Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day

A caisson that completed a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery passes some of the headstones with flags placed by more than 1,000 soldiers   photo: Michael S Williamson

Indy Smile

Takuma Sato becomes first Japanese to win Indianapolis 500

IndyCar Series driver Takuma Sato celebrates after winning the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway Sunday. | MARK J. REBILAS / VIS USA TODAY SPORTS

The Japan Times  AP
At the end of 500 miles (805 km) around Indianapolis Motor Speedway Takuma Sato became the first Japanese winner of the Indianapolis 500 when he denied Helio Castroneves a record-tying fourth victory as the two traded the lead in the closing laps on Sunday.

“I know Helio is always going to charge,” Sato said. “But he’s just such a gentleman and such a fair player.”

The Andretti family has struggled for decades to win this race, but as a car owner, Michael Andretti certainly knows the way to victory lane.

Sato’s victory gave Andretti a second consecutive win in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” An Andretti driver has now won the 500 three times in the last four years, and five times overall dating to 2005 with the late Dan Wheldon.

Last year, it was with rookie Alexander Rossi. This time it is with Sato, who joined the team just this season and had largely been overlooked at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Andretti camp expanded to six cars for the 500 to add Fernando Alonso to its team, and the two-time F1 champion brought massive European interest to the race.

Six cars never seemed to spread the team too thin, and the main issue facing Andretti Autosport was the reliability of its Honda engines. Alonso put on a thrilling show and even led 27 laps — third most in the race — but he was sent to the paddock when his engine blew with 20 laps remaining.

Alonso had a spectacular race and simply fell victim to his engine late. The crowd gave the Spaniard a standing ovation as he climbed from his car.

“I felt the noise, the engine friction, I backed off and I saw the smoke and, yeah, it’s a shame,” Alonso said. “It’s a very nice surprise to come here with big names, big guys, the best in open-wheel racing and be competitive.”

The Honda teams had a clear horsepower advantage over Chevrolet, but things were dicey in Indy for more than a week and certainly on race day. Before Alonso’s failure, 2014 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay lost his Honda and so did Charlie Kimball. Hunter-Reay led 28 laps and was a strong contender late.

“I’m really happy for Honda. They worked really hard to get us here,” said Andretti. “I know how big this news is going to be tomorrow when they wake up in Japan. It’s going to be huge. I’m really happy for them, that we were able to give them a win with our Japanese driver here.”

Added Sato about the popularity of his victory in Japan: “This is going to be mega big. A lot of the Japanese fans are following the IndyCar Series and many, many flew over for the Indianapolis 500. We showed the great result today and I am very proud of it.”

In a Chevrolet for Team Penske, Castroneves briefly took the lead but couldn’t make it stick as Sato grabbed it back. Castroneves was disappointed to fall short of the four-time winners club — particularly since it was his third runner-up finish.

“Being second again sucks, being so close to getting my fourth,” Castroneves said. “I’m really trying. I’m not giving up this dream and I know it’s going to happen.”

The margin of victory was 0.2011 seconds and the win was redemption for Sato, who crashed while trying to beat Dario Franchitti on the final lap of the 2012 race.


Takuma Sato takes the traditional drink of milk after winning the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. | USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS
 
A joyful Sato dumped a bottle of 2 percent milk over his head, received a kiss from the Indy 500 Princess and raised his finger in the air. Michael Andretti ran down pit lane to reach Sato’s crew, then rushed to hug his driver.

As for the difference between 2012, when Sato crashed in the first turn of the final lap racing Franchitti, Sato said his strategy this year was perfect.

“I was pointing in the right direction into (Turn) One,” said Sato, who was congratulated in victory lane by Franchitti.

IndyCar Series driver Takuma Sato (26) leads Helio Castroneves (3) during the final laps of the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway Sunday. | GUY RHODES / VIA USA TODAY SPORTS


It was only the second IndyCar victory for Sato, who won driving for A.J. Foyt in Long Beach in 2013 — a span of 74 races.

Takuma Sato of Japan celebrates after winning the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Sunday Sunday in Indianapolis. | AP

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Can This Guy Get Any More Obnoxious?

