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On Pointe (Shoes) January 6, 2013

Filed under: ballerina,ballet — theworstat @ 2:18 am
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While writing a reply to a post earlier I started to think about all the misconceptions about pointe shoes that I’ve encountered over the years.  Since I can’t find all of these addressed anywhere else, I thought I’d attack some of them here.

First of all, pointe shoes do not make it “easy” to dance on pointe.  If pointe were so easy, we’d all be doing it.  The reality is that it’s tough, requiring strength born of careful training.  All the shoes do is make it harder to break a bone or strain any other support structure in the foot.  They also make it easier to balance by providing a level platform. Without pointe shoes, we would not have ballets where the dancers spend almost the entire performance on pointe.  It would be impossible.

But no…pointe shoes do not do the work for you.  Try on a pair of pointe shoes and try to haul yourself up on tiptoe, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.  It takes tremendous strength to get all the way over the box, even more-so to stay there, let alone hold a balance or even move.

Come to think of it…please DON’T try to haul yourself up on pointe.  The chance that your feet and ankles are naturally right for it — that is, they can bend correctly and are strong enough — is pretty slim.  And if your ankle wobbles, you’ll end up in the E.R. for sure.  Let’s just say that the chance of you getting hurt is pretty high.

Even with proper training, the shoes don’t make it impossible to do damage to oneself.  And the shoes themselves can do damage: calluses are normal, nails can be lost, blisters are almost impossible to avoid.  Bunions are harder to predict.  Certainly all dancers do not have bunions; I heard one doctor say that you have to be born with an abnormality that leads to bunions or else you won’t develop them.  However, Balanchine loved the “creative bunion” look and some dancers do have them.

No, the shoes are not made of metal.  There was briefly a pointe shoe that featured a metal platform and/or a metal shank (I think it was just the shank).  This was back in the 1930’s or so.  It didn’t last.  The only metal in the shoes now is in the nails in the sole.  (Sansha may or may not still make a pointe tap shoe; this would be the sole exception.)

No, the shoes are not made out of wood.  (EDIT: there are sometimes wood byproducts in the sole/shank.)  Long ago I heard some young know-it-all state this to his little girlfriend and nearly snorted my soda out of my nose.  Pure wood would be a disaster in pointe shoes.

By the way, they are not called “toe shoes.”

Most pointe shoe boxes are made of layers of fabric and paste.  Most of the soles are made of layered leather, fiberboard, or cardboard.  A few companies use plastics and polymers in the toe boxes and shanks.  There is one company that is famous for its elastomeric shoes; some ballerinas swear by these shoes.  Others say they look awful and refuse to wear them (they do look different; there seems to be slightly less definition of the shape of the dancer’s foot).  However, the shoes last longer — a huge plus, as conventional pointe shoes in professional settings are notorious for lasting only a matter of hours —  and there is some evidence that their wearers are less prone to injury.  Also, they are said to be quieter than most pointe shoes (generally speaking, pointe shoes are NOISY!).  All in all, elastomerics may be the way of the future, although right now it seems that one company has a lock on the process of creating them.

Yes, dancers do awful things to their pointe shoes.  The manufacturer of elastomeric shoes claims that this is not necessary with their shoes, but it is with all other brands.  Some of these techniques, such as applying shellac, are potentially harmful to the dancer.  But most of what dancers do to the shoes is necessary.  If the boxes are not crushed before wear, a bulbous appearance may result.  If the shanks are not bent or partially removed, the shoes will not conform to the dancer’s feet.  Some dancers darn the tips of their shoes for added traction and stability.  Many others trim away the fabric and burn the frayed ends of the satin with a cigarette lighter.  A lot of dancers use hammers to make the pointe shoes quieter and softer, although one wonders how effective this really is in terms of noise.

Manufacturers are starting to do some of the more common alterations for dancers, but I think dancers will always alter the shoes somewhat before they wear them.

No, I don’t know how ribbons were selected to hold the shoes on the dancers’ feet, but I suspect this happened before elastics were widely used and has continued simply because ribbon looks good and is flexible and strong.

Pointe shoes as they are today did not exist in the 1800’s, when pointe was born as a part of ballet technique.  Back then, pointe shoes were really nothing more than altered ballet slippers.  Pointe was incredibly difficult and most dancers did not attempt it — it was prima ballerina territory.  This began to change in the 1880’s – 1890’s, when primas started spending entire ballets on pointe and even corps dancers were expected to dance on pointe frequently.  But the biggest change in pointe shoes came slightly later, when Anna Pavlova bolstered her pointe slippers with strengthened shanks and broader platforms to support her weak (but lovely) feet.  She was at first blasted for “cheating,” but quickly, other dancers started “cheating” as well.

Current dancers wearing elastomeric shoes are also sometimes criticized for cheating.  Some schools will not allow students to wear the newfangled pointe shoes, insisting instead on the conventional kind.  I suspect this will not happen anymore as the new shoes become more commonplace.

Back when I was a student, we were told that men didn’t dance on pointe because their hips and feet are wrong for it.  That’s nonsense, of course.  Men do dance on pointe and they always have.  I think the reason it’s not often seen is that women in ballet are viewed as being more ethereal than men; this goes back to the Romantic age in ballet (mid-1800’s) and is a hangover that’s been hard to shake.  Nowadays ballerinas are no longer teeny tiny things; some of them are very tall; so to hang onto the “ethereal” part, some of them have become almost skeletal.  Time goes by; things change, but some things never seem to change.  The day of men dancing routinely on pointe is still well in the future.

I’m sure I’ve missed a few things, but this article answers most of the crazy things I’ve heard said about pointe shoes and pointe in general.  If you can think of anything else, please comment.

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One Response to “On Pointe (Shoes)”

  1. Jennifer S. Says:

    I think we share a brain because I concur with what you said on this issue or issues because pointe shoes and being en pointe are really complex ideas.

    In the early days of blocked or what’s known as modern era pointe shoes, you see photographs of dancers celebrated as primas of their times have very developed calves. Part of that was due to Cecchetti influence on teaching at the Imperial School, but also huge part comes from having to use calves to achieve the new-fangled pointe work that was impressing audiences at the time. Since pointe shoes were only strengthened by rudimentary materials compared to what Pavlova did and what subsequently evolved into what we know as pointe shoes today, ballerinas all had overly developed calves.

    Today having exceptional pointe technique is not considered “sexy” because only seasoned fans or dancers appreciate how difficult it is, audiences more likely to go crazy and applaud for easier but space devouring grand allegro steps like jumps or fast turns no matter how messy or easy.

    Feet that are highly arched may or may not be strong, just as less than desirable feet may not be strong. Look at videos of Mezentseva who had one of the most unfortunate feet you will see on principal ballerina. Her feet especially in later years are hard to watch, they barely supported her and it seemed like she strained to go fully over the box en pointe.

    I think a beautiful instep is just as pretty as the covetted full arch. Actually a good combination of both is what I think is most beautiful. Of course beautiful feet like Zakharova which don’t do anything spectacular are just as bad as average feet. Most celebrated ballerinas today in Russia don’t have great pointe technique anymore.


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