Footwear for Dancing

[The following is an excerpt drawn from “Remarks on Costume,” the appendix to my earlier study The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet (2003: 339-43). The opening part given below deals specifically with footwear used for dancing in the eighteenth century. I have not included the illustrations which are referred to in the text; the reader will need to consult the print edition of the book for these. I have, however, added one here which did not appear in the book.]


Appendix: Remarks on Costume

It is beyond the scope of this study to explore in detail the nature of eighteenth-century ballet costume here; clearly this topic is a broad and complicated one meriting separate treatment. The following few remarks are intended merely to lay to rest a few misconceptions about theatrical costume as it impinges upon dance technique, to wit, the notion that theatrical costume greatly restricted movement during this period, making impossible lofty jumps, high extensions of the limbs, or fully pointed feet. As an example of such a view, one might cite Winter’s claim (1974, 3) that

by the 18th century and roughly until the French Revolution, the ballerina was progressively more restricted. The elegant panoplies of Anne Auretti imposed a limited porte de bras and hampered elevation. As 18th century costume was dictated by France, one can generalize for Europe in saying that under Louis XV the lambrequins were replaced by voluminous panniers in which the fabric was stretched over cardboard and held rigid by a metal framework.

Winter goes on to claim that “a decisive change in dance technique and style came toward 1790, literally on the heels of the Ancien Régime, as the dancers’ heeled shoes were exchanged for supple cothurns or soft, glove-fitting slippers” and that “during the transitional period which followed, dancers began to develop wonderfully flowing porte de bras. The ballerina’s thighs were freed so that greater extension was possible.”

Such conclusions stem from a misunderstanding of the nature of costume construction for this period and more significantly from a failure to investigate thoroughly the primary sources. Winter is quite mistaken in claiming that dance shoes before the French Revolution lacked suppleness, or, as she implies, that such shoes restricted the extension of the instep or were invariably constructed with cumbersome heels, and thus that such shoes constituted an impediment to an expansive style of dancing. Like his modern counterpart, the eighteenth-century dancer, whether strutting on the ballroom floor or capering on the stage, could in fact avail himself of purpose-built dance shoes, or rather pumps, to use the eighteenth-century term. These light, soft shoes, bearing only a slight heel and a low tongue, could move with the feet like a sock and were not unlike what are commonly known today as “jazz shoes.” While no examples of such pumps appear to survive from the period, the sources clearly indicate that such shoes were used by dancers throughout our period of study. Taubert (1717, 407-08), for example, provides a clear and fairly detailed description of such pumps:

A light dance shoe with a pointed toe, single sole, and low heel and tongue is both elegant and comfortable for dancing, especially since it can be easily flexed and controlled like a sock [fig. 1], which best allows one to dance with grace, while a large, thick, and broad shoe, on the other hand, is heavy on the foot like a lead weight. With a neat shoe, one can dance on the toes of the foot and execute all movements with style and almost without effort, while with a clumsy shoe, one must use the greatest of force and cannot even get up onto the toes because of the length and the thick soles. The latter sort then suits peasants and grenadiers much better indeed than galant dancers. If one wishes to make use of a pair of such muck-plungers for drudgery and daily wear, then one can at least keep a pair of neat dance shoes aside, which will stand one in good stead on the [dance] floor and at assemblies.

Figure 1. A detail of the shoes worn by Auguste Vestris as Colas in Ninette à la cour, London 1781.

Other sources make fleeting reference to light dance shoes as well. The Connoisseur (17 July 1755) mentions in passing “dancing pumps,” while the Satyr Against Dancing (1702, 2) speaks of thin-soled shoes for dancing:

The Feet, which vilely to the Earth declin’d,
Are the remotest Members to the Mind:
Yet these manur’d with Cotton Pantaloons,
Soft tender Heels, gay Hose, compleat Buffoons,
The Shoes must be precise, the Soles as thin,
As theirs, who Puppet-like shall dance therein.

Jenyns ([1729] 1978, 16) in like manner speaks of thin-soled, low-heeled shoes to be used in ballroom dancing, noting that

Thus each man’s habit with his business suits;
Nor must we ride in pumps, or dance in boots.
But you, that oft in circling dances wheel,
Thin be your yielding sole, and low your heel.

Dance shoes resembling the pumps described by Taubert can in fact be found on the feet of dancers shown in illustrations from the period. Almost all the crude depictions of male and female dancers in Lambranzi (1716), for example, show a unisex low-heeled shoe. Other illustrations from the period, such as those reproduced in figures 2.4-5, 2.14, 3.10, for example, show dancers sporting soft pumps with a very insubstantial heel. Such shoes regularly show buckles rather than lacing, typical with footwear from the late seventeenth century into the early nineteenth century (hence the expression ‘beating over the buckle’ found in Taubert (1717), used to describe petits battements sur le cou-de-pied). Lacing with ribbons was not unknown in the period, however. Weaver (1712, 167) takes to task, for example, the French dancers whom he had seen in London and who “perform’d in Shoes lac’d, and ribbanded,” no matter how at odds it might have been with the needs of the role. The male dancers depicted in figure 2.4 from around 1720 and in figure 2.6 from 1796 in like manner appear to be sporting ribbon laces. Doubtless such dance pumps were cut straight without a right or left, as was usual in European footwear roughly from the beginning of the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century and as is still the case with contemporary ballet slippers.

