Of Witches and Toe Shoes

I continue to ponder inequality. Or perhaps it’s more than that, an endless history of things unchallenged or questioned.

First, witches. My erstwhile significant other asked me the question: “Why are the males called ‘wizards’ and the females called ‘witches’?” I had no answer, except to know that the counterpart of witches are warlocks, and the counterpart of sorceress is sorcerer, but there does not appear to be a feminine version of wizard.

I know I’m venturing into a subject that most of my fine colleagues at BVC will know a good deal more about than me, but I’m exploring language. My old Third Edition Thesaurus gives a comprehensive list of synonyms for witch and warlock, sorceress, and sorcerer, but in its reasonable way steers clear of gender roles. These synonyms are listed in the 1000.00 section, starting off with occultism and moving into spell, charm before jumping to ministry. Peter Mark Roget developed an interesting data system.

An entymologist can explain which came first, the enchanter or the enchantress, not me. But I would place money on the male gender name being the original. “—ess” is easily added to titles of male occupations—actress, empress, princess—to describe a woman occupying the same role. But I am thinking it’s likely true, giving a nod to the portmanteau word “wizardess” for a female wizard, that “witch” is the only title truly and originally attributed to women.

This makes sense when one looks at the word’s origin: wicce. I was surprised to find in my New Oxford American Dictionary that wicca was masculine and wicce was feminine in Old English. Wicca means “witch”, in most references. (The modern Wicca religion was founded in the mid-twentieth century.) Synonyms for witch include hag, lamia, witchwife, hex. I have a feeling that power-hungry Christian moguls, anxious to quell the populace, turned the definition of the witch from healer, midwife or invoker of spirits into spellbinder, bewitcher and servant of Satan. Women, as always, were the easiest target.

What this discussion has to do with toe shoes is similar. While not a devotee of ballet, I do really enjoy movies set in ballet companies. It’s coincidental to the remark by my husband because I happened to watch Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes the other night and the idea struck me that only the female dancers wore toe shoes. (Ballerina. And what is a male ballet dancer called? Beats me. Danseuse, danseur.)

So why?

Wikipedia tells me that pointe shoes were first worn by female dancers in the mid-nineteenth century. Until this time, dancing on pointe was achieved by wires. (Who knew—an invention by a man, of course). The floating, ethereal look was wildly popular, and dancer Marie Taglioni was the first to eschew the wire and actually dance on her toes in pink slippers.

Since that time, pointe shoes have been engineered to provide support for longer performances. The women who dance this way dazzle me; beyond beauty, it’s the rigor. Discipline. The obsessive ambition these women have to sculpt their bodies for dance.

Classical ballet embraces on pointe dancing and will likely never stop. Ballet is just one of multiple dance forms. But only the other day, as I was watching Moira Shearer in her red toe shoes, did I wonder why the men never danced on pointe. While the men, Wikipedia informs me, would practice jumps and leaps, the women practiced pointework.

When watching ballet, who does ones eyes follow? The danseuse, of course. While I was taken with the torture of learning to dance on pointe, no matter how custom-engineered the pointe shoe is, I’ve come to realize that in dance performance, the women shine. Fred Astaire could dance like a demon, but we all know the joke about Ginger Rogers. And we all loved her gowns.

Therefore, we women sometimes forget how scary we are to men, and to ourselves. My husband and my friends’ husbands and partners agree nicely about who is in charge. On the stage, it’s the girls.

At the cauldron, it’s the girls too. And the priests were very, very scared.



About Jill Zeller

Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison


Of Witches and Toe Shoes — 11 Comments

  1. Premier danseur is right for the primary male ballet dancer.

    Toe dancing was an invention of Marie Taglioni in Paris, who became so popular that eventually the toe shoe evolved. She developed a floating, ethereal style that complemented the more martial male movements.

    Previously, especially after ballet began separating from the opera, the focus was strictly on the males. Ballet was danced by courtiers; the longest ballet ever featured teenage Louis XIV in Ballet de la nuit, which was thirteen hours long and as far as they can tell, featured strictly martial movements. This was basically guys watching guys, and women watching guys be martial. Nobles, males especially in the French court of the period, learned ballet along with sword fighting. Women learned it mostly for deportment. As for dancing on stage, they were hampered by their skirts pretty much hiding their legs, so the focus stayed on the men.

    After toe shoes became the norm, the ballet developed more sharply along gender lines, women no longer dancing in complement to the male movements, but gaining the strength to look ethereal. And they began showing their legs. Their lighter bodies looked even lighter on toe. Men didn’t want to look lighter–they wanted to look strong, If they wanted to look aerial, they leaped.

    Modern ballet has been evolving away from the standardized choreography of Petipa, which was very gendered.

    Everyone knows about the Fred and Ginger joke, but imo he was far superior as a dancer. Look past the floofy skirts, and you’ll see that her hands often get sloppy in the more difficult passages, her elbows clunky under all the feathers. That doesn’t mean she didn’t work extremely hard–she did, and had the bleeding feet to prove it, dancing in high heels and not toe shoes–but he is never awkward. He’s graceful and controlled to his fingertips. (Look at the photo above. Her hand is off-balance slightly, the heel down as if she’s shoving something, rather than parallel to the floor, her other fingers clutching her skirt in a fist. Look at both his hands: perfect.)

    • Oh, my, Sherwood. Fabulous comment and thanks! I agree about Astaire wholeheartedly. My favorite partner of his is Cyd Charisse, anyway.

      • Oh, yes. She was a trained dancer and it shows. (Ginger worked like a demon, but she wasn’t ballet trained.) I do appreciate Charisse and Astaire together, though he always looks a little insubstantial. When Charisse danced with Gene Kelly, the screen crackles, imo: he had a physically strong presence to match hers.

  2. My two sisters were ballet dancers, and I can testify to the torture they went through in wearing toe shoes. Yet they looked so lovely dancing en pointe! It truly is a tough discipline of strength, endurance, and grace.

  3. “Warlock” is a modern innovation. In the medieval and early modern times, the term for a man like a witch was — witch.

    England had a disproportionate number of women accused, I believe, just as Iceland had a disproportionate number of men, which may have influenced the usage.

  4. In english, at least to my foreign ears, words are gender neutral until specified. So when there is differenciation, it’s not a flexion, but a case when there is a specific word for a male and a specific word for a female. The word itself seems conspicuous in its surprising gender. This to me seems the explanation for the tendency for neutrality in speech, when we aim for equality and respect. In romance languages, most words have a feminine and masculine form. For instace, “bruxa” and “bruxo” (witch, female and male), “feiticeiro” and “feiticeira” (sorcerer/ess). This is why we tend to be inclusive in language, and specify both genders (which is of course a simplification of gender). In LGTB circles we often see this, “[email protected]”, for instance, a way to signify “friend” in all genders (instead of being neutral). Witch, to a native might sound really female. But the root (I had no idea until reading this, of the “wicce” and “wicca”) shows that this is its use today. Language is dynamic, and we can use it in a good transformative way 🙂