Up Close and Personal with Eliza Gaynor Minden

Eliza Gaynor Minden

Eliza Gaynor Minden

On August 23, 2014, in accordance with Ballet in Cleveland’s presentation of Gaynor Minden Artist Julia Erickson, Gaynor Minden will prsent a special program: Scandals, Skirmishes, and Innovations: Seven Shocking Ideas that Appalled the Audience and Changed Ballet Forever. Ballet in Cleveland looks forward to hosting this program even more after an insightful interview with Gaynor Minden founder, Eliza. 

Ballet in Cleveland intern Haley McElwee interviewed Minden via phone last week.

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Gaynor Minden pointe shoes are on the feet of some of the world’s most extraordinary dancers at over 200 major professional companies. They are recommended for students by indisputably great teachers and are the only pointe shoes made from modern materials so they can last 3 to 5 times longer. They were designed for the highest and most daring level of artistic achievement.

HM: Did you suffer any injuries as a dancer to which you believe “bad” pointe shoes contributed?

EGM: Sore toes. Never an injury that sent me to the doctor – but sore toes and frustration – absolutely.

HM: After the trials upon trials of your new pointe shoe design – and then finally choosing your Gaynor Minden design, how difficult was it to market and sell your product?

In some cases, it was really straightforward and easy. There was a good reception. In others, it was quite difficult and we met with resistance. This has been a really interesting part of the whole Gaynor Minden story. There were early adopters right away, which was wonderful. For example Gillian Murphy started using Gaynor Minden when she was fifteen and rose through the ranks of American Ballet Theatre (ABT) very quickly. On the other hand there were and still are some traditionalists who resist modernizing the pointe shoe. When we first started, our marketing was very straightforward. We just talked about what made the shoes different and better – they last longer, they’re more comfortable and they’re quieter. I designed them to be as protective as I possibly could. Of course no pointe shoe maker can make any claims for safety but the shoes were deigned to be better in any way they could be. Seeing dancers use Gaynor Mindens successfully was what made other dancers want to use them, So really the success of our marketing has been about our Gaynor Minden artists – and Julia Erickson is one – who are living proof of how the shoes work. All of our Gaynor Minden artists use our shoes exclusively. Because the selection of a pointe shoe is so personal – there’s no way a dancer could wear a shoe she didn’t genuinely believe works for her.

Gaynor Minden Pointe Shoes

Gaynor Minden Pointe Shoes

HM: In the early years of your developing business, did you face any scrutiny? If so, how did you confront it?

EGM: In the early years I was kind of beneath the radar. Although I did enlist many dancers, dance teachers and physical therapists to advise me and to try my prototypes – the ones who were willing to help me were intrigued by my idea. The scrutiny, resistance, or controversy didn’t come until we introduced the shoe and it began to be used. Because ballet is very traditional, there can be a certain resistance to change or a suspicion to things that are new – so we were up against this resistance by some people “right off the bat.” Then there is the legitimate difference in materials. Instead of making the supportive component made out of leather, cardboard, paper, burlap, paste, and glue and nails – basically the 19th century materials – our Gaynor Minden supportive materials (the shank and toe box) are made from a molded elastomeric material. This material is very flexible, very durable, and can be flexed (bent) hundreds of thousands of times and doesn’t weaken or deform. Something that people may not know is that we can make our shoes in a range of stiffness models. Gaynor Mindens are available in very hard models for those dancers that really need that – not everybody does – and very pliable models. Different materials do behave differently so for our tens of thousands of dancers wearing Gaynor Mindens, the adjustment process varies. For some it’s a matter of a few days, for some – a couple weeks, and maybe for others a matter of months getting really comfortable in the shoes – but the time is worth the benefits of the shoes. Another aspect of the controversy is that Gaynor Mindens have been called “cheater shoes.” By “cheater shoes,” what is meant – I believe – is that the shoes are said to “do the work for you.” Any pointe shoe that is too stiff will do that but a traditional one will soften before this becomes a problem – whereas Gaynor Mindens do not soften or break down. This is why it is absolutely essential that dancers be fitted correctly in a shank of the appropriate stiffness.

Gaynor Minden Artist Julia Erickson

HM: When fitted correctly Gaynor Mindens have even portrayed positive effects on musculature and alignment, right?

EGM: There have been, as far as I know, 3 medical studies – done by independent medical researchers. We did not pay for these studies but they approached us and asked for shoes. In one of these studies (The Alignment Study) performed at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, it was found that dancers tended to be better aligned in Gaynor Mindens. This doesn’t surprise me because the toe box does not deform, whereas a paste shoe deforms a little bit – meaning you won’t be dropping into the shoe straight – putting more stress on the ankle. I have to be careful not to make any safety claims but the study showed that dancers were better aligned in Gaynor Mindens, which has important implications concerning injury prevention. Dancers also say that in our shoes they are more “up on their legs” and I’ve heard numerous dancers and teachers observe that the leg muscles can change and get a little more elongated having worked in Gaynor Mindens. I think this would be because the shoe is not breaking down – going soft on you – so that you don’t need to clench your muscles.

HM: Your book, The Ballet Companion, which covers technique, training, and artistry is said to be a classic read for young dancers. What do you think is the importance of young dancers learning this information?

