Ballet Myth Busters
Episode 5: Tools of the Trade
One of the things that makes ballet as an art form so beautiful is the collaboration between dancers and musicians. In this episode of Ballet Myth Busters, we’re taking a look at the tools both dancers and orchestra musicians use to make magic each season in the War Memorial Opera House.
MYTH: The tools of the trade for both dancers and musicians are all uniform.
FALSE. Many dancers customize their pointe shoes. It all depends on what a dancer needs in a shoe. Some find the right combination of fit, support, and suppleness in a shoe straight from the manufacturer. Some special order their shoes from a specific maker. And some tweak their shoes once they get them to make them perfect. They might break the shank (the sole of the shoe that runs from toe to heel) or soften the box (the area around the toes that provides the dancer with the stability to be on pointe). They might darn around the platform—the part of the shoe that the dancer balances on while on pointe—to help with stability or to make the shoe last longer. Or they might rough up the bottom of the shoe to provide more traction.
A dancer might also prepare their shoes differently depending on the ballet they are performing. If a role or ballet is particularly demanding (like Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty), a dancer might use a brand-new pair of shoes for each performance—or each act!
Like dancers with their shoes, orchestra musicians customize their instruments to bring out the best qualities in their playing. Each musician chooses the instrument, mouthpiece, bow, strings, or mallets that works for them. For example, woodwind players who use reeds (made out of a single or double strip of bamboo) must find a strength of reed that suits the shape of their mouth and their playing style. Just like the suppleness of a pointe shoe, the flexibility of different reed strengths allows players to find what complements their playing the best.
Some musicians use reeds straight out of a box, but others—particularly double-reed instrumentalists such as oboe, English Horn, and bassoon players—must make their own reeds. And, like dancers, reed players typically have multiple reeds on hand, in case they need to switch during a performance.
MYTH: The tools that dancers and musicians use are totally different.
FALSE. Did you know that the rosin that dancers put on their shoes is the same as the resin string players use on their bows? Both use it to create friction—between the shoe and the floor in the case of dancers, and between the bow and the string in the case of musicians. It is this friction of the bow across the strings that creates their sound. Resin helps the bow grip the strings.
While it’s the same product, dancers and musicians use rosin in different forms. Dancers crush up rosin into powder or a salt-like consistency, making it easier to put on their shoes. Musicians use rosin in its solid form, rubbing it along the fibers of their bows. And while rosin is optional for dancers—especially if they are dancing on a floor surface that doesn’t need it—it’s essential for string players. Typically, a string player should put rosin on their bow every three to five hours of playing time. During the height of our season, our artists get through a lot of rosin!
Header Image: Backstage – Still Life // © Erik Tomasson