The Most Cringe-Worthy Moments From Trump’s First International Trip

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President Donald Trump shakes hands with French President Emmanuel Macron at the start of the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium on May 25, 2017.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

President Donald Trump is going back home. After nine days abroad in the Middle East and Europe, the commander in chief left Italy on Saturday afternoon to fly back to a White House that is steeped in scandal and turmoil. Trump celebrated the trip as a “home run.”

But before we get back to Washington, let’s look at some of the most memorable and embarrassing moments from the trip, in chronological order.

Dancing in Saudi Arabia
The trip seems to have had two distinct phases with Trump seen as pretty successful in the first leg of the journey that included Israel and Saudi Arabia. Things got awkward right from the start though when Trump received a reception fit for a king in Saudi Arabia that included some stilted dancing with swords in tow.

Trump, Tillerson dance in Saudi Arabia 51 sec.

The curtsy seen around the world

Trump had repeatedly criticized his predecessor for bowing to foreign leaders. Yet when he was presented with a gold medal by the Saudi king, Trump also appeared to bow. What’s more, his awkward body movement was so strange that when he came back up many thought they saw the president doing a curtsy.

Ice cold hand-slap

When Trump landed in Israel, footage of his arrival in Tel Aviv on Monday appeared to show First Lady Melania Trump slapping her husband’s hand away.



Later, when the pair arrived in Rome, there also seemed to be a purposeful hand-holding dodge but it was less clear so it didn’t get the same amount of attention.  

Geography fail

Trump met with a group of Israeli leaders and informed them that he “just got back from the Middle East.”

When Trump sat down with new French leader Emmanuel Macron the two shared a handshake that seemed to last a little too long. It appears Macron was prepared for Trump’s weird handshake where he tries to show power by jerking the person he is greeting back and forth. So Macron held on and the two shook hands “with considerable intensity, their knuckles turning white and their jaws clenching and faces tightening,” according to a pool report. Trump grimaced, Macron seemed proud of himself.

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A combination photo shows President Donald Trump (L) trying twice to let go of a handshake with France's President Emmanuel Macron (R) as Macron holds tight in Brussels, Belgium on May 25, 2017.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
 
Macron greets leader of free world first

Later, Macron posted a video on Twitter that showed him walking up to a group of NATO leaders and he seemed to be headed straight for Trump. But at the last minute, Macron swerved to warmly greet German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Macron then greets other leaders before shaking Trump’s hand. And this time, Trump was the one who was ready and began moving his and Macron’s hands violently back and forth and up and down. Macron’s victory in the handshake battles didn’t last long.

Emmanuel Macron: À Bruxelles, unis avec nos alliés de NATO  56 sec.


The Montenegro shove

As NATO leaders walked to take a group photo in Brussels, Trump seems to have suddenly realized he was not at the front of the line. So he shoved Montenegro Prime Minister Dusko Markovic out of the way, presumably to make sure he was front and center of the photo-op. The video quickly became a global viral sensation. Markovic was eager to not make a big deal about it though. “This was an inoffensive situation,” Markovic told reporters. “I do not see it in any other way.”

Donald Trump PUSHES The Prime Minister Dusko Markovic Of Montenegro To Be In Front of Group 37 sec.



Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.

And then there's my personal favorite...

Pope Francis SLAPS Donald Trump's Hand For Touching Him (VIDEO) Angry Pope Slaps Trump's Hand Away1 min. 19 sec.


Soap Operas & Big Pharma - Both Are Disgusting

The Tricky Ethics of Big Pharma Soft-Selling on Soap Operas

Wired    05.24.17    

Anna Devane lies in a hospital bed surrounded by doctors, one of whom just told her she has cancer. “It’s a scary word, right? We can all admit that,” says a second doctor, Robin Scorpio, who also happens to be Devane’s daughter. This cancer is rare, says the first doctor, and somewhat different. People with the condition, called polycythemia vera, make too many blood cells. This, adds a third doctor, explains Devane’s recent migraines.

“So how do we treat it? Is it … radiation? Chemo?” Devane’s voice cracks. Remarkably, no. The first doctor, a husky-voiced practitioner named Hamilton Finn, tells Devane she needs only a prescription blood thinner and regular phlebotomy—blood letting. Anna shows relief, then irritation. “OK, fine, I can do that,” she says. “But this protocol sounds like you’re treating the symptoms of this cancer. How do we beat it?”