Eighteenth-century dance pumps appear to have been commonly black with red heels. The author of “Observations sur l’Opéra” (1777, 24) complains about the popularity of this color combination at the Paris Opéra irrespective of its fittingness for the character represented and notes that he would not “have it that heroes, gods, the Pleasures, or shepherds always wear black shoes with red heels and large buckles. Footwear should be made for them that represents buskins as needed.” The Guardian (1 Sept. 1713) similarly alludes to the popularity of red heels, and red stockings, among dancing masters outside the theater, noting that “a Dancing Master of the lowest Rank seldom fails of the Scarlet Stocking and the Red Heel; and shows a particular respect to the Leg and Foot, to which he owes his Substance.” Weaver (1712, 167) also mentions “Red-silk Stockings” as typical among the French dancers that he saw perform in London in the early eighteenth century. Sartorial finery rather than verisimilitude in garb appears to have characterized many French performances throughout our period, for as Gallini indicates (1762, 129), “the French are notoriously faulty in over-dressing their characters, and in making them fine and showy, where their simplicity would be their greatest ornament. I do not mean a simplicity that should have any thing mean, low or indifferent in it; but, for example, in rural characters, the simplicity of nature, if I may use the expression, in her holyday-cloaths.” The Guardian (13 Apr. 1713) similarly touches upon finery in French theater costumes, noting that “I cannot better illustrate what I would say of the French, than by the Dress in which they make their Shepherds appear in their Pastoral Interludes upon the Stage, as I find it described by a celebrated Author. ‘The Shepherds,’ saith he, ‘are all embroidered, and acquit themselves in a Ball better than our English Dancing-Masters.’”

Pumps appear in fact to have been a kind of sports shoe of a sort that one might wear even when fencing. The Tatler (7 July 1709) satirically alludes to the nicety of a couple of duelists who momentarily set aside their slighted dignity in order to take the time to don their pumps before turning to the life-and-death matter of defending their honor; at the appointed place “the Principals put on their Pumps, and strip’d to their Shirts, to show they had nothing but what Men of Honour carry about ‘em, and then engag’d.”

Not wearing suitable shoes while dancing could attract censorious attention, at least in the ballroom. In a supposed missive to The Connoisseur (13 June 1754), for example, the letter writer notes that she once had the dubious pleasure of dancing with a gentleman hobbling in his boots: “We had a ball the other day; and I opened it with Sir Humphrey Chase, who danced in his boots, and hobbled along for all the world like the dancing-bears which I have seen in the streets at London.” It was not unknown, however, for social dancers to dance in high-heeled shoes during our period, and sweeping claims about the nature of dance wear in this age cannot be made, for social dancers, particularly at fancy balls, did not always dress suitably for dancing. As Madame de Genlis indicates in her Mémoires depuis 1756 jusqu’à nos jours, the elaborate panoplies of French aristocrats, particularly at fancy court balls, could be most ill-suited to dancing:

Bals parés were those which were given at court on solemn occasions in the last century. . . . The ladies at court danced only in grand apparel, with enormous paniers; the grand bodices [grands corps], the straps of which exposed the shoulders, scarcely allowed one to raise the arms; the shoes, tight and pointed, bore high heels; the bottoms of the dresses were immensely long; a garment of thick, rich stuff embroidered with gold, a coiffure of prodigious elevation loaded with gems, and heavy girandoles of diamonds suspended from the ears completed this costume, in which it was difficult to dance in a sprightly manner. (Cited in Waugh 1995, 68)

The sources indicate that other kinds of footwear were also used by eighteenth-century ballet dancers. Extant depictions of performers, such as that of Didelot in figure 2.6, sometimes show completely heelless shoes, evidently typical of acrobats and rope-dancers (fig. 2.13); an extant print from around 1732 reproduced in Winter (1974, 43) similarly shows Jacques Boudet in the role of le petit sabotier sporting such soft heelless shoes with ribbon laces. An extant depiction of a scene from the 1781 London production of Vestris’s Médée et Jason, reproduced in Guest (1996, pl. 12), shows Giovanna Baccelli as Creusa and Adélaïde Simonet as Medea wearing completely heelless pumps as well, with a very low upper revealing most of the instep remarkably similar to modern ballet slippers. Other extant illustrations of dancers from the period show footwear in imitation of ancient sandals, with thin soles and lacing up the lower leg, such as those found in figures 2.6 and 8.1, or in a print of Pierre Gardel reproduced in Winter (1974, 128). Behr (1713, 70) notes in his general discussion of theatrical costume that a dancer in the role of a hunter should be shod in “very light boots.” Other illustrations, such as figure 2.10, show shoes with substantial heels. Ultimately, the choice of differing footwear used on the eighteenth-century stage doubtless depended on the role represented, the style of dance employed, and the personal taste or caprice of the dancer. In light of this most evident variability, the modern scholar must guard against making sweeping claims about the nature of dance footwear and how it altered established dance technique as a whole. Indeed, Winter’s claim that “a decisive change in dance technique and style came toward 1790, literally on the heels of the Ancien Régime, as the dancers’ heeled shoes were exchanged for supple cothurns or soft, glove-fitting slippers” becomes absurd in light of both depictions of insubstantial dance shoes shown in the eighteenth-century iconography, and even reproduced in her own work, and Taubert’s description of dance pumps from the early eighteenth century which allowed the dancer to move his feet as if in a sock.