There aren’t any specialist ballet stores in Southeast Alaska. That means it’s hard for young ballerinas to find the right fitting shoes.
So every summer, just before school starts Phillip Broadbent comes to town. He’s a master pointe shoe fitter who’s served professional companies all over America. Joe Sykes went down to a fitting last week and filed this report.
Where Phillip Broadbent’s from, boys aren’t really meant to dance.
“I come working class north England. It was a sissy thing to do and my Dad was totally embarrassed about it,” he says.
But he hated school and dancing was a way to escape the drudgery of life in 1970s England.
“I was a terrible student academically at high school, going through normal teenage wasteland problems and I thought this is a chance to get away from my hometown and go to London and start a new life,” he says.
And he did, attending the Rambert ballet school and working as a professional dancer for over 15 years.
After quitting the profession he moved to Spokane, Washington, married an American ballerina and became an expert in fitting pointe shoes which allow dancers to pirouette around on the tips of their toes. And Broadbent says for the young ballerinas waiting to see him in Petersburg it’s a rite of passage.
“They dream about it. It’s just something they want to achieve. It’s a badge of honor,” he tells me.
A young ballerina “goes en pointe” around her 13th birthday, when her feet are deemed ready to handle the pressures of point work. Lydia Martin is first up for a fitting. She’s sitting looking a little nervous in the center of the room. But those nerves are mixed with excitement.
“I’ve been working to get there for a long time,” she says.
All she’s waiting for now is Broadbent to work his magic. Although two of the older girls sitting beside her have a few words of warning. I ask them if pointe shoes are painful.
“Yeah!” They cry in unison. “You get used to it but our feet kind of look gross. Blisters and bunyans and cuts and scrapes and callouses,” they tell me.
That’s because it’s not easy to go up “en pointe.” Standing on the end of your toes for long periods at a time is unnatural and ballerinas are prone to suffering permanent damage to their feet.
This means it is all the more important the shoe fits. And that’s where Phillip Broadbent comes in. He comes over and starts talking to the girls. He gets to know them, he makes them feel comfortable and Broadbent says what is important to understand he isn’t just some traveling shoe salesman.
“I think choosing the right style of shoe and counseling the dancer about how to use that tool is what makes it an art form. What’s that guy in Harry Potter who sells the magic wands?” He asks.
I quickly reply “Ollivanders.”
“Right. I can relate to it,” he says. “I like to feel it’s romantic like that for a dancer.”
It might be romantic but it’s also hard work. As the older dancers practice on their pointes, Lydia works her way through shoes while Broadbent strives to find the perfect fit. Pointe shoes are hard and rigid. They have a nail in the center to hold them together but for girls this age sometimes Phillip Broadbent has to take drastic action.
He snaps the shoe and a cracking noise rings out across the room. But it works. It’s a perfect fit and Lydia walks away happy. She’s that little bit closer to being a fully formed ballerina and Ava Lenhard, one of the older girls, says in the end the pain is worth it.
“I love being en pointe,” she says. “In pointe shoes it feels like I’m flying, it really does.”
Although Philip Broadbent knows this is just the start for these young dancers.
“Going en pointe is an exciting day but it’s the beginning of a long road ahead,” he tells me.
But he says with his help these ballerinas are better prepared to make those first, few, painful steps in a pair of perfectly fitting pointe shoes.