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Saturday 7 February 2009

What do conductors wear on their feet, and why?

A page of my notebook, 2009


I love shoes, I always have done, probably ever since a trip to Hamley’s Toy Shop in London when I was very young, perhaps only six years old. From all the wonderful toys on offer I chose for myself a small kitchen sink for my dollies to play with, which had real water coming out of the taps. My parents however were more adventurous in their choice for my Christmas present. Secretly they bought high, glittery, dark green Cinderella sandels for my sister and me, for the dressing-up box, I assume that they are still there!

They were beautiful, everything a girl could wish for in her Christmas stocking, even a girl who was always a tomboy!

My next pair of shoes with “a heel” was a pair of platforms that my sister bought for me when I was seventeen. I was still at school, whereas she was working and had some money, but she wasn’t just being generous. She was tempting me to go "up the disco" with her one Saturday evening when all her friends were busy doing something else.

I took a lot of persuading, as I was not into dressing up and dancing around handbags like she and her friends were. The platform shoes probably only got worn this once but I adored them.

As children we always placed new shoes on a small nursing chair between our beds, near enough to be caressed before falling asleep and again immediately on waking. New shoes were polished before they were worn and every evening thereafter, always by Dad, me with brushes and polish at hand, telling me about St. Crispin, the patron saint of shoemakers.

My Auntie made shoes. She worked in a shoe factory in Norwich and produced the sample shoe of all new designs. All our school shoes, that my Dad always bought with us, were taken to his sister for inspection and approval. My Dad loves shoes too and it was only on shoe-shopping trips that he ever ventured "up the city" with us. I loved this adventure and my only criterion was that the shoes must be made out of the sort of leather that polishes up so well that I could see my face in it.

So began my love of shoes, sensible shoes to wear and glittery shoes to drool over, just as with the cream cakes that I ogle through the glass of a disply case in the Parisian patisserie or in the cafes of Budapest, but would never dream of eating, so it is with shoes. I have spent years admiring and drooling over fashion shoes and even more as they have become ever more lip- smacking, but I would never think of wearing them.

In reality I always wore sensible shoes, shoes for walking, shoes for cycling, shoes for the snow and perhaps one pair in the back of the cupboard for a trip to the theatre. All with the lowest of low heels.

Things have changed, however. Since I moved to the city, I don’t always have a bike with me, I don’t always have to climb on and off trams and stand hours at bus stops, so the shoes in my cupboard are now less sensible! I have begun to buy the footwear of my dreams. No, I am not walking on shoes the height of Tina T’s from Christian Louboutin but I am working on it and can now manage 3 inches!

A late starter

I am an opsimath, just like the Queen in Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. Instead of just dreaming I am now wearing, although I still get more pleasure walking around admiring the arty shoes in a smart department store than I would ever get from actually wearing those enormous heels!

Only a late starter in wearing, not in collecting. I have a collection of shoes that I don’t actually wear. Some don’t even fit me. I have them for art projects, as motivation, encouragement for students to design their own crazy, sensible or fashion shoes and great fun is had by all.

So what about me as a conductor, what do I wear?

As I am not able to wear Tina's’s glittery red high heels while walking up and down the stairs or in and out of a wooden ladder, I have had to consider something else.

Initially I wore trainers, always white and light-weight. I had worn these at the special school where I worked at in England and continued to do so during my training at the Petö Institute in Budapest. These trainers were good but light-weight trainers are often also narrower than others and because of this, added to the fact that the soles were very flat, my feet began to hurt after wearing them for hours on end. I decided to try out Birkenstocks, the sandals with a moulded foot bed. If you are lucky and this foot bed suits your foot they can be very comfortable but if, like me, you are not then gradually the aches and pains begin again. At one point I had the Birkenstock foot beds replaced by one moulded to my own foot but I didn’t wear them for long.

I decided to change back to closed shoes with laces, for the warmth and the increased stability. I didn’t feel secure enough in slip on sandals, especially when working with adult clients when they needed a lot of physical support. I needed to have my feet firmly fixed to the ground. I have had occasions when I have left a sandal one step behind me while facilitating someone walking through a ladder.

The floors are also cold, in most centres lino-covered concrete is the norm, I have yet to experience under-floor heating, now that would be just perfect! Until then closed shoes with thick socks are the go, resulting in warmer feet.

For many years I have worn orthopaedic shoes. They are white to match my clothes, have hundreds of little holes like my old Clark’s sandals to let in the air and let my feet breathe, and they have a foot bed made for me by the same man who makes the children’s shoes. He makes them for all the conductors at the centre where I work and we no longer complain of aching feet!

