her passport and so she was forced to stay. Fortunately, the Nuns took care of her during this debilitating period and later when she did manage to return to Zurich Esther found a clinic where she had physiotherapy and slowly got back on her feet after many periods of losses and gains.
Esther’s dream of a career as a dancer was shredded and yet she remains philosophical, explaining that;
“I’m not upset. It was tough. But throughout my life I’ve always had someone that’s opened another door for me.”
Unable to dance herself, Esther wanted to stay within the dance culture and so went to Basel to study Benesh Notation. Soon after she received a grant and returned to Worthing, England to continue her study. Yet it was here that her back gave out completely and she was advised to have an operation to fuse her spine.
“They grafted a bone from my hip to my spine, one of the first in the UK to have this operation done. But it was 7 years after the accident before I got my “normal” life back. But it gave me my pledge that if I ever got to work with dancers again, that it will start from the floor up and I’ve followed that through.”
Esther was engaged at this time to an Englishman and they soon married and for a while, as her back slowly healed to resemble something close to normal she worked in an office job. Eventually however Esther found her way back to teaching. They moved to Brighton, on England’s south coast and Esther made plans to open her own dance studio, determined that what happened to her would not happen to others under her care.
The building they procured at the time was three levels. The top level was where they lived, the ground level was where she aimed to have the studio, and there was also a basement. Yet Council wouldn’t allow permission for a studio on the ground floor as it was deemed for retail space only. As such Esther had a quandary. She soon made the decision to turn the basement into a small dance studio and the ground floor would become a dancewear store. From this she thought, “if you want to open a dancewear store then you need pointe shoes”. And thus, began her love affair with the pointe shoe and pointe fittings.
Give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world!
~ Marilyn Monroe
For a time, Esther managed both; the Dance Laines dancewear store by day, and the studio by night. Yet as time went on, she found herself drawn to the point shoe in particular and sought out medics from amongst her adult dancers who could help her understand everything about it: from its manufacture, to how to fit and why.
Esther attended all the pointe shoe courses offered by Freed, Gamba, Porselli, Isradance, Anella and Davide, Gandofi etc. – some of which have now have ceased to exist, or stop making pointe shoes – wanting to learn all she could about how they were made, who they were made for and of course … why. Always, the “why”!
Esther met a lady name Sheryl Hancock, then physio to the English National Ballet and The Royal Ballet and Sheryl pulled her aside and said that she could see that Esther was really serious, wanted to know more and so gave her some advice; “Never fit a pointe shoe too wide or too long and make sure the intrinsic muscles in the feet are really strong.”
“This is what she equipped me with and everything I do today has been built on this.”
Esther explains that it was Sheryl that first taught her the Metatarsal lift exercise, now commonly referred to as, “doming”, recounting that she was far ahead of her time, though perhaps we might now find her method of teaching the exercise a little dramatic. Sheryl attached electric plates under the metatarsal heads and another under the heel to Esther’s feet while she was in a foot bath before sending through an electric current which would contract the muscles of the foot. While it now feels like it could be the kind of visual we might see on an episode of Dance Mum’s, Esther assures me it wasn’t painful and that it served the purpose of helping her experience these muscles in isolation and continued her journey of learning about the phenomenal foot.
Esther never used electrodes herself, yet soon developed her own process of teaching both the Metatarsal lift and other strengthening exercises. Perhaps most importantly, Esther was acutely aware that she didn’t know everything and so amassed around her a team of medical specialists to fulfil the needs of particular dancers. To this day she still continues this collaborative process from her home in New Zealand working closely with physiotherapist Georgina Barr and Ruth Swinney an Osteopath.
This was the beginning of the Juon Pointe system of fitting. It was the 1980’s and Esther was explaining to people coming in wanting a pointe shoe that they would need to make an appointment because such a fitting would take at least an hour or two, which at the time – and even to this day in some places – was almost unheard of. Most people were accustomed to walking into a dancewear store being fitted with an ouch pouch and having a shoe given to them within 10 minutes with little attention given to their specific needs. Esther recalls that she meets lots of dancers even today who own several pairs of pointe shoes and is surprised to find that none of them fit correctly.
The extra time was important because Esther wanted to see the feet and really understand the dancer. She took photos of their feet in their old shoes and it became a discussion and exploration with the dancer to help them better understand their own physiology, technique and the shoe they required and why. Again, always the “why”!
Over several years Esther developed a way and method of fitting the pointe shoe based on anatomy, working together with a local Physiotherapist, Podiatrist and Osteopath. These practitioners would check the anatomy and biomechanics behind the fitting as Esther was obsessed to ensure their structure was in line, or in balance, as it’s critical that a dancer is as balanced anatomically as possible i.e. within what they’re anatomically capable of, before going on pointe. Often, when pre-pointe assessments are done early they’ll reveal issues that if left unchecked will cause later problems. And yet by finding them at this age they can often be addressed before causing problems.
“Just as you take your car for a road fitness test, every dancer should be assessed by somebody that can check their alignment and gently realign it.”
Esther now resides in sunny Waipawa in Central Hawkes Bay, New Zealand where she regularly catches up with teachers, dancers and studios from all over the world both in person in her private fitting space, where she has a stock of over 2000 pointe shoes, and via Zoom. Her pointe fitting courses are in demand by stockists and her Mentoring programs by dancers and teachers. The Mentoring program for dancers and teachers takes 18 weeks and is for Pre-Pointe Preparation, while the Pointe shoe fitting course takes a year to complete; such is the detail Esther insists upon.
“If I had a magic wand, I would make sure every dancer gets physically and technically prepared fully. They’d learn to tape the feet correctly, be fully assessed for alignment, strength and technique throughout the body before pointe work begins. No pointe shoes should be sold unless they’re fitted by a qualified fitter.”
The pointe shoe really is a complication and my own personal feeling of being torn about it is likely a reasonable emotional reaction. When fitted incorrectly, or when a student has gone onto pointe without the correct technical ability, or without a pre-pointe assessment the results can be a potential disaster. And while many studios may not see the negative consequences because the injuries may not aggravate sufficiently until later in life, this is little excuse for turning a blind eye to how important the right fitting and technique is before embarking onto pointe.
For many young girls – and increasingly some boys too – the pointe shoe is a rite of passage, denoting a stage of maturity and proficiency. Many young dancers aspire to explore the challenge and feeling of working on pointe, as many choreographers revel in the unique movement qualities that can be explored which so often thrill, move and entertain. While for many audiences, the pointe shoe continues to represent the quintessence of classical dance.
I suspect the pointe shoe will long continue to stir complex emotions as we consider its history and continued artistic evolution in the modern world. I suggest it’s that very complexity of emotions that forms part of the pointe shoes enduring charisma and allure. Esther’s hope is that, as each young dancer is drawn to rise onto pointe that they take the time to learn from her experience and her Juon Pointe system – or from those that have followed in her footsteps offering similar care and attention for detail – so that each young dancer is able to revel in their time on pointe injury free.
Thankyou Esther for being so generous in sharing your memories, passion and knowledge!
Article by Josef brown.