For most people, a pair of shoes simply help them get around. For ballerinas, shoes can help them realize their dreams.
To help, the Lawrence Arts Center started the Candi Baker Shoe Fund to raise money for young students who can’t afford to purchase dance shoes.
The fund honors Baker, the founding director of the School of Dance at the Lawrence Arts Center who retired in May of this year after 29 years. She helped grow the dance program from two weekly creative movement classes to a comprehensive dance program with more than 200 classes a year.
Margaret Weisbrod Morris, executive director of programs and partnerships at the Arts Center, says the steadily growing fund was inspired from the informal shoe bank Baker started years ago. She collected dance shoes in all sizes that were still wearable, and kept them in a box for students who needed shoes to make the program more accessible. Morris says one of Baker’s greatest strengths was supporting every kid who wanted to dance. It made sense to name the shoe fund after her.
“We have a very robust financial aid program here,” Morris says. “We want to be able to support every kid being able to train at a high level and not just kids who can afford to do it.”
The fund is growing steadily as more people learn the importance of the equipment area of dance, which can be quite expensive, Morris says.
“If someone is interested in supporting a dancer and have it going directly toward the support of the development of the dancer, then that is a great place to donate,” Morris says.
Baker says the fund especially helps dancers after they go en pointe, or reach the stage in their training that requires dancers to support their body weight on the tips of their fully extended feet. Most students go en pointe after two of three years of training around age 11.
“The shoes wear down. To be able to buy three or four pairs of pointe shoes a semester, it’s a big burden,” Baker says. “Maybe even more pairs depending on the production."
Wearing worn shoes leads to improper leg support, affecting body alignment, damaging the foot's arch and causing falls or other injuries.
“Professional dancers in the Kansas City Ballet [company] would probably receive a new pair a week during productions, as a part of their contract,” Baker says.
The added expenses of leotards, tights and shoes that range from $65 to $130 can keep a promising scholarship-supported ballerina, now committed to practicing five or six times a week, from training.
Different models of pointe shoes are made with variations of toe length, arch flexibility and mechanical strength. Dancers have to try out multiple pairs, breaking the shoes in, or softening them to find the right the fit. Breaking in shoes shortens their usable timeline.
“The shoe fund is really special because I know there were kids along the way who couldn’t afford pointe shoes,” Baker says. “If they can't afford pointe shoes, then they can’t dance certain roles because they have to be en pointe. Then they start to fall behind their peers and eventually quit.”
Some of these students get steered in the direction of other types of dance, Baker says, but even then they’ll need jazz or tap shoes, which can also be expensive.
Baker has kept her distance from the Arts Center since retiring to let her colleagues take the dance program in their own new direction, and she praised them for their many contributions to the programming under her leadership. She says she misses daily interactions with her students, not that she hasn’t kept tabs on their progress.
Baker was also the founding artistic director and choreographer of the Prairie Wind Dancers for 18 years. One of her fondest memories, Baker says, was performing Carl Sandburg’s “Prairie” in the Flint Hills with Eugene Friesen and the Paul Winter Consort.
She now spends her leisure time traveling, reading and "getting to be a grandma." Of course, Baker will head to the Lawrence Arts Center to see shining students in "A Kansas Nutcracker," and not have to worry about administrative responsibilities her previous role entailed.
Baker feels blessed to have been so heavily involved with her passion, a passion she has seen evolve in her students starting early. She recalls a 9-year-old who almost skipped a Nutcracker production seven years ago because her parents worried about the time commitment required.
“She just looked at them and said, ‘But Mom, Dad, you don’t know, but this is my life,'" Baker says. "And now she is dancing as the Snow Queen this year, which is a very difficult role.”