Michelle Attfield, Pointe Shoe Fitter
There is one woman, above all others, whom the world’s greatest ballerinas rely upon when it comes to fitting their shoes perfectly, Michelle Attfield of Freed of London. With generous spirit, self-effacing nature and fierce professionalism, Michelle is the queen of the pointe shoe and a legend in ballet circles.
In her half century at Freed, she has fitted ten-year-olds at the Royal Ballet School and accompanied them throughout the course of their careers, subtly modulating the design of their pointe shoes to accommodate both their physical change and the needs of their repertoire. “Sometimes I discover I know more than I think I do, when I look around for an expert and then realise that I have been around longer than anyone.” she admitted to me with a laugh of self-deprecation. In the volatile world of show business, Michelle is one of those rare figures whom dancers can always count upon for unwavering loyalty, appreciation and practical advice.
An ex-dancer and former customer of Freed, who was trained to fit shoes by Mrs Freed herself, Michelle embodies the spirit of the company that she has served all these years and which she delights to speak of. Yet she is the model of discretion, drawing a tactful curtain over the details of her intimate relationships with the great divas, and preferring to enthuse about show-business customers such as her beloved Patrick Swayze who visited Michelle at the shop after hours for extra fittings. “Supine with admiration,” is her verdict upon Mr Swayze.
“I’ve worked for Freed of London for forty-nine years, I’ve given my life to this company. I trained as a dancer but I wasn’t quite good enough to be a ballerina, so I qualified as a teacher and, since Freed’s shop in St Martin’s Lane were always advertising for staff in The Stage, I went along.
I was a Royal Academy of Dance student from the age of ten, so I had known Mrs Freed all that time. It was April and I had a teaching position starting in September, and when I told Mrs Freed she said ‘Why don’t you stay with us and stop all this nonsense?’ I said, ‘But I’ve got a job with the Royal Ballet.’ So I went to work at Freed permanently and never looked back. I tried to leave once when my daughter was born but, luckily for me, some of my customers refused to deal with anyone else. So they rang me and said, ‘You’ve got to come back.’
She was a monster. Mr Freed made shoes but Mrs Freed made the business. She was the dynamo. He was a shoemaker and a good one, she was a milliner. He did the making and she did the sewing. He invented the concept of making the shoe to fit the foot, prior to that they were very stylised, they propped you up but they didn’t let you dance. This development coincided with choreographers like Frederick Ashton and John Cranko wanting a little more and dancers who were willing to give a little more, and our shoes helped them to do it.
Mrs Freed visited the factory every day at seven-thirty and then she went and ran the shop all day – and she did that every day. I discovered the reason they always advertised in The Stage was because no-one could work for Mrs Freed. People exited from the shop very quickly, girls used to start in the morning and leave in the afternoon. I’d come back from lunch and ask ‘Where has she gone?’
Mr & Mrs Freed loved dancers but they didn’t want to go to the ballet. ‘No dear, you take the tickets and go to the ballet,’ they’d say to me, ‘we’ve had enough of that all day.’ You had to work uber-hard but I had been a dancer and dancers are used to hard work – class in the morning, rehearsal in the afternoon and performance in the evening. People either left at once or stayed forever, and it was the most wonderful place to work if you loved ballet – I fitted Margot Fonteyn!
I learnt to dance with one of the founder members of the Royal Academy of Dance and I learnt to fit shoes with Mrs Freed – the perfect foundation for this job. I try to be the bridge between the aspiration of the shoe and the reality of what can be achieved. Because Freed shoes are handmade, we can deliver exactly what an individual dancer needs and that’s why we have our reputation. A pointe shoe is a tool of the trade for a dancer, the shoe has to perform whatever she has to perform and, while a student may require longevity, a professional needs a show purposed for performance. The Freed pointe shoe is a chameleon because it will do anything for anyone.
I’ve fitted so many dancers that wherever I go in the world someone will come up and say, ‘Hello Michelle, I didn’t know you were going to be here.’ I’ve been all over to fit shoes, Japan, Australia, America, Milan, Verona, Paris – it goes on and on. But my greatest pleasure is what I regard as my ‘home companies,’ Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Scottish Ballet and Northern Ballet. I sit cross-legged on the floor and dancers come and stand in front of me, and I put shoes on them and decide which maker’s shoes would be best for them to wear. They chose the size but I choose the maker. It has to be a relationship of trust. I look at the whole dancer not just the feet. I say, ‘I know what you want and I’ll do it.’ You want the shoe to fit the dancer so well that you see the dancer not the shoe, you don’t want to see the shoe. And it’s a great feeling when you’ve got them where they want to be.
I think how lucky you are if you are involved with dance. Mine is a job that will never end because there will always be ballet. I used to take my daughter Sophie to the factory and she’d be crawling around on the floor getting dirty while I was picking up shoes. When she was eight, she stood in the wings when Nureyev was dancing, and she turned to me and asked ‘May I have a sandwich?’ She worked in the shop as a Saturday girl and Saturday in our shop is a baptism of fire. Then she went off to work in finance but after she got married, she asked to come back and now accompanies me when I do fittings. I’ve got to start handing over to her because I want to be like the Cheshire Cat, I want to disappear without people noticing me go.”
Michelle with Shevelle Dynott - “One of my darling boys…”
Michelle with Darcy Bussell.
Michelle with Agnes Oaks and Thomas Edur, joint directors of the Estonian National Ballet.
Michelle and fellow shoe fitters at the Freed shop in St Martin’s Lane in the eighties.
Frederick & Dora Freed in their shop.
Michelle in her dancing days.
Portrait of Michelle Attfield copyright © Patricia Niven
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