Pointe Shoe Primer

by Mme Ichijo

For every classical dancer that exists , there exists that personal way of preparing, sewing, tying, breaking-in and using their pointe shoes. First used in the 1700's, toe shoes have enhanced classical and contemporary ballet for over 150 years, and have evolved dramatically and continually to this day. While they are exclusively for female dancers, some men have chosen to use them to enhance their foot strength, and sensiblity, as well as to understand what their female partners go through to master this unique tool of the dancer's vocabulary. There is one ballet, the Royal Ballet's "A Misummer's Night Dream" by Sir Frederick Ashton, where the donkey (male) is required to don black pointe shoes to enhance his role on hooves.

Somewhere around the age of 8 - 13, a female student can be ready for pointe shoes. It can even be earlier or later, depending on the core body strength, straightness of knees, a pliable, strong and arched foot, and correctly placed hips, as well as an ankle that is trained not to "sickle" or roll to the outside, toward the baby toe. This last factor is one of the most crucial factors, as an ankle or foot can be badly strained or even broken if the foot suddenly rolls outwards during practice. That is why the student must train carefully before being allowed to get pointe shoes, and why the subsequent training on the shoes is very important. A minimum of three days a week of ballet is required to be safe and successful on pointe, as well as good overall health and diet, to ensure healthy bones and muscles.

The instructor must monitor the progress carefully, paying strict attention to the non-rolling out, the knees and hip alignment. The early months and years may progress slowly, but in the end the result is quite lovely and fun for the student and amazing and lovely to the average on-looker! Poorly shaped feet can also be improved, by correct use of the pointe shoes, almost as therapy, by the experienced teacher.

Pointe shoes are expensive, (between $60 - $100) and the student should be encouraged to use them wisely, and care for them after working in them. After use, they should not be just thrown into the dance bag, but carefully dried if sweaty, and re-shaped to the proper arch and taper. Once dried, they should be folded and wrapped with the ribbons as shown in the photo (coming soon). Every student MUST learn to sew their own pointe shoes, as it is a unique placement of the ribbons and elastic for each foot for optimum control, and arching of the foot in their dancing and training.

Young students also grow quickly, so that the size of the shoe must be carefully monitored, and a proper toe shoe fitting by excellent fitters is absolutely required in the early years so that the toes are never jammed. Only in unique cases is a doctor's x-ray required for pointe shoe readiness, but the experienced instructor can identify when this is necessary, or have it done simply to allay parents' apprehension. Growth plates do not have to be closed to go on pointe, as the early work is careful and minimal compared to the later years on pointe when much more is time en pointe is required to master the more difficult steps. 

For the more advanced and experienced student, at least two pairs of shoes should be "in action". This means that while one pair is being broken in, another is already well in use, so that they always have a pair that suits their feet, and they are never without a pair to use, even if one pair is getting soft. One more pair should be "on hold", ready to break in when needed. Soft, worked shoes have the advantage of allowing the foot to really arch, and articulate in delicate steps, while a newer, harder shoe challenges the foot to point harder and often is appropriate for hops on pointe and various difficult turns such as multiple fouettes tours. A soft shoe can also allow the foot to use its own strength to "stand up", not relying on the stiff shoe to maintain balance and stability.

Some students will opt to interchange their right and left shoe intermittently as this prolongs the life of the shoes, but for some feet that are not symmetrical, this does not work, or they may chose a right or left just by personal preference.

It takes at least three years of use in trial and error to find out the best type of shoe for a young dancer, and, as new shoes are developed, they may yet change again as they discover new and different shoes. Often, a ballerina (professional) may use two or three pairs in one night of a ballet, depending on the turns, jumps and steps she must perform. One pair may be totally used up in one performance, and fortunately in the larger companies, the toes shoes are paid for by the ballet company as part of the dancer's contract.

Pointe shoes are categorized by hard, medium and soft shank; stiff or soft shoe; low profile (height of satin as you look from the side); length of vamp (the length of area where the toes reside); width of the box (also where the toes reside; with a drawstring or not (I recommend a drawstring for newbies); full shank or three quarter or half-shank, and a host of other categories. I recommend reading "The Pointe Shoe Book", by Janice Beringer, and found on the shelves at Hope Garden, for reference, which has more information on pointe shoes than you will ever need!