“I’m sorry Anna,” says the third doctor, Griffin Monro. “There’s no cure for this disease.”

This dramatic scene—complete with music and close ups—played out on General Hospital in February. The plot twist grew from a partnership between the show’s producers and the Incyte Pharmaceuticals. Strictly speaking, it is not an advertisement, because the FDA allows companies to fund disease awareness programs. But Incyte makes exactly one drug, and it targets the genetic mutation associated with polycythemia vera. Medical professionals worry that General Hospital‘s plotline blurs the lines between awareness and advertisement.

Vinay Prasad is a real life doctor who works on rare blood diseases at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. “I heard about this through the grapevine,” he says. “One of our nurses was home one day watching General Hospital, and told an oncology fellow in my department that there was a character with polycythemia vera.” That stunned him. No more than 100,000 Americans live with PV, making it an ultra-rare blood condition. “PV is this very indolent, mild cancer where you just make a little bit too many red blood cells,” says Prasad. The most common treatment, he says, is exactly what those TV doctors prescribed: a combination of bloodletting and blood-thinning medicines like hydroxyurea or aspirin.

But that’s not the only treatment. About 96 percent of PV patients share a mutation in a gene called JAK2. As it happens, the only FDA-approved drug Incyte Pharmaceuticals sells is a JAK2 inhibitor called ruxolitinib that targets PV and a few similar diseases. Although no one on General Hospital characters mentions ruxolitinib, Prasad says the dialogue during Devane’s diagnosis contains subtle language that might lead viewers to believe they have PV symptoms, and seek out unnecessary treatment.

The FDA has rules about disease awareness, but they far more relaxed than those regulating direct-to-consumer advertising. You know these ads: In the first act, an actor mentions that his herpes/toe fungus/erectile disfunction doesn’t keep him from kayaking/rock climbing/enjoying a fulfilling love life because he takes a drug with a name that sounds like a Lovecraftian Elder God. In the second act, the actor quickly explains that the drug might also cause nausea, vomiting, sweating, fainting, jaundice, bleeding, light-headedness, stroke, blindness … and in a very small number of cases, death. “Talk to your doctor before using [blank].”

Non-branded disease awareness campaigns follow looser rules: They can talk about a medical condition as long as they don’t promote specific treatment. General Hospital followed those rules. However, disease awareness can obliquely prompt people to seek unnecessary treatments. Take the awareness culture surrounding breast cancer. On one hand, many women now regularly check for lumps, and go for screenings. But not all breast cancers are deadly. Some may never become malignant.

But, to quote Robin Scorpio: Cancer is a scary word. So when women find a lump, they are likely to seek treatment. Those treatments come from pharmaceutical companies, which—surprise!—fund many breast cancer awareness efforts. A study published in October in the New England Journal of Medicine found that only about 19 percent of the small tumors women find during early screening are likely to become large.

Drug companies defend their awareness efforts. “Patients suffering from rare diseases often face a dearth of information about their disease and related support,” says Catalina Loveman, an Incyte spokesperson. “As such, it is critical that those who have a voice—companies, advocates and media—do all they can to raise awareness and provide resources to these often overlooked and underserved communities.” She adds that Incyte did not hide its partnership with General Hospital. It even issued a press release. ABC, General Hospital‘s network, did not reply to a request for comment.

Prasad says General Hospital left out crucial context. In fact, in a recent letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association, he and Sham Mailonkody (an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York) argue that Incyte and General Hospital were doing marketing in disguise. For instance, the show’s dialogue did not emphasize the subtleties doctors look for in diagnosing PV. Viewers might identify with symptoms Devane exhibited, and seek testing from a doctor. So what—If most PV patients carry the JAK2 mutation, shouldn’t their diagnosis be a slam dunk? Not so fast. JAK2 is common in many people without PV. Not everyone needs to start popping aspirin and draining blood.

But most people with PV probably should be doing those things. And that’s where the General Hospital subplot is most insidious. Prasad says Devane’s complains that those treatments only attack the symptoms might prime any viewers who receive a positive PV diagnosis to make the same complaint to their doctors. Then they might hear about ruxolitinib—a treatment that targets the proteins the JAK2 mutation expresses— not the symptoms that come from having too much red blood.

