I think I've found my ASMR trigger: watching YouTube videos of ballet dancers preparing their pointe shoes.
Don't get me wrong, I like the actual ballet well enough. But there's something so uniquely soothing and satisfying about seeing these women (it's mostly women—male dancers are usually too heavy to go on pointe) ready the tools of their trade.
There's the slipping of the original, light-pink shoe out of its bag, and then the hours spent scraping, ripping, crushing, sewing, and burning (!!), only to end up with a shoe that looks identical to the layman but is uniquely tailored to the ballerina.
In this video from the Australian Ballet, dancer Jessica Fyfe explains how she has six to eight pairs going at once, including "a pair that's good for jumping in, a pair that's stage-perfect..." Her colleague Natasha Kusen, meanwhile, shellacks her shoes to extend their life and outfits them with ouch-pouches.
The principal dancer, Amber Scott, describes how she covers her feet in tape and sews on big elastics—a lesson learned from past injuries. "It's time consuming, but what would be more annoying is being unable to dance because of the pain," she says.
Then there's this hyperlapse, which shows a dancer cutting and ripping out the sole of her shoes (to allow for greater flexibility), and then super-gluing it all back together:
It's almost like the dance's most distinctive qualities—exterior perfection, inner struggle, insane physicality—get concentrated in the shoes. Even early retirement: After one or two stage performances, the shoes begin to "die."
In this one, Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer Arantxa Ochoa says she goes through 60 pairs per season. To make them last slightly longer, she glues the tips. Like many other dancers, she also cuts off the material around the toes to keep herself from slipping.
At one point in my ballet-shoe wormhole journey, I began to wonder why the shoes don't just already come the way dancers like them. It would be like if I got a new tape recorder and then had to pound it with a hammer for a few hours before I was able to use it.
But then I realized that each woman likes her shoes slightly different, and the specifications can get rather complicated. The Western Australian Ballet's Andrea Parkyn, for example, not only rips out the entire sole lining, she marks the shoe where her arch is and then breaks it in half with her hands:
The ritualistic aspect gets passed down between generations of dancers. Here, a New York City ballet dancer describes how, her first year with the company, she had to use other dancers's shoes. Only later did an older ballerina show her the art of crafting her own perfect pair:
You would think all these hours of shoe preparation would make dancing on the very tips of the toes less painful, and you would be wrong. Dancers describe using everything from alcohol soaks to tooth-numbing gel to get through their practice sessions.
Though Scott said dancers's feet "look worse than what they feel," here, the Pacific Northwest Ballet's Kaori Nakamura opens with, "Does it hurt? Yes." Especially right now that she's dancing Sleeping Beauty, she adds, "Yep. Very painful."
Still, without the perfectly bespoke shoes, the gravity-defying art of pointe would be all but impossible. "They're part of my body," she says, "like skin."