What are Pointe Shoes?

They’re made of pink satin and can propel a ballerina to incredible heights. They are the foundation of advanced female ballet technique. What exactly are they? Shoes with pointed toes! These shoes are a ballerina’s most important piece of equipment. Ballet would have a completely different look and feel if they weren’t there. With the foot flat or even on demi-pointe – what we call standing on tiptoe – an arabesque, with the leg lifted high behind and arms outstretched, is a lovely attitude, but en pointe, it transcends itself as the ballerina appears to defy gravity. She is able to achieve this beauty wearing pointe shoes.

Ballet began in France in the 1500s as court dancing. Men had the most fun dancing at the time because they could wear tights in public and their clothing was less restrictive. Women had to deal with cumbersome dresses, corsets, and farthingales, all of which restricted their movement. However, some enterprising female dancers in the 18th century shocked their culture wearing tights, removing their corsets, and loosening their clothing so they could dance.

No one knows who was the first ballerina to dance en pointe, but Maria Taglioni was the first recorded dancer en pointe. In 1832, she performed an entire ballet en pointe. More ballerinas wanted to follow in her footsteps, but wearing soft leather slippers made it extremely difficult. Italian ballerinas persuaded their shoemakers to make a tougher shoe, and their satin, paper, and burlap creations evolved into today’s pointe shoes.

Pointe shoes appear to be delicate and soft, but they are not. They have to be tough because the dancer’s entire weight is balanced on an area about the size of a silver dollar. The flattened, oval platform at the toe box’s tip is what allows a ballerina to stay en pointe. A satin upper, a toe box made of paper and burlap stiffened with glue, and a leatherboard or stiff cardboard shank support the arch of the dancer’s foot while she is en pointe are all common features of pointe shoes. All of this may appear to be medieval architecture, and it is. In the last 150 years, the traditional construction of pointe shoes hasn’t changed much. Pointe shoes’ materials degrade quickly with use, and most pointe shoes will only last a single performance. The majority of ballet companies have astronomical shoe budgets.

The Gaynor Minden company has created a pointe shoe with elastometric toe box and shank materials. Unlike traditional shoes, these shanks are unbreakable and, according to the company, require little “breaking in.” The company claims that their shoes will wear out at the tips before the shank, and some ballet companies and dancers have begun to use them for this reason. However, ballet is a traditional art form, and many companies and teachers are wary of the Gaynor Minden shoe. Many dancers have stated that it all comes down to which shoe fits a ballerina’s foot the best and allows her to dance to her full potential while using the best technique.

Dancers usually go en pointe after several years of good training, during which their feet, ankles, and legs are strengthened to cope with the unique and difficult demands of pointe. A good teacher will rarely let a girl dance en pointe before she is 11 years old. The pointe shoes are worn for the last 10 to 15 minutes of class at this point, and the dancer gradually works up to wearing pointe shoes for the entire class over several months. There are horror stories about pointe technique damaging girls’ feet, and some of them are true. The majority of the damage, however, can be avoided choosing a qualified teacher who is more concerned with developing good dancers with good technique than with putting girls on pointe.

A good teacher will also help the dancer choose good pointe shoes from a reputable manufacturer, and may even attend the fitting to ensure the dancer gets shoes that fit properly and are appropriate for her. Pointe shoe manufacturers typically offer their shoes with a variety of features, so a dancer must be careful to select shoes that will allow her to move freely while maintaining control.

On the Internet and in ballet books, there is a wealth of information about pointe shoes and technique. It’s a subject that never ceases to fascinate me.