Southport native offers ballerinas a 'more comfortable' pointe shoe
Former ballerina Eliza Gaynor Minden in the 1980s went on a quest to create a more durable ballet pointe shoe to replace traditional footwear made of cardboard, burlap and paste.
After eight years of meticulous research, the Southport native in 1993 designed a new shoe using an elastomeric construction, and the Gaynor Minden Pointe Shoe was born.
"Our shoes are lined with shock-absorbing foam," said Minden,who claims her shoes last five times longer than other brands and help prevent injuries. "We were the first to use impact absorption materials."
Although she never performed professionally Minden began taking dance lessons in Connecticut at 5 years old and occasionally takes ballet in New York City, where she lives with her husband and business partner, John Minden, and daughter, Lucy, 10.
Minden said her company is a reflection of the entrepreneurial spirit instilled in her by her parents, who both owned and operated separate businesses. Her mother Elizabeth Gaynor founded The Connecticut Dance School in Southport, where is still involved as its president and chairman of the board of directors. At the same time, her father Edwin helmed a Stratford-based manufacturing company that made wiring devices for fluorescent lighting.
"Our dinner table conversation was filled with talk about ballet and dancing but there were also many discussions about our family's manufacturing factory," she said.
Knowing first-hand about the negative aspects of toe shoes, her goal was to design a shoe that was "more durable, more comfortable, more protective and quieter," she said.
Minden said she consulted ski-boot makers on foam, sail-makers on thread and materials experts about polymers. She also turned to dance medicine experts about injury prevention and shoemakers about production.
"But mostly I consulted dancers and ballet teachers about technique and aesthetics," she said. "Without them this shoe could not have come into existence."
Minden's sister, Emily, a professional dancer at the time, tried on different prototypes provided input. Designing new shoes with an attractive appearance presented several challenges, such as finding a shock-absorbing foam that was only 1/16th of an inch in thickness.
Fortunately, Minden said she found a Massachusetts-based shoe maker with a background in bridal footwear that was familiar with the delicate satin materials.
Gaynor Minden, which employs 50 workers and has a 300-square-foot showroom in Manhattan at 140 W. 16th St., has grown steadily over the years, said Minden, who declined to reveal the firm's financials.
The company started out with only "a few dozen" dancers wearing Gaynor Minden Pointe Shoes, but they are now used by ballerinas performing in international and national dance companies. The bulk of her business, though, comes from dance wear stores.
Benjamin Millepied, choreographer of the movie "The Black Swan," is featured in The Ballet Companion, a book written by Minden in 2005. Although he isn't photographed wearing pointe shoes, members of the all-male Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo wear Gaynor Minden shoes when they dance.
Despite thousands of recommendations from renowned ballerinas and ballet teachers,some dancers are reluctant to wear them because they believe that the shoes don't make their feet work hard enough.
Australian dancer Dorothy Maricic, who writes under the pen name of Marisa Wright, called Gaynor Minden Pointe shoes "the lazy dancer's shoe" in an online blog. The shoe "does the work for you," said Maricic, who maintains a website called pointeshoesonline.com.
"I was past ballet retirement age when Gaynor Minden started to become popular, so my opinions are based on observation not actually dancing in the shoes," Maricic said in an email. "I feel strongly that dancers should be able to `feel the floor' and articulate their feet. I've come to the conclusion that Minden make it easier to achieve those goals because they need less padding to be comfortable, and dancers can usually wear a softer shank."
Karen Festog, a ballerina from the United Kingdom who has been teaching and choreographing internationally for 30 years, offered a different opinion.
"I have several students who I have recommended the shoe to," she said. "I find them to be sturdy, long lasting, excellent platform balance and superb for a dancer with well developed or hyper extended arches."
Whatever dancers' opinions may be, it's vital that dancers get fitted properly, Minden said.
"When they're correctly fitted, Gaynor Minden shoes can actually make feet stronger and this has been expressed by countless dancers and teachers," she said.
Minden understands, though, that there is "cultural and psychological symbolism" surrounding traditional pointe shoes.
"Some dancers feel that it's a badge of honor and also a badge of suffering," she said. "The pointe shoe is the sacred icon of ballet."
For information on Gaynor Minden Pointe Shoes, call 212-929-0087 or go to www.dancer.com.