So for work I stick to the sensible shoes, like those that I have for cycling and walking. The less sensible, and maybe one day even Tina’s stilettos, will have to remain in the cupboard for the theatre visit!

What do others wear, and why?

I have asked several colleagues about the shoes that they wear for work. Some don’t think much about it at all, they just wear slip-on sandals as that is what most conductors wear.

Others do consider it and they usually say that they wear slip-ons because they like to be able to take them off easily My question is “What for?”

I always fear that the answer may be “So that I can use my foot to facilitate”, which I hate to say I have often seen. I don’t of course mean by this a shoed foot being placed between a children’s feet to prevent them tripping over their own feet. I mean using a bare or socked foot to hold a limb in position, as a third hand. This makes me cringe just thinking about it, and I imagine how I might feel to be on the receiving end of this. When I was undergoing physiotherapy after breaking my arm, the physical closeness of the stranger, the therapist, to my own body was difficult enough to deal with, whatever would I have felt like if she had begun to use her feet.

Is a foot a third hand? In my opinion definitely not.

Where is the boundary?

Can one use a shoed foot when facilitating standing or walking, can one do the same with bare feet? To seperate a child’s feet with your own foot while walking is just about acceptable if the conductor can keep a firm footing. Anything that endangers a child 's safety must be left well alone. Doing this with bare feet is probably not advisable, as the conductor will certainly not have a firm footing. In standing programmes it is not necessary to use a foot, as there are always plenty of boxes available for the purpose.

Can one use a bare foot to facilitate other parts of the body? This is the worst thing that I can imagine, absolute taboo, but it is something which I have observed many times in many different places. I can only assume that it is for doing this that many conductors want to wear slip on (or off) shoes.

Several conductors say that a mule-type trainer that is closed at the front gives support but is also easily slipped off. One colleague says that she wears her mules for this reason as she needs to be able to take hers off so as not to walk with shoes on the carpet when she works with children on the floor.

I walk on the carpet in my shoes. They are clean, as I never go outside in them. No one walks into the room with outdoor shoes on. My feet stay warm and I tread securely.

One colleague in Norway has found an excellent solution, tough trekking sandals with three straps to adjust and hold the foot securely, and they are always on her feet. A present from her Mum: strange isn’t it how mums so often know what’s best!

kismama cipö

In Budapest the footwear was varied, although when I was there between 1989 and 1993 there were still many conductors wearing kismama cipö. Now it would be impossible to slip these off quickly with their many rows of laces, sometimes all the way up to the calf. They are a light- weight canvas shoe or boot offering support and were worn in those days by most women who spent a lot of time on their feet. In many places they are still worn today, I saw them for example at Easter 2008 in the lifts at the Gellert Hotel thermal baths, on the feet of the "lift néni" (the lady in charge of the lift).

Just a very short story about wearing high heels

I had a stroke client for many years who had aphasia, neglect syndrome, no speech and many other associated problems, but was physically very active. I could spend a whole session with her showing her how to walk with her heel touching the ground first and then rolling on to the ball of her foot. This was a movement that was physically possible for her but as soon as I was no longer verbally guiding her movements she would go back to taking steps by putting her toes on the floor first. She didn’t do this just with her right foot, she did it with both.

I was perplexed, but not so another female client in the group who, prior to suffering a stroke, had been a real shoe-lover and had worn the highest heels imaginable. It was she who thought to ask the toe-pointing client whether she had worn stilettos prior to the stroke. Delighted to be communicating on this level the client was all smiles and nods.

Knowing the reason for this strange way of walking while wearing flat orthopaedic shoes did not solve the problem but it did make it less frustrating and often made us all laugh.

The shoes our clients wear, though, now that’s another posting.

Information, please

Despite a little enquiry I still don’t really know why conductors feel the need to take off their shoes. Maybe someone out there can enlighten me.


Hamley’s Toy Shop -

St. Crispin

Tina's red soled shoes - by Christian Louboutin,

opsimath - opsimath (OP-si-math) noun, one who begins learning late in life. [From Greek opsi- (late) + math (learning).]

The Uncommon Reader
Alan Bennett, ISBN 10: 0-374-28096-7


Kismama cipö

Also see notes to a previous blog posting
"up the disco" and "up the city"

1 comment:

Kasey Gray said...

I like for my shoes to come off quickly because 1. shoes are not allowed on the mats where the children are working, 2. sometimes shoes simply get in the way and I am much more comfortable without them anyway. But I always wear socks; I suppose that is a matter of personal preference. It seems a bit un-hygienic to work in barefeet.

Regarding rules and regulations of feet and shoes in the workplace...I am not aware of any regulation imposed on non-profit organizations regarding the wearing (or not wearing) of shoes. I presume that it would be up to the individual center to place such rules on its staff members.