Interview with Eliza Minden
(Founder of ’Gaynor Minden’)
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Eliza Minden is the inventor of an innovative American pointe shoe, built with modern materials. The shoe, although widely-used amongst professionals in England and the USA, remains a subject of debate in Continental Europe. Miss Minden has very kindly agreed to be interviewed on this holiday for www.dansomanie.net and "Vestris".
Miss Minden has just written "The Ballet Companion" (Ed. Simon and Schuster), to give young students serious rudiments of art history, along with a discussion of technique and explanations of the differences among the major schools of classical dance, that she feels, students in America know too little of.
(Miss Minden’s replies have been submitted in written form. This version is authorised.)
NB: The Editors of the "Vestris" Site take the occasion to emphasise that this interview is strictly non-business and non-commercial, and was conducted at the Editors’ own request, to clear up doubts raised in the European dance community about the use of synthetic and shock-absorbent materials in a pointe shoe. In no way shape or form should it be construed as an endorsement or advertisement for the Gaynor Minden shoe)
Q/ In these days of outsourcing, your shoes are entirely produced in New Hampshire, in the USA, by a factory that your firm actually saved from closure. Could you tell us about the factory, the changeover in equipment, and how the workers re-tooled to learn pointe shoe manufacture ?
Eliza Minden/ The factory is in a wonderful old building on a river, with huge windows, in what was once the shoe-making capital of the country. We are the only ones left in the state and in most of the region.
We could certainly make the shoes more cheaply in Asia, but we could not respond very quickly to special requests from our professional customers, nor could we deliver as fast as we do. (We often ship within a couple of days).
The factory had been making shoes for brides, so they completely understood satin, fancy stitching, and the need to keep things spotless. Most of their equipment was easily modified to our purposes. The internal parts of our shoes, the molded thermoplastic elasotmerics, are made at a different factory nearby where they have injection molding capability. Our sound and shock absorbing linings are cut with the same equipment that cuts the satin.
Q/ Is your shoe as dependent on the individual maker as the traditional shoe ?
Eliza Minden/ Not at all.
Q/ Do your professional clients each have their own maker, or do you find that you can guarantee consistent, standard quality on a production-line basis ?
Eliza Minden/ In a traditional shoe the maker builds the toe box, usually with layers of burlap and paper, like papier-maché. Our box is machine made, in a choice of five pliabilities and three shapes. It is absolutely consistent and never deforms or deteriorates.
We do not have "makers" as such. The satin is cut in one area, stitched in another; the shoe is assembled, lasted, and the outer sole applied in others. This ensures superb consistency. When professional clients request something that is not part of our regular line, such as sides cut down, vamp changed, wing boxes, extra reinforced soles etc. then these are made separately, but still the cutters cut, the stitchers stitch, the laster lasts, etc.
All our shoes are already available with a choice of box, shank, vamp, and heel as well as length and width. Even the non-professional can specify all these variables, with no need for a special order.
Q/ Do you find that many professionals, like Alina Cojocaru, need a custom-designed shoe ?
Eliza Minden/ Most manage without, but now that they know how accommodating we are they are beginning to ask more often.
Q/ You have introduced an concept to classical dance footwear that seems obvious, but of course never has been - viz, orthopaedics ! This was just over a decade ago.
Eliza Minden/ We have to be careful with the word "orthopedic" because it can suggest a remedial insole. What Gaynor Minden did was successfully use durable synthetics for the shank and box, and to that add impact and noise absorbing linings.
Q/ What are the main changes you have made to the shoe since 1993 ?
Eliza Minden/ Three additional options for shank stiffness, all more pliable than the original two.
Another, larger box.
A "Sleekfit" heel for dancers with wide metatarsals and narrow heels.
Options for reinforced shanks, wing boxes, suede platforms.
Q/ Do you find that you are making headway in the debate over orthopaedic considerations ? David Howard, I believe, is a great supporter of your shoe.
Eliza Minden/ David has always believed in the shoe, and he in now joined by other leading teachers.
My customers are the most eloquent argument for the Gaynor Minden. Over 20% of the women at ABT now wear them including Gillian Murphy, Veronika Part, Erica Cornejo, Maria Riccetto, Zhong-Jing Fang, and many other, up and coming, dancers.