EGM: If you’re going to study an art, you need to know about it. Why study the history? Well for example, “The Dying Swan,” and “Swan Lake,” are both ballets involving ballerinas in white tutus being swans and they were choreographed fairly close to each other in history – but they couldn’t be more different in terms of style. It’s important for dancers to who are going to dance these roles to know the difference between Petipa’s Classicism and Fokine’s Expressionism. If they’re going to dance Bourneville, it’s important to know the port de bra and how it’s different than the Russian port de bra. This is even more important these days when everybody is dancing everywhere. It used to be that there was a lot more isolation and companies had very distinct styles. Now it’s all mixed up and very diluted and the individuality of company styles is less and less apparent. Also, ballet history is just fun! So why not study it and learn about it? As a woman, I find that ballet history has a wonderful feminist trajectory. It’s almost all about women standing up to some kind of authority. “No I’m not going to wear a skirt that is six feet wide, or a mask or shoes with a tiny heel because I want to do beats. Yes I will be more expressive and yes I will incorporate more drama into my acting – that’s what I want to do.” The women were really pioneers of the art form and I think that’s a really empowering thing for younger women to learn about.

The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden

The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden

HM: Your site, dancer.com not only sells your products but also markets useful and free information and resources for dancers. What was your purpose in creating your site this way instead of the typical “shopping cart website?”

EGM: Partly as a service to the dance community. Also though, we hope that this useful information will bring people back to us. It’s enlightened self-interest.

HM: Your shoes are being used by professionals like Gillian Murphy of ABT, Alina Cojocaru of the English National Ballet, and Deanna Seay of Miami City Ballet. How far does your business span internationally?

EGM: Our shoes are used by principal dancers of the Bolshoi Ballet like Svetlana Zakharova and Evgenia Obraztsova, the Mariinsky Ballet like Yekaterina Kondaurova and Alina Somova. We feel very fortunate because our shoes have been extremely well received in Russia. We also have principal dancers at Boston Ballet, Houston Ballet, and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. As far as internationally, we also sell to Paris Opera, Dutch National, and many others. Our shoes can be found in 86 countries according to our last count.

HM: Your shoes are unique in that they don’t soften with use. Because of this, caution must be taken to find a shoe with the right strength. How would you suggest a dancer choose the right strength?

EGM: First of all, try to be fitted in person by an experienced fitter. Go to a store with a big enough stock to where you can try out a few different options. If you suspect that none of the shoes you are trying on are right, ask the store to order another for you and if they won’t – contact us. It is very important that you find the right shank and then maybe you need to adjust the vamp or the toe box and if it’s possible to try out your demi-pointe, you should do that. Here at our boutique in NYC we have shoes with various stiffness and the ribbons already sewn on so that dancers can do just that.

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HM: Your shoe is also unique in that it is partly machine made-as opposed to fully hand-made, what would you deem some of the benefits of this difference?

EGM: What’s made by machine is perfectly consistent which helps us maintain excellent quality. Many professionals who wear Gaynor Mindens cite that they really appreciate knowing that every Gaynor Minden is going to be like the one before – there won’t be any surprises. The stitching, which is done by hand, must be done by human hands and looked at by human eyes and the people we use for this are really good. The shoes are made in America, in Massachusetts, and the people who do our stitching and our elastic along with all of the handmade work are just excellent. 

At the Gaynor Minden Boutique

At the Gaynor Minden Boutique

HM: What would your typical fitting process look like?

EGM: One of our trained fitters measures the foot, checks the compression of the metatarsals and analyzes the shape of arch to determine the toe box and the vamp. Of course the fitter also asks questions about the dancer’s history with pointe, likes and dislikes concerning shoes and then begins trying shoes. Sometimes I will walk out to where a fitting is taking places and see ten bags of pointe shoes laying out – it’s a lot of trial and error. And then once we get that all sorted out, dancers are able to ask us for additional customization – which most professionals take advantage of. We can cut down the sides, we can manipulate the vamp and cut the heel as well as customize the inside of the shoe with the foam and gel cushions and liners that we make.

HM: Any new products or services from Gaynor Minden we should keep an eye out for?

EGM: We have some exciting new leotards coming along as well as some new technique slippers.

Gaynor Minden Leotard

Gaynor Minden Leotard

HM: Your business conducts educational programming like the programming that will be taking place at Ballet in Cleveland’s upcoming Master Classes. What does this entail?

EGM: It varies according to venue. This week – as a matter of fact – we are launching a website devoted to dance writing and criticism called “The Barre Flies.” The very first edition on this website will be about a very important revival that’s happening at ABT this week which is Frederick Ashton’s “Cinderella.” Other educational programs we’ve run include an “Eat Right Campaign,” to raise awareness of disordered eating and the importance of good nutrition. More information on this can be found on our website. One of the most popular events is the one that you will be hosting in Cleveland called, ”Scandals, Skirmishes, and Innovations,” which is a look at ballet history – focusing on particular events that were controversial to the point where it caused a scandal. These scandals were what changed and evolved the art step by step – so the event isn’t just a textbook history lesson. It’s focused more on these particular events and I believe its more interesting presented this way. Often from there we discuss the history of pointe shoes and/or perform fittings – depending on how the venue wants the program to run.

            Register today for Master Classes with Julia Erickson and Gaynor Minden on August 23, 2014!

Register here: http://www.balletincleveland.org/juliaandaaron/index.php

Julia's company, Real Food Barre, will be on-hand at this event!

Julia’s company, Real Food Barre, will be on-hand at this event!

Watch a video of Gaynor Minden Artist Julia Erickson here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRAqsxLKAdA

Julia Erickson- Dancers Speak with Gaynor Minden

Julia Erickson- Dancers Speak with Gaynor Minden

Written by Haley McElwee, a senior at Indiana University studying contemporary dance, kinesiology, and journalism.

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