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Gear

Pointe Shoes

The magic slippers of ballet

Introduction

Question: Why do only ballerinas dance en pointe?

Answer: It’s true, few ballets require men to dance en pointe. More recently, though, choreographers have been adding some pointe work for male dancers to their ballets. And a growing number of male ballet dancers have been learning the technique. Many say it has helped them develop more strength and flexibility. It also helps them better understand the demands placed on their female dance partners. And to no surprise, these larger pointe shoes are made specifically for male dancers.

Pointe Shoes: The Magic Slippers of Ballet

During a performance in the 1890s, Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani was her charming, nimble self. Audiences were familiar with her great talent, but this time she launched into 32 fouettés (pronounced fu-ET-tays)—twirling in one small spot on the pointed toes of one foot. The audience had seen her prance on her toes before, but nothing like this. The theater exploded with applause when she completed the series of spins. Another dancer was so amazed, he started clapping for Legnani right on stage.

Such has been the graceful glory of dancing en pointe, French for “on the tips of the toes.” Choreographers—the people who create dance—thrill at building pointe work into their productions. It is often used to add a supernatural look and feel to dancers playing birds, fairies, ghosts, and other spirits. It also showcases a ballerina’s talent and skill like no other technique can.

What makes dancing en pointe possible? Footwear called pointe shoes (also known as toe shoes). With their flat, stiff fronts and special construction, pointe shoes give ballerinas the footwear that helps them stay on their toes and wow audiences. 

Keep clicking to find out what makes this dainty-looking shoe such a remarkable piece of dancing gear.

History

This timeline touches on breakthroughs in the development of pointe shoes. The desire to dance en pointe created the need for pointe shoes, and the development of pointe shoes made dancing en pointe easier. The technique and shoe developed together.

Marie Taglioni in the title role of La Sylphide, a ballet danced en pointe for the full length of the work.

1681 ...

Women were allowed to dance ballet in France for the first time. Twenty years earlier, King Louis XIV had established the Académie Royale de Danse in Paris. It was the world’s first dance school. This helps explain why French is the language of ballet to this day.

1720s

...

Marie Anne de Cupis de Camargo, a French-Belgian dancer, became the first ballerina to dance in ballet slippers instead of shoes with heels.

1832

...

Marie Taglioni popularized pointe work in her father’s ballet, La Sylphide. Her ballet slippers had a leather sole and some cotton wool for padding, but did not have a stiff toe. Instead, dancers going en pointe at this time had to rely on the strength of their own toes, feet, and legs.

1860s

...

Dancers began using glue and stitching to stiffen, or block, the toes of their slippers.

1900s

...

Russian dancer Anna Pavlova, one of ballet’s all-time greats, added stiff shanks to support the bottom of her weak feet. She also changed the pointy front of her slippers to a flatter platform. Other dancers considered it cheating, but the style soon caught on.

1990s

...

Manufacturers of pointe shoes began using synthetic materials, like plastic, to make the toe cup and other hidden supports. Still, the basic structure of pointe shoes has changed very little in the last 100 years.

Close Up

The most noticeable feature of a pointe shoe is its stiff, flat front. This is the platform ballerinas balance on while en pointe. The toe box and other reinforcements are stiff enough to support the foot, while the overall shoe is flexible enough to allow expressive movement.

They may be pink and satiny and tied with ribbons, but don’t judge these shoes by their dainty looks. Pointe shoes, or toe shoes, are the footwear of amazing athletes who express their physical talents and skills through dance. Their unique construction lets ballerinas spring onto their toes and appear to float as they dance and pirouette, or whirl, en pointe.

  • Toe Box or Block—the stiff cup-shaped front of the shoe; usually constructed with burlap, canvas, or newspaper, held together and hardened with glue.
  • Platform—the flat front of the shoe on which the dancer stands when en pointe. Dancers often cut away the satin to make the platform less slippery.
  • Binding—the cloth tube on top where the shoe’s drawstring runs.
  • Outer sole—the bottom of the shoe that touches the floor when the dancer stands flat-footed. It is usually made of leather to better grip the stage.
  • Shank—the stiff midsole inside the shoe. It is typically made of cardboard or fiberboard and supports the foot when the dancer is en pointe.
  • Throat—the opening around the ankle near the front of the shoe.
  • Vamp—the top of the shoe that covers the tops of the toes and foot.
  • Ribbons—the cloth strips that secure pointe shoes around the ankles. Dancers usually sew on their own ribbons to get them exactly the way they like.
  • Quarter—this holds the heel and back half of the foot.
  • Upper—this covers the sides of the foot toward the front of the shoe.

At Work

What Does It Mean?

For a glossary of ballet terms with way-cool video demonstrations, click on this link to the American Ballet Theatre.

Imagine a painter without a paintbrush, a guitarist without a guitar, an outfielder without a glove. Likewise, pointe shoes are the essential gear for ballerinas who dance en pointe. These special shoes give them the support that makes possible some of the most amazing moves in ballet.

In a very real sense, pointe shoes are athletic shoes. Like a pair of cleats worn on a soccer field, pointe shoes give the ballerina a unique connection to the ground. The flat front of the shoes creates a more stable platform for her to perch, spin, and glide gracefully on the tips of her toes. However, unlike athletic shoes, pointe shoes must also look sleek and graceful.

Ballerinas are very picky about their pointe shoes, and they prepare them carefully. They sew on the ribbons themselves to get them just right. Most cut the slippery satin from the platform they must balance on. They also prepare their feet for pointe work using tape, cotton, and foam pads that cushion and support the toes. Most ballerinas carry around a small first-aid kit to treat their feet.

With experience, dancers learn exactly how to break in their pointe shoes to their liking. Some ballerinas bend and twist new shoes, slam them in doors, or dunk them in water. They want the shoes to be firm enough to support their pointe work, but not so stiff that the shoes are uncomfortable or limit movement.

Pointe shoes do not live long lives. Once the toe box or shank becomes too soft the shoes lose their usefulness. A pair may break down after only a few lessons. A full-length ballet performance may wear out two sets. That’s why dressing rooms of professional ballerinas are littered with battered pointe shoes that have fulfilled their purpose.

Get the Pointe

Jessica Lawrence, corps de ballet member, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet. Photo by Keith Sutter

Learning to dance en pointe is the dream of most young ballerinas. But mastering the technique requires years of training and practice. Dancers can suffer painful injuries to their feet and ankles if they try to do too much too soon, or attempt to do pointe work without proper instruction.

As a rule, starting pointe lessons requires the go-ahead of the ballet instructor. The instructor will check to see if a student’s feet and legs are physically ready for the strain. And most want their students to have two to three years of regular training before they begin practicing this demanding technique. Only then should a young dancer get fitted for pointe shoes.

Most young ballerinas begin preparing to go en pointe when they are about 11 years old. That is usually the age when the bones and muscles of the feet and legs have grown strong enough to take the stress. Early pointe work features lots of stretching and strengthening exercises. As students and their bodies master the basics of pointe work, the instructor will add more pointe lessons to their training.

The dream comes true when a ballerina can dance en pointe during a performance.

Credits

Writers

Sean McCollum
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Kenny Neal
Producer

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