Just after finishing my biography of Alicia Markova, I came across a photography exhibit on ballet at the Foley Gallery in New York’s Chelsea art district. Swiss-born photographer Henry Leutwyler had been given unprecedented access to the backstage goings on at The New York City Ballet, capturing, as a New York Magazine review stated, “uncommonly raw backstage images.” The amazing photos are now out in book form, appropriately titled simply “Ballet.”
The image that I couldn’t get out of my mind (seen at left) graphically illustrates the wear and tear a ballerina’s foot is subjected to in the process of creating seemingly effortless steps on stage.
That photo, and several others like it, made me even more in awe of the ballerina I had been researching for the past four years. Despite a dancing career that spanned five decades, not to mention grueling daily performance schedules unheard of today, Alicia Markova always prided herself in having milky white, unblemished feet.
Vogue fashion photographer John Rawlings immortalized one of those feet in an editorial spread for the magazine. In addition to the spectacular shot of Markova in a dramatically draped de la mode gown (seen below), Rawlings had the idea to show off a rather pricey bracelet and pin by using Markova’s flawless foot and graceful leg as if a natural wonder growing outdoors. (Photo at right.)
Someone else who was completely taken with Markova’s feet was a local masseuse she visited while on a lengthy tour of Johannesburg, South Africa. Following a session of therapeutic muscle treatment, he asked to make a plaster cast of her foot in lieu of payment. It was the most beautiful he had ever seen, she was told.
Shoemaker to the stars Salvatore Ferragamo agreed. He once announced to the national media that the impossibly chic Alicia Markova had the “most perfect feet in the world.” Admittedly, he said that about more than one celebrity client, including the Duchess of Windsor and Marlene Dietrich. But Ferragamo added that Markova’s feet were “strong and lovely and startling,” as hers certainly took the most physical abuse and remained unmarred.
American dancer/choreographer and writer Agnes de Mille was a student at the London ballet company where Markova was the reigning star. From the first time she saw Markova rehearse, de Mille was dumbfounded at her fragile appearance and astounding technique, not to mention her preparation for the stage, including care of her feet. De Mille wrote the following in her book Portrait Gallery (1990):
“She is utterly feminine but as incorporeal as a dryad. Her slenderness, her lack of unneeded flesh, is a rebuke to everything gross in the world. The tights are held taught by elastics and tapes that wrap around her 21-inch waist. Her toes are swatched very exactly in lamb’s wool to prevent shoe friction, and the priceless little mummies are then inserted in the flawlessly clean satin boxes which are glued to her heel (Pavlolva used spit in the heel of her shoe – this is an old tradition; Alicia uses LaPage’s glue – it is stronger) and the ribbons sewn. She has to be cut out of her shoes.”
It was a good thing Markova took great care of her size 4 ½ feet. They were so tiny and seemingly frail, insurance companies refused her coverage. And her big toe was almost twice as long as the others, also perceived as problematic. When Alicia Markova stood en pointe, she was literally supported by a single toe.
During World War II, Markova was performing in the United States and greatly admired all the women factory workers supporting the war effort while their boyfriends and husbands fought overseas. She offered them the following advice in many newspaper and magazine interviews: “hot Epsom salts foot baths and exercises. . . . For best results, pick up marbles with your curled toes – master the trick and find how good it makes your feet feel!”
Clearly, it works.