Monday, August 20, 2007

Magic Shoes

As we became more deliberate in our sexuality, the shoes we chose for a date were coded messages

A few nights ago my husband and I beat the summer heat by lounging around on the basement couch. Random channel surfing produced a surprisingly fascinating documentary, Ballets Russes, about the ballet troupe founded by Diaghilev in 1909—in it’s heyday, talents as Nijinksky, Balanchine, Picasso, Matisse, Stravinsky, Debussy, and Ravel collaborated to create dances, sets, and music which are still in use almost a century later. The film combined archival footage of the troupe’s fifty years of performance with interviews of the surviving dancers, all of whom seemed to have the kind of old age that I hope to (still actively working and full of mischief). My husband, not a ballet fan, enjoyed it, too.

When I was a chubby eight-year-old, I pestered my parents until they enrolled me in ballet class. The teacher an Iron Curtain defector, was a Hungarian in her early fifties, who stalked around the mirrored basement with a cane in one arthritic hand and a cigarette in the other. Practicing my “un, deux, trois, etc.” amidst a row of equally clumsy little girls, I would covetously eye the eleven and twelve-year-olds who, perched on the wooden bench at the back of the classroom, banged their toe shoes against the floor and then wove the pink satin ribbons around their ankles, tying them in perfect bows.

This, I believe was the start of my magic shoes fetish, one that most women share. At some seminal point in our history, we gazed at the satin-encased arched foot and gleaming, rounded toe supporting a ballerina’s impossibly graceful pose and we were lost. We wanted that elegance, that ability to transcend gravity, the capacity to transform from girl into swan or fairy queen. And then we saw the Wizard of Oz, the sparkling Ruby Slippers whose true magic lay in their ability to change a frumpy farm girl into a Power in a magic land (and NOT in taking her back to a farm in Kansas, for heaven’s sake!).

As puberty approached, we clopped around in our mother’s party shoes, dreaming of the day when we would become grown-ups, elevated not just by breasts but by three inch kitten heels, too. Later, as we became more deliberate in our sexuality, the shoes we chose for a date were coded messages. Shiny stilettos and anything that resembled a cat or snake skin told them, if they knew how to read it, that we set out on the date with passion as a possibility. Wearing high heels involves physical pain at sometimes excruciating levels (it’s why the Little Mermaid story so resonates for women, once they’ve embarked on their adult lives), so they are only put on for a man when there was strong motivation. Sensible shoes were a signal that we liked you as a friend.

A little older, and women wear shoes mostly for other women. Their shoes are every bit as much a declaration to those they regard as competition as a man’s choice of car or mistress is. Jimmy, Manolo, Ferragamo, et al—these are the Porsche, Ferrari, and Mercedes of a certain woman’s world.

I’ve spent my life yearning after unsuitable shoes. A decade as a waitress was not kind to appendages that, as the culmination of many generations of Irish peasants, were already leaning toward triple E status. I am forced to live in flip-flops, earth shoes and clunky boots. But, walk me past a window full of killer heels with tiny straps and I am lost in a dream of what might have been: the pointed toe emerging delicately out of a Park Avenue limousine, a career as a dominatrix, the heady romp of groupiedom, being Margaret Thatcher’s security double… the list is endless and the only thing stopping me is sensible shoes.