At the Royal Ballet, Miss Cojocaru is joined by Zenaida Yanowsky, several First Artists and corps members, possibly another Principal (she’s wearing them in rehearsals now) and starting next year Alexandra Ansanelli who was a Principal at New York City Ballet.
And we have customers at other important European and American companies. The success of these dancers has gone a long way to ending any debate or controversy.
Q/ The shoe is not well known in France. Why ? Are you thinking of holding demonstrations here ?
Eliza Minden/ We have made good progress outside Paris, but have had a hard time finding a distributor there. It seems the revolution may have to start in the countryside and move into the capital rather than the other way around.
Q/ One of the complaints voiced about the shoe is the aesthetics, and in fact, Mlle. Cojocaru’s custom-made shoe, with the very broad platform, caused more than a little controversy when she appeared at the Paris Opera as Giselle in January 2004.
Would you mind commenting on that ?
Eliza Minden/ It would be inappropriate for me to go into too much detail because there are medical issues involved. Miss Cojocaru tried our shoes at the urging of her physiotherapists. At that time she was having such problems with her feet that she could not dance. I blame ill-fitting Russian-made shoes for nearly ending her career. Her foot is such that she needs the wide box. If she were to again force that foot into a tapered pointe we would not have the pleasure of her dancing for very long.
Q/ Another complaint that has been voiced is that the shoe does not breathe. Is that correct ? If so, do you plan changes to the materials, perhaps introducing a "Geox" type micro-perforated sole ?
Eliza Minden/ I think that complaint comes mainly from teachers who are resistant to the use of synthetics. People who actually wear the shoes all day long don’t seem to mind. I must also point out that when dancers use shellac or floor polish to prolong the life of their traditional paste shoes they are actually plasticizing them and removing their breathability.
Q/ Would you mind explaining other grievances that have been raised, and how you are dealing with them in research and development ?
Eliza Minden/ The additions mentioned above were all responses to requests from dancers and teachers. It is more difficult to sew ribbons through our special lining so we are developing a new, lighter one.
Since many grievances are the result of misunderstanding our shoes-fitting them wrong or selecting a shank that it too hard with the expectation that it will break in the way traditional shanks do-we are dealing with the problem with information: using our website , catalog, and other promotional materials to help dancers and teachers understand in what ways these shoes are different.
Q/ Could you say something about the most recent scientific studies carried out on the shoe, from an orthopaedic and alignment point of view ?
Eliza Minden For that I will direct you to our website www.dancer.com. Briefly, there have been three important studies: one for durability, one for alignment, one for impact absorption and stability. Gaynor Minden proved superior to traditional paste shoes in all.
Q/ What about your shoe, and jump quality ? Is the shoe suited, for example, to Bournonville, where the woman jumps as much as the man ?
Eliza Minden/ Dancers tell me that it is a superb jumping shoe. One reason is that the impact absorbing material just under the tip, where pleats would be in paste shoe, reduces shock and noise. That frees them to jump as vigorously as they can. Also, they can select one of our more pliable shanks for roles that require lots of jumping and less adagio work.
Q/ And how does the shoe deal with the - admittedly few - roles where in a single Act, one has both challenging pointe work, and a great deal of jumping, for example, the Fishergirl’s variation in Pierre Lacotte’s The Pharaoh’s Daughter ?
Eliza Minden/ Then the dancer has to choose. It’s still probably better than having a shoe that wears out during the course of the act.
Q/ Your shoe is now being worn in Russia, both at the Bolshoi and Maryinskii I believe. How has it been received over there ? Do you find a willingness to discuss orthopaedic issues ?
Eliza Minden/ This is news-wonderful news-to me. In the past they have simply not had the money to buy any shoes other than the ones made at their theaters.
Q/ What are the main adjustment difficulties you find with professionals who, after some years of career, switch to your shoe ?
Eliza Minden/ I don’t know exactly; they haven’t told me. Our conversations are more about fine-tuning the fit.
Q/ What is, so to speak, the next step for Gaynor Minden ? You are, I believe, involved in a number of charitable activities to support dancers in low-income areas abroad ?
Eliza Minden/ Yes, we continue to do that. We are expanding our line of clothing: leotards, tights, warm ups and developing new products all the time. We are working on introducing our shoes to more countries outside the U.S. and that has been going very well. I was quite distracted for two years while writing my book, so I’m glad to be back, as it were.