Eliza Gaynor Minden is the president and head designer of Gaynor Minden, Inc, the premier dancewear company, whose signature shoes are worn by leading dancers at major ballet companies throughout the world. She is a former dance company manager; a writer and lecturer on ballet history; and an ardent, lifelong student of ballet. She is the author of the book, The Ballet Companion, and lives in New York City.
Q. You come from a ballet family?
My mother started a ballet school and I have a sister who danced professionally. I studied ballet throughout my childhood and teens, including summers at Jacob’s Pillow, but decided to go to college and ballet became a joyful hobby. I was an ardent amateur. After college, I worked in Arts Administration. One of the things I did was work in the management of dance companies.
Q. What companies did you work for?
Start-up ballet companies in Connecticut and New York, a modern company—Jennifer Muller. I also did a stint with an opera festival in Ireland.
Q. How did you segue from managing ballet companies into becoming a ballet shoe designer and manufacturer?
I had always been annoyed that pointe shoes were so painful and once I began to appreciate the economics of the ballet world I became even more annoyed that buying shoes is so expensive. It had always been in the back of my mind that pointe shoes should be more comfortable and should last longer. Then, I began to learn more about ballet injuries and I became aware that female ballet dancers have foot and ankle injuries that male dancers don’t have, and ballet dancers have injuries that modern dancers don’t have. I thought clearly this is related to pointe work and couldn’t something be done to make the shoes more helpful or, at least, less injurious. With those ideas in mind, I decided I should try to improve the pointe shoe and I started to research and explore by cutting open every pointe shoe I could get my hands on. I literally cut them the long way down the middle. I used my brother’s band saw and he got mad at me because I dulled the blade. But what I found on the inside made me resolve to try and do better because the construction materials in ballet shoes hasn’t changed since the turn of the last century. They are still cardboard, leather, burlap, paste, paper, glue, and little nails. These were the best materials that were available in 1905 but pointe shoe design had not kept up with the developments of the twentieth century. That’s the problem with them. They’re painful and noisy and non-durable and don’t protect the foot. But having grown up enjoying the benefits of technology when it comes to gear and clothing for sports, I thought well, surely better materials could be applied to pointe shoes. And that was the beginning of an eight year journey of researching and developing a pointe shoe using modern materials.
Q. Did you hire people to do the actual research and developing?
No. I did it all myself. And this was before the internet. That’s why it took eight years. I had an advantage in that the family business which is run by my father is a manufacturing company. Since childhood, I’ve been familiar with how you physically make a product. I could visualize, well, OK, this is a molded piece and the molding machine looks like this, and if you assemble that piece, it looks like that. My grandfather and father are inventors and have patents, so it was normal for me to think that I could have an idea and create a prototype and produce it. That wasn’t psychologically daunting. I had grown up with positive examples of how you do that. Doing the actual research and development was very difficult because I had to literally make one shoe at a time. I tried it first on my own foot and then on my sister’s foot and then if we both liked it, I would take it around to dancers in New York and try to persuade them to stick their feet into what at the time was kind of a crazy looking thing. At the time, I wasn’t using beautiful pink satin on the outside. I was using whatever I could get my hands on. But that one at a time trial and error process eventually resulted in prototypes that worked and I began to make pairs of shoes and have more and more dancers test them and that was how we got to the original Gaynor Minden.
Q. Was there a great deal of resistance to your toe shoe because of the traditional nature of ballet?
You’re right in that there is a great deal of tradition to ballet. But on the other hand the history of ballet is really a history of one little skirmish after another in which an innovation is introduced, resisted, but eventually incorporated. Ballet started with performers wearing masks and moving in a very unnatural way. In the eighteenth century, they got rid of the masks and began moving more naturally and to use more natural gestures. Another change was when women shortened their skirts so they could do entrechats and some other beats. Another time, they took the heels off their shoes. Another performer let her hair down and did not wear a corset and that was completely shocking. There’s always been these innovations and there’s always been purists who’ve said, this is the end of ballet for good. But ultimately the innovation triumphs and ballet absorbs it and is improved by it. So to answer your question—there certainly has been some resistance in some places but fortunately not everywhere otherwise we wouldn’t be doing as well as we are. I think today’s dancers, the younger ones, embrace technology and feel that technology is rightfully theirs. They’re on computers, and cell phones. Technology is not frightening to them. They own it. I find that generally younger dancers are quite receptive.
