To many people ballerinas seem magical; not only can they defy gravity with effortless Herculean jumps, they can balance and twirl on their toes. How do they do it? Are their foot bones made of steel?
The other day I watched two young girls try to figure out the answers to these questions. There they were, vainly spinning over and over on the tips of their sneakers, completely mystified about why they were having no success. "I could never be a ballerina", said one girl to the other. "There's no way I could stay on my toes."
I realized then that many people don't know much about pointe shoes. But there's a story to tell about pointe shoes history, how they were invented, how they are constructed and used and once you hear it you'll see how special these ballet shoes really are and why pirouettes in sneakers are an impossible feat.
The History of Pointe Shoes
15th-16th Centuries. Ballet History and Origins
Ballet traces its origins in the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th and 16th centuries. It was a stately form of dance, created to entertain the aristocrats of the time. Ballet later spread to France, where King Louis XIV went wild over it and ordered the founding of the Academie Royale de Danse. The first professional theatrical ballet company, the Paris Opera Ballet, emerged from here and is still in existence today (this also explains why ballet terminology is French).
1795. Charles Didelot Invented a “Flying Machine”
Originally women wore heeled shoes to dance. The first non-heeled shoes (worn in the Mid-18th Century by Marie Camargo of the Paris Opera Ballet) gave dancers a newfound ability to perform jumps and leaps that would otherwise have been impossible. But the dancers of that day wanted to take things further, to appear weightless and sylph-like. In 1795, Charles Didelot created an invention he called a “flying machine”, a sort of rope and pulley system that lifted dancers upward and allowed them to stand on their toes. The ethereal quality it gave dancers was wildly popular with audiences and choreographers began to look for ways to incorporate more "pointework" into their pieces.
19th century. Dance En Pointe - Marie Taglioni
Fast forward into the 19th century, where the emphasis on technical skill increased, as did the desire to dance en pointe without the aid of wires. Marie Taglioni took things to the next level when she first danced La Sylphide (1832) en pointe, although her shoes were nothing more than modified satin slippers darned at the sides and toes to help the shoes hold their shape.
In the late 19th century dancers wore shoes with a sturdy, flat platform at the front end of the shoe. These shoes also included a boxmade of layers of fabric for containing the toes, and a stiffer, stronger sole.
20th Century. Birth & Invention of the Pointe Shoe - Anna Pavlova
But the birth of the modern pointe shoe is often attributed to the early 20th-century Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, who was one of the most famous and influential dancers of her time. Pavlova had particularly high, arched insteps and slender, tapered feet. To compensate for this, she inserted toughened leather soles into her shoes for extra support and flattened and hardened the toe area to form a box, making the shoes much like those worn today thus the answer to the question "who really invented pointe shoes" should be Anna Pavlova.
How Pointe Shoes are Made, Constructed & Used
Some background: the process of making pointe shoes is intricate and involved. Every dancer has unique feet, with variations that include toe length and shape, arch flexibility, and mechanical strength, so no two pairs of pointe shoes are alike. Pointe shoe manufacturers produce more than one model of shoe, as well as custom fitted shoes. But all pointe shoes share two important structural features that enable dancers to dance on the tips of their toes:
- A box within the front end of the shoe that encases and supports the dancer's toes. The front end of the box is flat, a perfect surface upon which the dancer can balance and pirouette.
- A shank, which is a piece of rigid material that serves to stiffen the sole so as to provide support for the arch of the en pointe foot.
In conventional pointe shoes, the box is typically made from tightly packed layers of paper and fabric that have been glued together and then shaped into an enclosure. When the glue dries, it becomes hard and provides the required stiffness. In some newer pointe shoes, the box may be made from plastic and rubber. The exterior of the pointe shoe is covered with fabric.
In most pointe shoes, the sole is constructed from a single piece of leather that is attached to the shoe with adhesive and reinforced by stitching along its edges. Shanks are typically made from leather, plastic, cardstock, or layers of glue-hardened burlap. The flexibility of a shank is determined by its thickness and the type of material used.
While pointe shoes provide dancers with superhuman abilities, they don't come ready-to-wear. Dancers have to sew ribbons and elastics on every pair by hand, which often means hours of sewing for professional dancers. Then comes the "breaking in" process, where dancers customize the shoes for their particular feet and use. Every dancer has a personal and (sometimes) elaborate process of preparing new pointe shoes for use which can include:
- closing them in doors
- pounding them on walls, floors or other hard surfaces
- cutting and/or bending the shank
- sew ribbons and elastic
- wetting or heating the box
- releves or half-releves
Then comes readying the feet themselves, because tender toes have to be protected. Dancers use a variety of accessories:
- toe tape
- toe spacers
- lamb's wool
- gel pads
- paper towels
As you can see, it's a lot of work to prepare just one pair of pointe shoes. The average life span of a pair of these shoes is 10-20 hours. This translates to weeks or months for dance students, but professional dancers may wear out a pair of shoes in one performance. At an average price of about $65-95 a pair, the cost adds up quickly, although most companies provide shoes to their dancers. Students in professional ballet schools are often able to purchase shoes at a discount.
But the cost of shoes isn't the only price. Have you ever seen a dancer's feet up close? It's not a pretty picture. Still, its a price many dancers are willing to pay. While not all dancers consider pointe shoes to be a successful revolution, they are here to stay. For the rest of us, they remain beautiful and mystifying.