Pointe shoes

I’ve always been fascinated by classical ballet dancers. How can they dance so lightly and gracefully, as if they weigh nothing at all? And how do they manage to dance on the tips of their toes? Well, the answer is through years of hard work, practice and with the help of special shoes called pointe shoes.

Pointe shoes are worn by ballet dancers, and they help the dancer to dance en pointe, or on the tips of their toes. Pointe shoes have a toe box in the front of the shoe. This box makes it look as if the dancer has very long feet, but it is what helps her stand on the tips of her toes. The box is made from layers of fabric and glue, which hardens once the glue dries. There is a stiff insole called a shank that supports the dancer’s feet, and a sole made of leather. Then the outside of the pointe shoe is covered in fabric, most commonly in light pink satin. Other colours are possible too, to match the dance costume.

A pair of vintage pointe shoes.

A pair of vintage pointe shoes.

An elastic band and ribbons on either side of the pointe shoe secures the shoe on to the dancer’s foot. Because every foot is different, it is up to the dancer to decide the best place on the shoe to attach the elastic band and ribbons, and sew them on herself. Not doing this correctly will result in ill-fitting pointe shoes.

Young dancers start on pointe shoes at around age 11 or 12, after a few years of dance training. It is not good to start younger than that as children are still growing very fast. Also, the dance teacher must judge when a dancer is ready technically for pointe shoes. Pointe shoes only help a dancer to dance en pointe; but the dancer’s muscles in her feet, ankles, legs and torso must be developed enough to handle dancing on the tips of her toes.

When a dancer gets new pointe shoes, she has to break them in so that they are comfortable for her to dance in. Every dancer has her own way to break in pointe shoes. Some gentler ways are to wear the new pointe shoes and do rises, demi-pointe, which is to rise high on the balls of the feet half-way to full pointe, walking around en pointe and leaning over en pointe. Other more extreme ways to break in pointe shoes are to stand on them or hammer them or bang them on the floor. The reason for this is to soften the box so that it shapes to the dancer’s foot. Even with the help of properly fitted and broken in pointe shoes, dancing en pointe is not an easy thing to do, and dancers still use other things like toe pads, toe spacers and tape to make dancing on the tips of their toes less painful.

Pointe shoes don’t last very long at all. For dance students, a pair of pointe shoes could last a few weeks or months, but a professional dancer can go through 3 or 4 pairs of pointe shoes in a week. A principal dancer can wear out a pair of pointe shoes in a single performance. Pointe shoes represent a significant cost to dancers.

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Argentine Tango Shoes

When I was in high school in New Zealand, in the weeks leading up to the school ball (equivalent to senior prom in the USA), students in the senior forms had ballroom dance lessons in preparation for the ball. These dance lessons were held during lunch break in the school hall. During these lessons, I learned many different ballroom dances, none of which I can remember now.

The first time that I danced ballroom tango was in one of these dance lessons at school. Unfortunately, the reason I remember this is because I fell down in front of most of the senior school while dancing the tango. I thought I had tripped over the guy’s feet. He claims he pushed me down. Whatever the truth, suffice to say that my first experience with the tango was very embarrassing.

Fast forward many years later, and I enrolled in an Argentine tango class. Actually, ballroom tango is very different from Argentine tango. They are almost like completely different dances, but I signed up for the Argentine tango class anyway. Why? Because I guess I still have some unfinished business left with the tango. Also, the flyer advertising this class claims that, ‘If you can walk, you can dance Argentine tango.’ This intrigued me, and I wanted to find out if this claim is true.

Argentine tango started at the end of the 19th century on the streets of Buenos Aires. It is an intimate and sensual dance, totally improvised, with an emphasis on the connection between the two dancers. Argentine tango is danced to the accompaniment of the bandoneón, which is a musical instrument that looks like an accordion.

My only goal for this class was: don’t fall down, and try and have fun. So far, I have managed not to fall down, but as a beginner I have also been dancing in my socks. Having big guys who don’t know how to dance either step on my toes really hurt! So I thought I would write about Argentine tango shoes.

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A pair of women’s Argentine tango shoes in a peep-toe style.

Both tango shoes for men and women look like regular street shoes. But tango shoes are made of leather or suede, including in the soles, and this makes doing pivots and turns a lot easier. Tango shoes for women are beautiful, and always high-heeled. The heels are around 2.5 to 3.5 inches high (6.5 – 9cm). Women’s tango shoes can be in a covered or peep-toe style, and they are always strappy, with straps that go around the ankle. On the inside, tango shoes should have a soft lining, preferably of leather. To be able to dance in them, tango shoes should fit securely so that the feet are not sliding around inside the shoes. This often means wearing tango shoes a half size smaller than regular street shoes.

So is it true that if you can walk, you can dance Argentine tango? Well… I would say that if you can walk backwards in high heels while doing pivots and turns, then yes, you can dance Argentine tango.

Ballet shoes and childhood nostalgia

I don’t know about other people but my earliest childhood memory involved shoes. I was exactly 4 years and 3 months old, and it was my first overseas trip – to Singapore. I couldn’t tell you who else went on that family trip, I don’t remember what we did in Singapore, but I do remember the shoes I wore. They were a pair of pink Mary Jane shoes made of material that felt like leather, and they had proper straps and buckles, not just velcro or elastic straps.

I don’t know who decided that young girls should love ballet and the colour pink, but I was no exception. Another shoe that I remember from my childhood (which were also pink) were my ballet slippers with pink ribbons that tie around the ankles. I love my ballet classes and I love my ballet shoes. I wish I had stuck with ballet lessons for longer, though even if I had continued, I would eventually grow too tall to be any good as a ballet dancer.

I don’t think people ever forget the things that bring them joy as a child, so as an adult, I signed up for an adult ballet class. Adult ballet classes are just as fun as when I was a child, and allow me to relive the joys of my childhood. I managed to buy myself a pair of ballet shoes (in pink of course!). Fortunately in New Zealand, I could find a pair big enough to fit me. I doubt I would have been able to in Malaysia. If you thought trying to make sense of European, UK and US shoes sizes were hard, you should try deciphering dance shoe sizes. There does not seem to be any uniformity, and different brands size their dance shoes differently. If you are buying dance shoes, just try them on. It’s easier that way.

Shih Yen's full sole leather ballet shoes from the Paul Wright label

Similar to traditional Chinese and Japanese clogs, ballet shoes also don’t come in a left or right side. But unlike clogs, with ballet shoes you pick which side you want to wear on your left or right foot and then label that side L or R. Eventually, the ballet shoes will mould to fit your feet.

I bought a pair of soft full-sole leather ballet flats by the Paul Wright label. This is an Australian label, but the shoes are made in Indonesia. Paul Wright was a professional dancer and a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet. He toured the world with companies such as the Australian Ballet, London’s Festival Ballet, New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet. Paul Wright taught himself how to make dance shoes, drawing on his own dance background and knowledge of dancers’ needs to design his dance shoes. He started his company Paul Wright Pty Ltd in 1969. After retiring as a dancer in 1973, he concentrated on making dance shoes and dance wear. Paul Wright sold his company in 2006 to Spratz. Products under the Paul Wright label are still distributed by Spratz Dancewear.

A pair of ballet flats street shoes by Capezio. Ballet flats can be worn with anything

As a street shoe, ballet flats is one of my favourite style of shoe. They can be worn with just about anything – skirts, dresses, jeans or trousers. Ballet flats look good, are comfortable and never go out of style.