Q. What were some of your first breakthroughs?
Although we do have many professional dancers who have what I call “a late life conversion,” more often it’s students who discover Gaynor Minden and stick with them when they join ballet companies. But I guess we would have to say our big break through came when Gillian Murphy joined ABT. She started using Gaynor Mindens as a student at North Carolina School of the Arts. As you probably know, she rocketed to the top of ABT. She’s been very successful, and for a while, she was the only dancer at ABT who wore Gaynor Minden. But her example got others to try it and now there are quite a few who wear Gaynor Minden and we see that pattern often. If there are a couple of influential dancers at a company, before we know it, a lot of dancers are wearing our shoes.
Q. Most ballet shoes for companies are made in England and each dancer has a particular cobbler who makes her shoes to her specifications. Does Gaynor Minden do the same thing?
Yes and no. If a dancer wears Freed which is the English brand, the shoe is made from beginning to end by a single maker—that’s what they call them—and he stamps his identifying mark on the sole of the shoe. Our shoes are partly handmade and partly not. Having the shoes partly machine made makes them extremely consistent. The inside parts of the shoe—the parts that provide the support—are made in an injection molding machine—so that’s a molded piece and the material it’s made of is thermoplastic-elastomeric and that’s a beautiful material. You can bend it hundreds of thousands of times and it never weakens. It never fatigues and yet it has a memory so when you flex it, it pops back into its original shape. It works really well for the shank and for the toe box. The lining of the Gaynor Minden is cellular urethane foam which is the same material that is used in the best quality athletic shoes. It has to be really good because in some places I only have a sixteenth, or an eighth of an inch of thickness. You can’t pad up a pointe shoe the way you can a running shoe. You have to find materials that are going to be effective, even if they’re very thin. But they exist. I didn’t have to invent those. So those inside parts of the shoe are unique to Gaynor Minden. They’re different. But the outside—because it’s ballet and it’s traditional—of course, it’s that peachy pink color satin and we cut it and stitch it and that is done by hand. For our professional customers or for anyone who asks—even though there are many, many options within our stock size for finding the right size and style—we also do special orders and custom work.
Q. When the ballet shoes are being worn for a performance, do you match the colors to the costumes?
That is the job of the costume department of the ballet company. Because the colors that pointe shoes get dyed for costumes are so specific and they have to look right under the particular lighting design that the lighting designers come up with, the company costume designers do that in house.
Q. In the movie, Center Stage, there’s that well-known scene where the dancers are banging and ripping their pointe shoes to break them in. Is that something you don’t have to do with Gaynor Minden shoes?
Exactly. Now the dancers have the time to do something else. As Maria Riccetto at ABT says, “Just sew and go.” The shoes don’t need to be broken in. Dancers still have to sew their own ribbons on because that’s a very personal thing. Every dancer knows exactly where she wants her ribbons and at exactly what angle so even though we could pre-sew them, we would never presume to do that.
Q. When is a girl ready for her first pair of toe shoes and what should she look for?
A good teacher is going to know when her students are ready for pointe, and there certainly are criteria that are pretty much universally accepted by teachers. Generally, the student should have enough technique to be able to perform certain steps without the support of the barre and do them many times in a row. The teacher must assess the dancer’s strength and her placement and her technique. A student also needs to be very serious and disciplined and responsible and committed to her ballet studies and she needs to be taking class several times a week. So there’s a number of ways that you gauge readiness for pointe. There’s not a magic, OK. You’re ten years old. You can go now. But usually, somewhere between the age of ten and twelve, the serious student will be ready.
Q. Do the students at a serious ballet school have free choice in what pointe shoes they select for themselves?
I think that every foot is different and students have different needs and there’s no one shoe that is going to be suitable for every student. So, I would hope that teachers would be open-minded and allow students to find the shoe that is best for them, their particular foot, their particular level of strength and technique.
Q. Do you have a sales force that markets to teachers?
We advertise in the obvious magazines. We maintain a website (www.dancer.com) that is not just a sales pitch. It’s got real content. It’s got information about technique, about ballet history, about health and nutrition. There are sections where you can ask questions of dancers and teachers and medical people. We try to make it a real resource for dancers as well as a place where they can buy stuff.