Ruxolitinib isn’t a cure, though, because scientists still haven’t figured out if JAK2 causes PV. All they know for sure is that most people with the disease have the same mutation. “We don’t know when these mutations are passengers, drivers, when they should be targeted, and when they shouldn’t be,” says Prasad. That makes ruxolitinib a gamble—an expensive one. The drug can cost upward of $1,000 a month.

The logical counterpoint to all of this anti-pharma hysteria is that General Hospital and Incyte are guilty of nothing more than disseminating information. “I would say you want to have the right information,” says Robert Klitzman, a bioethicist and psychiatrist at Columbia University. He said the soap opera could have laid out exactly how the symptoms led to the diagnosis, and then mentioned the company’s drug as an option alongside other treatments—not create an unspecified need by making the other options seem unattractive. “If the patient says ‘I don’t like getting blood draws,’ then the doctor can say, ‘Well there is this other drug, but it’s not clear that it will help, it’s not recommended unless these other, cheaper, drugs are not effective, and it’s going to have side effects,” he says. And, as always, dramatic music is a nice touch.

Too Bad Amazon Doesn't Treat Their Employees Like Dogs

Why Amazon let 4,000 dogs into its Seattle headquarters

Amazon’s (AMZN) work culture is well-known for several qualities — tough, hard-working, innovative, even bruising. But it’s not necessarily known as being one of the largest dog-friendly tech companies.

According to the Seattle-based e-commerce giant, Amazon has 4,000 registered canines — 500 of which on average come to the offices everyday with their employee owners. Indeed, Amazon caters heavily to employee-owned dogs with dog-oriented activities, beyond simply offering dog treats at the reception desk.

In July 2016, for instance, the company held a screening for the film “The Secret Life of Pets,” in which dogs that attended also received customizable dog tags. And last October, Amazon hosted a Halloween dog costume contest, in partnership with the Downtown Dog Lounge, a Seattle-based business. The winner? A 5-year-old greater Swiss mountain dog named Charlie, dressed as one of Santa’s reindeer, pulling a two-wheeled cart designed to look like Santa’s sleigh. 

Amazon also built facilities aimed at keeping employees’ dogs entertained. This April, the company opened a 1,000 square-foot dog park at the intersection of Lenora Street and Sixth Avenue in Seattle as part of the company’s larger $4 billion effort to build and expand its urban campus.

Located next to Amazon’s dome-like glass Spheres, which will house an array of tended greenery and foliage when they officially open in early 2018, the so-called “Spheres dog park” is within walking distance to many of the company’s offices. Some of dog park’s features include rocks and platforms to play on, as well as a drinking fountain.



Dogs have played an integral part of Amazon’s company culture since the very beginning, an Amazon spokesperson told Yahoo Finance. The practice stems from two former Amazon employees — a husband and wife team — who brought their corgi Rufus to work.

Rufus played a ceremonial role, of sorts, during those early Amazon days. Between 1998 and 1999, when Amazon was still just an online marketplace, employees lifted the corgi up and used his paw to click the computer mouse to mark the launch of various online pages going live on the Amazon.com website. 


Amazon eventually named an office building at its Seattle headquarters after Rufus, and photos of the corgi remained peppered around the company campus.

Amazon is hardly the only tech company to allow employees to bring their pets work, but it is one of the tech companies with the largest number of registered pets. Yahoo Finance’s Company of the Year Nvidia (NVDA), for instance, also allows pets to roam its Santa Clara, Calif. Campus. But Nvidia Senior Director of Human Resources Nilufer Koechlin told me recently the chipmaker has  “several hundred” registered canines, which falls short of Amazon’s whopping 4,000-plus. 

For companies like Amazon and Nvidia, the upside to allowing pets on campus is pretty obvious: allowing an employee to have their pet a few feet away while they work likely translates to a happier employee overall. And if that employee just so happens to spend more time at work and their productivity increases, then so be it.
JP Mangalindan is a senior correspondent for Yahoo Finance covering the intersection of tech and business. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook

DNA Doesn't Lie

Parrots and Falcons — Long-lost Cousins

Discovering the Tree of Life



Did you ever play with seashells? Get yourself a whole bucket full of 'em, and then try to sort them out? The big, chalky, thick-shelled ones here, the delicate, pastel-colored ones there. A new pile for the swirly-shaped ones…
As we try to make sense of the beautiful, complex, and overwhelming diversity of life on our planet, we usually start, quite simply, by first naming, and then grouping, things. When applied to species, this basic process of sorting and grouping, looking for patterns of similarities and differences, generally has the cumulative effect of something surprisingly grand — outlining some of the main branches on the tree of life.


