What are pointe shoes made of?
Pointe shoes look dainty, but they really aren’t. The tip of the shoe is a rigid box made of densely packed layers of fabric, cardboard and/or paper hardened by glue. The dancer depends on it to be extremely sturdy: the entire weight of her body is balanced on a small platform in that box! The rest of the shoe is made of leather, cotton and satin. Each shoe is custom hand-made to fit each dancer’s specifications. No two pairs of pointe shoes are identical!
Why do ballet dancers wear pointe shoes?
Pointe shoes make ballet dancing look magical and even daring. They create an illusion of lightness and give a sense that the ballerina is floating on air.
When did ballerinas begin dancing with pointe shoes?
Italian ballerina Maria Taglioni was the first ballerina that we know of to dance on pointe in the early 1830s, but the method probably began earlier. Taglioni and her contemporaries stuffed the toes of their soft shoes with starch and other materials, but soon Italian cobblers made harder shoes for them using paper, burlap and satin. This prototype evolved into the modern pointe shoe.
Am I ready for pointe shoes?
Nothing compares to that magical moment when your teacher says you’re ready for your first pair of pointe shoes. I remember bursting out of the studio doors, clutching a precious piece of paper with the phone number of the nearest pointe shoe fitter. Finally, my years of hard work had paid off!
Ever wonder why getting promoted to pointe shoes takes so long? Pointe work can be dangerous and detrimental to your feet if you start too early, so it’s not a decision your teachers make lightly. Several factors have to come into play before they give you the green light.
Age and Training Schedule
For one thing, your teacher has to determine that you’re at the right stage of physical development. Long foot bones start hardening between ages 8 and 14, and it’s crucial that you don’t start pointe work when your bones are too soft. Otherwise, you could develop growth-plate fractures, which can cause foot deformities (yikes!).
Priscilla Nathan-Murphy, lower-school principal of Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy, feels it’s generally unsafe to start pointe before age 10, 11 or 12. “Before then, your metatarsal structure is too weak to maintain the weight of your body and handle the stress of the pointe shoes,” she says. “By age 12, bones are still growing and fusing, but their development is closer to being complete.”
Age isn’t the only factor. In order to achieve the appropriate amount of strength needed to stand on your toes, you’ll need a few years of training under your belt and a commitment to several ballet classes a week. Students at Maryland Youth Ballet in Silver Spring, MD, are required to have two years of training before they can register for a special pointe preparation class. (They don’t actually start pointe until the following year.) “Students should have a strong foundation of classical ballet before pointe work is added to it,” says Michelle Lees, MYB’s principal.
Many studios offer pointe preparation classes, as MYB does, to help students build strength in their feet, ankles and legs. Usually, class combinations involve a lot of demi-pointe and relevé, as well as resistance-band exercises, foot stretches and toe exercises. If your school doesn’t offer a pointe prep class, ask your teacher for a strengthening routine you can do on your own.
But that’s not all….. Dancers also need killer core strength to lift up and out of their pointe shoes. (Being able to balance on demi-pointe in retiré is a good sign, according to Lees.) And don’t forget the turnout muscles. “If you struggle to control your turnout when you’re on flat, it will be even harder to control when you’re on that 1 1/2-inch block,” says Nathan-Murphy. Try simple plank exercises to build your core strength, and in class, focus on rotating from the hip to make sure you’re holding your turnout correctly.
Teachers also look for proper alignment, which requires a certain amount of natural flexibility in the foot and ankle. “When you’re on pointe, there should be a straight line from the hip, through the knee and ankle bone, to the toes,” Lees says. Unfortunately, dancers with a limited range of motion in their ankles often struggle to rise onto the shoe’s platform. “They will compensate to get on pointe,” Lees says. “Their knees will bend, their thighs will overdevelop and their lower backs will give in.” Dancers with stiffer feet may need more preparation time to improve their range of motion if possible.
On the other hand, dancers with “pretty,” hypermobile feet sometimes need more time, too. “This type of dancer is usually very weak, which means she will go too far over her shoe,” says Nathan-Murphy. “Teachers have to work with them carefully so they can learn how to support themselves properly.”
Only when all of these factors are in place, and your teacher (and only your teacher!) gives you the go-ahead, will you be ready for the wonderful world of pointe shoes. So while you’re exercising your feet and ankles, exercise some patience as well. Your body will thank you for it.