Q. In the world of sports getting top athletes to wear a particular shoe is a major source of rivalry among manufacturers. Is there a similar rivalry in the world of ballet shoes?
When we first started out our advertisements were very direct and very much took the common sense approach, “Hey, our shoes are going to last a lot longer. They’ll save you money. They’re more comfortable and they’re quieter and by the way our durability claims are verified by independent scientific studies in which our shoes went through amazing trials and did gloriously well. But when we talked about practical issues like durability and quietness and preventing injuries, it was sort of ho-hum. Who cares? And I realized that dancers don’t buy their own shoes. Their parents do or their companies buy them, so the economic argument was not that persuasive. As far as the comfort argument goes, well, dancers often feel that, well, this is a tough discipline and a little pain is expected. Some dancers often feel that it ought to hurt. I think ballet is difficult enough without added pain but maybe that’s just me. So, our practical approach was not getting us very far. Then, we decided, what if we start showing some beautiful dancers who can do beautiful things in these shoes. Maybe that will be more persuasive and we started out with Gillian Murphy and we now have expanded our roster of Gaynor Mindem artists to include a dozens of dancers. You can find them on our website. And I think that’s begun to get the word out. Actually, it’s succeeded too well: people began to say the shoes are good for professionals but they aren’t as good a student shoe. And I thought, Oh, no, they’re an excellent student shoe. So, now we’re adding a number of highly respected teachers to the site who’ve seen very good results with Gaynor Minden shoes.
Q. Do you have other product lines?
Tights, leotards, warm up clothing. Accessories. Things that go in the shoes. Instructional training aids. It’s all focused on dance. Whenever possible I try to find the best materials whether it’s high-tech or traditional. When we first put out our shoe, for example, we had a urethane sole that I thought was going to be very high tech and terrific but on a Marley floor it squeaked a lot so we had to go to a suede sole. Sometimes, the traditional materials are better. As far as I’m concerned, it’s whatever materials work best. Our garments are made of the best materials possible for their application.
Q. You also wrote a book. It wasn’t enough to be a businesswoman. What inspired you to write a book?
I was sitting at my desk minding my own business when the phone rang and it was this lovely woman named Lisa DiMona who is a book developer and a ballet mom. She had gone to her local bookstore to find a book for her dancing daughter and was surprised and dismayed that she couldn’t find anything fresh and inspiring and visually appealing. She asked me if I would be interested in doing a book. I love to write—I was an English major in college—and I remembered that when I was a student I’d had a lot of questions that were never satisfactorily answered. So, I said, let’s give it a shot and as luck would have it our proposal ended up on the desk of an editor at Simon and Schuster named Doris Cooper who loves ballet and who had done The New York City Ballet Workout Book. She said, “Yes, I’ll buy this book,” so that was the beginning. It’s the book I would’ve liked to have had when I was a student. I love ballet history and I loved writing about that and choosing the photographs to illustrate the book. It was a labor of love.
Q. What are your new plans? Any fun projects coming up?
We are continuing to do what we’ve been doing. We have some new products coming out I can’t talk about yet but which we’re excited about. We’ve been growing enormously overseas—in Europe and in the former Soviet Union and in Latin America—our international sales people are really busy these days. We continue to do well in the United States and we try to make sure that our website is a place that attracts dancers and that also has a lot of information.
Because Gaynor Mindens are made from modern materials they last a lot longer but they also have to be fitted a little differently. Because they don’t stretch out and break down in the same way that traditional shoes do, they can’t be fitted with the expectation of that happening. It’s really important that our shoes be fitted precisely. We have an educational mission to ensure that dancers and dance teachers all know that you have to fit our shoes the right way and that no, they’re not going to soften up and break down so be sure that you don’t get a shoe that’s too hard.