But evolutionary history is long, and complex processes can be at play. Some of the patterns we recognize have nothing to do with how closely related species are. Like how puffins and penguins are both stocky, black-and-white birds with small wings. These similarities are a result of their independent adaptation to extremely aquatic lifestyles, rather than shared family history. Things like this can cause us to misinterpret the patterns we see. Thus, the tree of life holds many surprises.

    
[Atlantic Puffins (left), King Penguins (right)]

Surprise!
Few surprises are more compelling than the recent discovery that falcons are more closely related to parrots than they are to hawks and eagles.

There are two reasons why this is such an interesting discovery. First, just about everyone on the planet knows the players. Most of us can recognize a parrot. A Peregrine Falcon’s killer dive-speed is famous. We generally understand what hawks and eagles are, and we know that falcons are kind of lumped together with them.

Second, we all know these groups pretty well because they have a whole suite of fairly recognizable features that bind them together. Let’s review:

Parrots: Plumage in bright, saturated colors. Social. Smart. Most species found in the tropics. Strong hooked bill used to tear apart fruits and nuts.


    
[Scarlet Macaw (left), Fischer's Lovebirds (middle), Rainbow Lorikeet (right)]

Falcons: Awesome predators. Superlative fliers. Plumage exclusively in earth tones. Relatively solitary. Found from the tropics to the Arctic. Strong hooked bill used to tear apart prey.

    
[Gyrfalcon (left), Peregrine in dive (middle), Merlin (right)]

 
Hawks and eagles: Everything we just said about falcons also applies to hawks and eagles. Hawks and eagles, though, tend to soar as they watch for prey, while falcons tend to rely on speed for active pursuit of it.

   
[Red-tailed Hawk]

So, you don’t have to be a specialist in bird taxonomy to have a guess about who is related to whom based on similarities, right? When biologists sat down to organize bird biodiversity, most put the falcons in the same taxonomic basket as hawks and eagles. It turns out this was a mistake akin to putting puffins and penguins together. Hawks and eagles are aerial predators, and so are falcons. Apparently, the predatory lifestyle has driven these two unrelated groups of birds to converge upon each other — not only in the shapes and sizes of their bodies, not only in the color of their feathers, but also in their relatively sparse numbers and solitary lifestyles. 

Now we know the surprising truth. The similarities between falcons and other raptors, including hawks and eagles, is one caused by “convergent evolution” and not shared family history. And what about parrots and falcons? Besides the powerful curved bills, do these groups have anything in common? 

Appearances vs. DNA
 
ADN animation.gif
Here’s where the modern science comes in. It is fair to ask, “Well, if parrots and falcons are so obviously different, what gives us any confidence in this new hypothesis that they are evolutionary cousins?”
 
The answer is DNA. Lots and lots of DNA. 

DNA codes nearly everything about the final form and behavior of an animal. The “complete sequence" of DNA found in an animal (or plant) is referred to as its genome. If the genome were likened to a book, we would say it is telling a very, very long and very complex story. Thus, the genome of any animal is a goldmine of information.

Through our genomes, each of us, in fact every living thing, represents one version of “the book of life.” Comparing versions of this book, we find that some parts of the story are changing all the time. These parts correspond to rapidly evolving genes, such as those in our immune systems that must change all the time to respond to new threats. Other parts of the story have remained essentially unchanged for hundreds of millions of years. These parts of the story correspond to highly conserved genes, which tend to govern basic life processes shared by all organisms. 

The versions and variations of these “books” are as diverse as life itself. However, if you can read a copy of one species’ story and compare that copy to other species’ versions, you will start to see patterns in how the versions relate to one another. More closely related species share more of the story and have fewer discrepancies between versions.


