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.
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.