Q. You’re husband is also involved in the business?
We are partners. We started Gaynor Minden together. His background is in advertising and marketing and about the time I had the shoe ready to go on the market, he decided he was ready for a change and he wanted to have his own business with a real product and so we teamed up. We’ve been running our mom and pop shop ever since. Our division of labor is really quite tidy. Because of my ballet background, I’m better suited to talking to dancers and teachers about matters pertaining to ballet and to technique and the shoes and their fitting and John is better at handling the business side of things, dealing with the stores and distributors that carry our products, making sure the computers are doing what they’re supposed to do, and overseeing the production.
Q. Anything else you would like to add?
I’ve noticed on internet chatboards that Gaynor Mindens have been called “cheater shoes” and I’d like to comment on that. Dancers have to pull up out of their pointe shoes at all times. Any pointe shoe that is too stiff can, as they say, “do the work for you”. If a traditional pointe is too stiff it’s less of a problem because sooner or later it’s going to soften up and break down. A Gaynor Minden won’t. So in selling Gaynor Minden we’ve had to persuade dancers to accept what is kind of a radical idea, that a new pointe shoe should feel as if it is already perfectly broken in. We have not always been 100% successful and some dancers have ended up with overly stiff Gaynor Mindens. When they buy from the discount catalogs or from stores where the fitters are not so knowledgeable, it’s even more likely to happen. We’ve recently put a lot more fitting information on our website and are encouraging dancers to contact our fitters here for guidance. (800 637 9240) All our “telephonistas” are dancers and trained GM fitters.
That being said, Gaynor Mindens do confer an advantage in balancing.
I’m going to choose my words very carefully here. I can’t make any safety claims. because of the litigious nature of the world we live in, but I can say we were approached some years ago by a medical researcher. She was an ex-dancer interested in the biomechanics of ballet and she was doing a study of alignment with a bunch of dancers who were professional or very advanced student level dancers. She studied one group in Gaynor Minden and one group in traditional shoes—and you can get the whole paper on our website—but what she found was that dancers are better aligned in Gaynor Mindens, and when I say aligned, I mean the relationship of how the joints stack up vertically—the ball of the toe, the ankle, the knee, the hip, the shoulder. That’s what we mean by alignment. Misalignment is potentially a very dangerous thing for ballet dancers because when they go from the flat position onto pointe in a step called releve, there’s a lot of force. A lot of momentum. And it can put strain on the ankle that is multiplied by a factor of ten, so if the dancer arrives on the pointe position even a little out of alignment, it stresses that ankle a lot. And, of course, dancers do releves over and over again, so it’s very important they be correctly aligned. Ankle injuries, the last time I checked, were the number one injury of ballet dancers, so if a shoe can keep the dancer in good alignment it will be helpful. Gaynor Mindens were shown to hold dancers in better alignment. Another study showed that Gaynor Mindens do indeed absorb impact and I wasn’t surprised because I put all that shock absorbing material in the shoes. Also, the usable platform area in Gaynor Mindens is greater. So even though Gaynor Mindens do not look different from or bigger than a traditional shoe, they are actually more efficient and give the dancer a bigger base to stand on which makes it easier to balance.
And by the way, I’ve heard many times, from teachers, ballet mistresses, and dancers themselves, that when a Gaynor Minden is of the appropriate stiffness it can actually cause an improvement in the musculature of the leg. The muscles become less bulky and more elongated, which suggests they are working correctly.
Q. Is it a big thrill to go to a performance and see dancers wearing Gaynor Mindens?
It is total job satisfaction. I was just in Washington where the Kirov was performing last week and the two principal dancers in La Bayadère were wearing Gaynor Minden and so were the soloists and I would guess about half the corps de ballet. But it’s always a thrill to see a dancer doing something great whether she’s wearing Gaynor Mindens or not. However, if she’s wearing Gaynor Mindens it’s particularly wonderful.
We can send men to the moon and yet ballet dancers who are the greatest athletes on earth are expected to perform athletic miracles in shoes that last only one performance and do not protect the feet. Instead of being an ally, their shoes are often in an adversarial relationship with them and that really bugs me. Every other acknowledged athlete has state of the art gear. Can you imagine a football player wearing shoes that were worn in 1910. It would be unheard of. Dancers are artists first—we don’t want to see ballet reduced to how high you can jump and how many turns you can turn—but that doesn’t mean that we must not acknowledge the athleticism. With dancers their bodies are their instruments and we would not treat a Stradivarius the way dancers are expected to treat their bodies.