Analyses of the entire genome of several species of birds indicate that parrots and falcons shared many more years of evolutionary history together than previously believed. They share passages of their stories uniquely with each other (at least relative to all other birds except songbirds, but that is another story). That is, parrots and falcons shared an ancestral species — think of it as a little branch on the tree of life — whose DNA kept evolving little bits of the story long after they split off from the lineage that led to the “other raptors,” hawks and eagles. Hawks and eagles have unique passages of their own. 
Currently, there are dozens of labs around the world working to discover the branching patterns on the tree of life for this or that group of birds. How are the chickadees related to each other? What other birds are chickadees most closely related to? How are ducks related to each other? If penguins aren’t related to puffins, what are they related to? Thousands of questions of these sorts are being posed, and sophisticated analyses of the patterns found in the DNA are spitting out answers. Some of these answers are more clear than others. Most of them are consistent with what scientists had already thought: parrots are still parrots, after all. But then again, surprises, like the falcons+parrots one, just keep coming out. Keep your ears open for more surprises from the tree of life.

###

Listen to a BirdNote show titled Falcons, Parrots, and The Tree of Life.

Images: Shells - Jessica Lucia; Tree of Life at Disney's Animal Kingdom Theme Park - Jeff Krause; Atlantic Puffins - Oscar Valencoso; King Penguins - Ronald Woan; Scarlet Macaw - Julie Falk; Fischer's Lovebirds - David Bygott; Rainbow Lorikeet - JustJimWillDo, FCC; Gyrfalcon - Elena Gaillard; Peregrine Falcon - © Gregg Thompson; Merlin © Joanne Kamo; Red-tailed Hawk head - Jason Colflesh; hawk in flight - © Joanne Kamo; hawk with prey - Ken Slade; DNA animation - Brian0918; Rainbow Lorikeet  - KFJMiller, American Kestrel © Tom Grey


Clockwise: Rose-ringed Parakeet, Pieter Van Marion; Peregrine Falcon, Mark Regan; Tree of Life, Disney World, Jeff Krause  -- https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Physics of Pointe Shoes

Pain, satin and paper towels: What it takes for ballerinas to dance on their toes

 
‘I feel like I’m always in a battle with my feet,” says Lauren Lovette, with a sigh. One of New York City Ballet’s principal ballerinas, Lovette has beautifully arched, supple feet, and often, they’re killing her. 
 
After years of sprains and other injuries, she underwent surgery to correct a bone anomaly, but even with physical therapy, daily ankle exercises, ice baths and ointments, the 25-year-old still hasn’t made peace with her feet. 

Lovette shares this struggle with many dancers, whose feet take sustained abuse, and in the worst kind of footwear (or none at all). While they may run, jump, squat, leap and pivot like any NBA star, dancers do it without shock absorption, arch support or any foot-comfort features whatsoever. Athletes get to wear shoes that are protective and kind to their feet. Dancers experience no such luxuries as they speed around the stage barefoot, or in heels, or in thin slippers with a flimsy leather sole — or, if they’re ballerinas, in those tight-fitting torture chambers known as pointe shoes.

I had my own flirtation with pointe shoes as a ballet student in my youth, and I’ll never forget my alarm as I slid my feet into my first pair. Little bones I didn’t know I had were suddenly squeezed in a death grip. Pointe shoes may look dainty, but there’s an Elizabethan-corset quality to them, reflecting their seriousness of purpose: equipping the dancer to do what no human is designed to do.

“Pound for pound, dancers are just as strong as football players, if not stronger,” says Lisa M. Schoene, a Chicago podiatrist and athletic trainer who treats dancers and Olympians. “Getting up on pointe is one of the most athletic things you can do. They’re exerting 10 to 12 times their body weight, going up and down on that pointe shoe.”

In anticipation of New York City Ballet’s engagement at the Kennedy Center from June 6 to 11, I’ve been thinking about the incomparable strength of the ballerina, especially when it comes to her toes and what it takes to dance on them. 


Aurelie Dupont - Dulcinea Uploaded on May 7, 2007 Don Quixote - Opera de Paris Variação Segundo Ato (Dulcinea) 2 min. 8 sec.