Pointe Shoe Myths and Misconceptions
Myths and mysteries are definitely fun, but we’re here to debunk a few related to your favourite shoe! “Despite what you may have been told, pointe shoes are not made of wood and steel. The shank is typically made out of leather, card stock or plastic – we promise the only metal in your shoes are the small nails some styles use to attach the shank to the outer sole and they are teeny tiny” says Dowson. As for wood? Not now and not ever! “Contrary to popular belief, pointe shoes have never been made of wood but instead are made using layers of fabric and paste, or depending on the brand, plastic.”
When asked about the notion that a strong foot needs a strong shoe, Dowson says this can be true and false. “It comes down to personal preference. There are many professional dancers with strong feet who prefer a softer shoe. A dancer can also use a harder shoe as a work horse while they train to help keep the cost of replacing shoes down.” When talking about strong vs. soft shoes or falling into the dreaded “brand bias”, it is important to note that all dancers have different feet “Every foot is different, with their own shape and size and expecting the same style of pointe shoe to work for every foot is not just unreasonable, but can also be unhealthy.”
While it is more common to see women en pointe, pointe is for the boys too! “Some men are en pointe to build strength, to become a better pointe teacher and others to perform!” There are some roles in classical ballet that showcase men on pointe, like The Stepsisters in some versions of Cinderella, Bottom in a Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Baroness in James Kudelka’s An Italian Straw Hat.” We would also be remiss to not mention the all-male comic ballet company Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo.
Ask Our Experts
Pointe shoes can be confusing. From how their made to how you look after them and everything in between, a dancer is bound to have a few questions about their favourite tool. We asked our lovely Instagram followers to ask us anything about their pointe shoes and have Krista answer your most burning questions!
“I’m almost ready to go on pointe! How should my pointe shoes feel?”
First things first, pointe shoes are not going to feel like your favourite sneakers! Your new shoes should feel snug, and there will be some pressure at the end of the shoe, but you should definitely be able to wiggle your toes. When standing flat or in a demi plié (in this position your feet are their widest and longest!), you should feel your big toe against the end of the shoe – but not curled or pushed back. While you should feel the shoe hugging your foot, you don’t want the fit to be so narrow that it turns your foot into a taco shell. When you’re en pointe, it is normal for the material at the heel to “bag” slightly. A pointe shoe that fits you properly will provide support but not do the work for you.
“Why can’t I buy pointe shoes a little big so I can grow into them?”
Simply put, pointe shoes that are too big don’t fit! Pointe shoes are designed to hug the shape of your foot, which means shoes that are too big don’t support you properly. Other problems like calluses, bruised joints or damaging injury to your ankles and toes make it dangerous to purchase and wear shoes that you can “grow into”.
“How do I know it’s time for a new pair? And do pointe shoes REALLY only last 15 hours?!”
We know it sounds crazy, but yes! The lifespan of pointe shoes is generally between 10 and 20 hours! Like all averages, there is some wiggle room and different factors at play that contribute to your pointe shoes lifespan. Most beginners end up replacing their shoes because they’ve grown, not because they have died (this means your first pair will look almost perfect, making them a great keepsake!), while professional dancers who are spending hours a day en pointe will burn through their shoes much faster.
There are a few different ways to tell if you need new pointe shoes:
You’ve outgrown your shoes if:
- The heels are popping off
- The shoe is starting to hook, making you look sickled Your toes are crunching
- The shoes are very hard to put on your feet
You may have killed your shoes if:
- The box feels mushy
- If you feel your toes pushing into the floor more than normal
- The shank is too soft, you may not feel supported and could be knuckling or crunching Water has spilled on them
- Jet glue is no longer helping
“What is the best way to look after my pointe shoes?
When it comes to looking after your pointe shoes, there are a few things you can do that will keep them looking their best and also help to extend their life! Most importantly, moisture is the enemy of pointe shoes, so make sure to let your shoes and all of your accessories (think toe pads, spacers and lamb’s wool) air dry after every class. Show your shoes a little TLC and trim off any fraying satin from the platform and be sure to burn the ends of your ribbons to keep them from fraying – no dancers need tassels swinging around their ankles! Having two pairs of shoes on the go is a great way to help extend their life and keep them looking their best. One of our most important tips? Keep your pets away from your pointe shoes! We know – this might seem a little strange BUT some dogs find them incredibly tasty and some cats fancy they have found a new litter box.