Myths & Mysteries of Pointe Shoes
Published on 18/07/2014
If there is one facet of ballet that seems to capture our imagination from the stage to the street, it’s the pointe shoe. In their infancy, pointe shoes enabled a fantasy: the dream of a weightless woman, impossibly feminine and waif-like. But as the Imperial Era of ballet ushered in technical feats such as the notorious 32 fouettes seen in many of the great classics, pointe shoes turned into a tool for showing strength, speed, and exhilarating technical achievements. For dancers, they are the finishing touch to a polished technique; a certificate of graduation into the world of professional ballet. For most ordinary folk, the pointe shoe is a most mysterious and enigmatic choice of footwear. We thought it was time to dispel a few of the myths...
There's only one shape of shoe
No two feet are the same, and the success of any pointe shoe maker relies on adapting to the subtleties of different shapes of foot. Pointe shoes have evolved from the ultra-tapered slippers of the Romantic era to highly responsive and adaptive tools for a dancers technique. The ever increasing technical demands of modern choreography means that dancers can now opt for a wider based platform, which allows for greater stability en pointe. Bloch currently has 18 styles to choose from in a variety of widths, strengths, vamp lengths, and sole lengths which, when added up, amounts to over 1,500 combinations! Proof that pointe shoes are about as ‘couture’ as footwear gets.
There's wood in pointe shoes
At some stage in every professional ballet dancer’s life, she will hand over her pointe shoes to their friend who will stare back, bamboozled, unable to believe how light these satin slippers are. Contrary to popular belief, pointe shoes have no wood in them whatsoever. The ‘block’ like shape and feel is the result of layers of fabric and paste. It is this paste that gives the shoe enough structure to support the foot yet the necessary yield for a dancer to articulate their feet properly.
Pavlova was the first ballerina to dance 'en pointe'
Although Anna Pavlova’s role in the modernisation of pointe shoes cannot be ignored, it was decades before she took to the stage that the concept of dancing on ones toes came about. In fact, it is almost impossible to determine when dancing en pointe was first conceived of. It is believed that Genevieve Gosselin danced en pointe in a production of Charles-Louis Didelot's Flore et Zéphire in 1815, and Fanny Bias is seen in a print dated 1821 en pointe in the same role, but it was Marie Taglioni who marked the beginning of pointe work as a crucial choreographic element when she performed La Sylphide in 1832.
Pointe shoes have to hurt
But not nearly as much as you think. A knowledgeable and experienced pointe shoe fitter, such as those at Bloch, will help you with your all important first fitting. Once the dancer has found the right shoe for their foot shape, pain is minimal. Initially, as the skin on the feet hardens, a dancer might sport a blister or two, but there are many ways to treat these topical sores: gel-lined pouches, blister bandages and lambs wool all offer relief. And all dancers have a unique way of preparing their feet for pointe work; lambs wool works wonders when wrapped around toenails, and even the humble stocking can provide relief from friction.
Feet and toes are always damaged
Despite what films such as Black Swan and Centre Stage would have you think, a dancers toes are not always a bloodied mess. The more time a dancer spends en pointe, the tougher their feet become. Professional dancers view their callouses as precious armour and won’t dare try to remove hardened skin. For the foot itself to remain healthy, dancers must always aim for correct alignment in their pointe shoes. Combined with foot strengthening exercises under the guidance of a physiotherapist of Pilates instructor, there is no reason why feet need to be damaged from pointe work.
Men don't wear pointe shoes
Ok, not typically. But pointe work has a place for men in ballet - from the Ugly Stepsisters in Cinderella to the outrageous comedic all-male corps de ballet of companies like Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo and Les Ballets Grandiva - men can also train to be highly adept in a pair of pointe shoes. Male ballet dancers can benefit from taking pointe classes as it strengthens their ankles and improves balance. It is not a requirement, however it is increasingly embraced.
Shoes would last longer if they were made out of leather
While the soles of pointe shoes are typically made of leather as this offers good support and adds shape to the shoe, the majority of a pointe shoe is covered in satin. Not only would a leather pointe shoe lose the elegance and line of a satin covered shoe, it would cause too much friction on the block and prevent ease of movement. Leather, like any natural fabric, wears down. Dancers have ways of extending the life of their shoes: pouring a thin layer of shellac into the inner sole of the shoe, and darning the block with thick cotton thread, are two of the most common ways of doing this.
Dancers with strong feet need strong shoes.
Actually, it is often the dancer with strong feet that can afford the luxury of a soft and supple pointe shoe. Dancing en pointe requires incredible strength in the foot and ankle, and dancers with very mobile ankles and a high arch tend to require a stronger shoe to support them. Professional dancers often have strong feet regardless of the shape of their foot, and so can break down their shoe until they find the balance between ‘feeling the floor’ and enough support.