GFA alumna Eliza Gaynor Minden graduated from GFA in 1977 and has disrupted the dancewear industry by modernizing ballet’s iconic footwear. Her New York-based company, Gaynor Minden, which she has run with her husband since 1993, is the first company to achieve such success in challenging traditional pointe shoes. With factories in Lawrence, MA., and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Gaynor Minden also designs technique slippers, accessories, and apparel for youth and adults.
Originally from Southport, Eliza grew up with a dance studio in her home. Her mother was a ballet teacher and the founder of what is now Connecticut Dance School. Eliza studied Cecchetti and Royal Academy of Dance techniques at studios in the Southport/Norwalk area. She also studied at Jacob’s Pillow — a Massachusetts dance festival — and in New York.
After earning a B.A. in English from Yale University, Eliza worked in the management of dance companies and said she “saw their ongoing money problems exacerbated by shoes that last only one performance—the typical life span of the traditionally made pointe shoe.”
We recently had an opportunity to speak with Eliza about her beginnings, her successes, and her outlook on the future.
Q: Although you didn’t pursue dance professionally after graduating from Yale, you continued to be involved in the industry by managing dance companies. What did you learn during that time?
What I learned is that non-profit arts organizations are always struggling, often on the edge of going under. Paying for pointe shoes that last only one performance is obviously a burden they can’t afford. I knew from my experiences sailing and skiing that clothing and footwear for sports had been utterly transformed by modern materials and technology, and I was sure that ballet pointe shoes could be similarly improved.
Q: What led you to try to enhance the dance industry by designing a more durable and comfortable pointe shoe? How did you navigate the process?
A: My stock answer is “sore toes.” Traditionally made pointe shoes are still made the way they were in the 19th century, relying on cardboard, glue, paper, canvas, and leather for support and offering nothing to increase comfort, prevent injury, or minimize noise. They hurt and much of that pain is unnecessary. And I was outraged that they wear out after only one performance. Also, female ballet dancers suffer foot and ankle injuries that non-pointe dancers don’t — I wanted to make pointe shoes safer. And finally, everybody hates it when the swans in Swan Lake make their entrance and it sounds like horses — clomping pointe shoes undermine the illusion of effortless grace that ballerinas strive for.
The Gaynor family has a manufacturing business that makes wiring devices for fluorescent lighting. I had grown up observing how products are conceived, designed, prototyped, and patented. I’d seen injection molding machines in action. I was not daunted by the technical challenges. But, of course, I was only 25.
I knew there was no point in trying to improve on the antiquated 19th century construction. I knew I had to find the right materials for the parts of the shoe that provide support, and other materials for impact and noise absorption and for comfort. These turned out to be thermoplastic elastomeric polymers and cellular urethane foams. Tradition demands that the exterior be made of pink satin so there was no changing that, although I’m proud that Gaynor Minden recently became the first company to offer stock pointe shoes in shades of brown.
I spent eight years researching and testing materials, eventually commissioning injection molds to produce the internal support components that I had designed. I found a custom shoemaker in New York who would take the internal components and linings I provided and wrap satin around them to make a single shoe, which I’d then test on myself and if I liked it, I’d take it to professionals for their opinions. It was trial-and-error. Eventually it was working well enough that I could go to a shoe factory and hire them to produce shoes for us on a large scale. By then I also had my first patent. Now I have seven.
Q: Was there any push-back or were there initial failures you had to overcome?
A: There were constant initial failures! That’s why it took so long. And there was negativity; many in the ballet world insisted that it could not be done, that pointe shoes had to be made the old-fashioned way. Once we were up and running, we were met with both enthusiasm and skepticism. Ballet is highly traditional and sometimes there was suspicion of something that offered to make dancing easier and less painful. But that was a generation ago, today’s dancers embrace technology and welcome its benefits. What gave us a huge boost in the mid 1990s was the endorsement of a leading dancer at American Ballet Theatre. That led to many other top dancers at other major companies switching to Gaynor Minden and we built a wonderful marketing campaign based on their endorsements and stunning live performance photography.
Q: You also wrote a book The Ballet Companion, which was published in 2005, and have given lectures on ballet throughout the U.S. and Europe. Have you always had entrepreneurial dreams and been such a self-starter?
A: Well, yes. I started my first business at age 17, selling my homemade quiches, whole grain breads, bran muffins, and desserts. (It was very much the 1970s.) In college when I felt that the Yale dance troupe was not doing enough, I produced a dance show that included dancers from throughout the entire Yale community and even beyond it. And the performances sold so well they actually made a profit — unheard of for undergraduate productions.
Q: You graduated from GFA in 1977. Can you tell us a little bit about your time at GFA, your favorite teachers, clubs, sports, friendships, or other defining moments?
A: I’m blown away by how much GFA has grown. There were six students in my first-grade class. I was there for the introduction of coeducation.
Academically, wow, was I lucky! Starting with the lovely, nurturing ladies who taught Lower School especially Mrs. Adams, Mrs. Lorentzen, and Mrs. Young. GFA prepared me well for Yale: I had learned to think critically and to express myself in writing, thanks in large part to Chris Brown’s English classes and to the Debating Club he founded. He also led informal folk singing get-togethers — again so 1970s. David King offered classes that explored the sciences and humanities in the most creative, challenging, and engaging ways. And I’m glad I was required to take Latin and do it in Mrs. Jessup’s old-school way.
I always took part in the plays and musicals we did, ultimately directing one senior year. I loved my friends, I loved the glen and the formal gardens, I loved the view of the Sound from the big classroom upstairs.
Q: Do you have any advice for the students currently at GFA, or for the larger GFA community?
A: Do it, go for it! It’s much harder to take risks and do these things when you’re older. You don’t necessarily have the experience, but you do have the energy and the courage and the optimism. I would not do this now, but when I was 25, I was gung-ho.
Life doesn’t give you second chances all the time. Don’t let naysayers deter you. I had a lot of pushback from the ballet world. It surprised me. They said it couldn’t be done, and that was disheartening. I had to not let that get me down.