Dancing on the toes revolutionized ballet in 1832, when Italian ballerina Marie Taglioni caused a sensation in “La Sylphide.” In the title role of a highland fairy, she seemed to briefly trod the air, rising on the tips of her satin slippers, which she had reinforced with darning. As her trick caught on, and choreographers began exploring the airy possibilities of steps en pointe, shoemakers started stiffening ballet slippers from the inside with layers of fabric and glue.

Pointe shoes are still made that way today, with cotton-lined satin, a rigid insole — or shank — and a cupped portion around the toes that is hardened with glue, canvas and paper. Because the shoe and the foot must work together as one, it’s up to each dancer to customize her pointe shoes. Even the most exalted ballerinas sew on their own ankle  ribbons and elastics, which secure the shoes, and, like baseball players breaking in new gloves, they all have rituals to make their shoes pliable and quiet. Nothing destroys an atmosphere of lightness and grace like the clop-clop of hard pointe shoes.

Unlike ballplayers, ballerinas in the major companies have to sew and break in new shoes almost every day. A pointe shoe’s life is measured in hours of wear. At a cost of around $100 (usually paid by the company), a pair may last a pro for a full day of class and rehearsal, but if she’s starring in “Swan Lake,” or dancing in a couple of short ballets in an evening, she may go through a few changes of shoes. 

Claire Kretzschmar, a member of New York City Ballet’s corps de ballet, lays her new shoes on the ground, sole up, and stomps on them. After that, she pours quick-drying Jet Glue (developed for model airplanes, now a pointe shoe standard) on the tips for extra hardening. To protect her toes, she wraps them in a brown paper towel, the kind you find in public bathrooms. She used to use foam pads but found that the humble paper towel allows her more dexterity. 

New York City Ballet - Pointe Shoes Published on Aug 16, 2012 6 min. One of a series of short films for the New York City Ballet, this film tells the story of ballet shoes from the factory to the stage, and the importance of shoes to the life of a dancer.

“Pointe shoes are never comfortable,” says Kretzschmar, 25, “but I didn’t find a dramatic change in pain when I switched to paper towels.”

Lovette bangs her shoes against a wall about 20 times to rid them of clunkiness: “If I feel my shoes are loud, I get self-conscious and I dance in a different way.” 

Pointe shoes are an extension of their bodies, an essential tool of expression, and ballerinas get attached not only to their brand — most popular among professionals are Freed (made in England) or Bloch (from Australia) — but also to the individual maker who handcrafts the shoe. It can be traumatic to change makers. Julie Kent, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, panicked when, at the height of her career at American Ballet Theatre, she found out that her maker at Freed was retiring. 


“I wrote him a letter,” Kent says, “and sent a photograph of myself in ‘Giselle’ praying, looking very pleading, saying would he consider just making a limited amount of shoes for me a year.” It didn’t work. She eventually asked Bloch to copy an old shoe. While dancing as a guest with the Australian Ballet, Kent went to Bloch’s facility to meet her maker, and they worked out an ideal, bespoke fit.

In such a competitive profession, rest doesn’t come easily. Ballet dancers have a very high pain threshold, says Washington podiatrist Stephen Pribut. It may be a combination of pain resistance and paranoia that gives them the ability — unwise as it may be — to dance through injury. Kretzschmar has been dogged by stress fractures and dances with chronic tendinitis. Lovette discovered an agonizing downside to her foot flexibility. While her ankles bend freely forward — giving her pointed foot a lovely, long line — bending backward, as they must when she lands from jumps, is challenging. She was in constant pain in her early years at NYCB. An X-ray showed she had an extra bone in her left foot, but it took her six years to face surgery.

 After that last performance before the operation, “walking out of the theater was scary,” Lovette says. “What if I’m forgotten about? That’s always a dancer’s fear.” That was two years ago. After months of recovery, she returned to the stage, newly promoted to the top rank, her foot problems behind her. That is, until the right one started causing trouble. Lovette says a plant-based diet has helped reduce inflammation, and she sticks to sneakers and combat boots in her time off.

How a ballerina treats her feet off-duty is important, Pribut says. And it’s true for any of us. Our footwear is an essential tool no matter what we do. Some shoes, worn too often, can cause more strain than pointe shoes, the doctor adds. Common culprits are flip-flops, high heels and what few dancers would ever wear outside the studio — ballet flats.