When people think of ballerinas they think of them dancing “on their toes” or what is called in the ballet world as “sur les pointes.” To be able to do this takes many years of training. Young children are not allowed to wear pointe shoes because their bones are soft cartilage while they are young and can be damaged by pointe work. Once they enter their pre-adolescent and teen years, the bones begin to ossify and if they also have developed sufficient technique and strength they may be allowed to start studying pointe.
Among the factors that will be looked at is whether they have sufficient technique to maintain their placement and correct body alignment while en pointe. They need to have very strong back, abdominal and thigh muscles to correctly hold their body placement. They also have to have strong foot, ankle, and leg muscles to help to keep the joints safely aligned and to pull the dancer’s weight out of the shoe. The shoe is designed to be quite hard and supportive however it is not supposed to do all of the work for the dancer. Allowing all the weight to fall on the shoes places too much weight on the delicate foot bones and joints. A dancer uses her muscles to help support herself in the shoe.
In the early days of pointe work, there was no special shoe and dancers had only their physical strength to support themselves on their toes. Geneviève Gosselin is thought to have danced en pointe in 1815 and Fanny Bias appears to be en pointe in prints dated 1821. However, these early attempts to dance en pointe involved little more than briefly posing on the tips of the toes. Marie Taglioni in 1832 was the first dancer to really dance en pointe and to use it artistically as part of the choreography. Marie’s father trained her for hours every day and she debuted in Paris in 1832 in La Sylphide in which she astonished theatre goers with her ability to stay en pointe and to appear as though she floated above the stage like the fairy that she portrayed. The shoes worn by Taglioni were not like today’s pointe shoe. There was no stiffened box to support her toes. Instead she darned her shoes along the sides and around the toe to keep the slipper in shape and to give her extra support.
Today, the pointe shoe is made with a process similar to papier-mâché. However instead of paper and glue, the pointe shoe is made of fabric and glue. It has a leather sole with some layers of cardboard and a shank to give support under the foot. The fabric is formed around a “last” and pleated under the toe. Great care is taken to make the “platform” of the shoe- the tip of the toe where the dancer stands- as flat as possible in order to assist with balance. It is also important that the bottom of the shoe lays flat so that it doesn’t rock when the ballerina balances on a flat foot. The shoe is made in many sizes and widths and also has to include other variables such as the length of the “vamp”- the part of the shoe that covers the toes. Some dancers have long toes and some have short toes. Where the vamp falls depends on the dancers toes and how high her arch is among other things. Dancers also have different preferences in how the heel fits. It is important that as they dance, the heel doesn’t slip off their foot, causing them to lose a shoe in the middle of performing, which can be dangerous. Because of all these variables, many professional dancers will have their shoes custom made.
It can take a long time to find the right shoe. It isn’t only about the fit of the shoe, but how it moves with your foot. In addition, once a dancer finds a shoe she wants she prepares it to her own specifications. First the elastic and ribbons have to be sewn on, as pointe shoes do not come with this pre-done. Then dancers have many different things they do, most of which looks like they are taking a new shoe and destroying it! They bang it to soften it a bit and get the noise out, they may take out some of the nails from the shank so that it conforms better to their arch, they may cut out part of the shank, they sometimes snip the satin off the tip of the shoe to make it less slippery. Sometimes they also darn around the tip to help give them more traction and balance. Some dancers use a rasp on the bottom of the shoe to give more traction and pare down the sides of the sole to make it flatter for balance. When the shoes begin to soften too much, they may pour glue or floor wax into the shoe to reharden it. On average a professional dancer goes through a pair of shoes per performance. With shoes costing between $60 and $90 per pair, pointe shoes are quite an expensive proposition. Luckily for dancers, they usually receive pointe shoes as part of their company contract.
To see more about pointe shoes check out the videos below:
How Pointe Shoes are Made
Preparing Pointe Shoes
Requirements for Pointe