Naturally enough, we are asked lots of dance-related questions here in Dance World, but the topic that we find ourselves chatting about with customers more than any other is unequivocally Ballet Pointe Shoes! The mystique surrounding pointe shoes is pervasive so we thought it might be helpful to answer some of your most frequently asked questions.
What is a pointe shoe?
Pointe shoes are specially made shoes that allow ballerinas to dance on the tips of their toes. They may look dainty but they are not. They have a hard inner sole, called a shank and a reinforced toe box.
What are pointe shoes made of?
The tip of the shoe is a firm, rigid box made of densely packed layers of fabric, cardboard and/or paper hardened with glue. The rest of the shoe is made of leather, cotton and satin. Each shoe is hand made so no two pairs of pointe shoes are identical. A little different from your run-of-the-mill canvas split-soles am I right?
Why do we dance on pointe?
In the 19th century, the dancer Marie Taglioni first danced La Sylphide en pointe. Her shoes were nothing more than satin slippers with leather soles and darned sides for reinforcement. She would have had to rely solely on the strength of her feet and ankles for support. Since then, the structure of a pointe shoe has changed dramatically but the idea has remained the same.
Is a pointe shoe ready to wear when you buy it?
Unfortunately, no. You will sew ribbons and elastics on the sides of your pointes to keep the shoe securely on your foot. Some dancers will also make adaptations to the shanks and boxes depending on the strength of their feet and legs. The process of preparing a pair of ballet pointe shoes can be very different from dancer to dancer.
What are toe pads?
Toe pads are little padded pouches; often made of gel, silicone or foam. They cover the toes and offer a shock absorbant layer between your toes and the inside of a pointe shoe. Most dancers will use some form of toe protection inside their pointes for a little padding and pain relief. Some hardcore dancers don’t bother as they prefer to be able to feel the floor with their toes but the majority of dancers will try to save their tootsies the discomfort.
What is the difference between a pointe shoe and a demi-pointe shoe?
A demi-pointe shoe looks almost identical to a full pointe shoe. The toe box is reinforced but there is no hard shank (reinforced insole) inside the shoe. This means that it is impossible to dance on pointe in a pair of demi-pointe shoes. Dancers who are working towards starting pointe work will use demi-pointe shoes to build up the strength required to dance on pointe. Demi-pointe shoes are harder to work in than soft ballet flats and will encourage you to use your feet and strengthen your legs, feet, and core. A stronger dancer will be more capable of dancing on pointe and less susceptible to injury.
How does a pointe shoe “die”?
Dancers use the team ‘dead’ to mean worn out. There are two main types of wear on a pointe shoe. Wear on the shank and wear on the box. As you wear a pointe shoe, the shank (reinforced insole) has to flex repeatedly to allow you to move from flat to pointe. This gradually weakens the shank and it will eventually reach the point where it does not provide adequate support. The box also wears out through use. The platform (the flat part at the toe where you stand) and the box (the hard casing around your toes) need to be hard enough that they support your toes and metatarsals. If a shoe isn’t giving you sufficient support you are more susceptible to injury.
How long does a pair of pointe shoes last?
This is a question with a complicated answer. The longevity of a pair of ballet pointe shoes will depend on how and when you use them. If you do one pointe class per week they will last far longer than if you take three pointe classes per week. “For a student with moderate usage, a pair of pointe shoes will typically last anywhere from ten to twenty hours of wear.” For different dancers, this can mean either weeks or months of use from a single pair of pointe shoes. Similarly, a dancer with very strong feet may wear a shoe out faster than a dancer who is still building strength.
Beginners will often get longer out of their first pair of pointe shoes and will sometimes grow out of the shoes before they “die” or wear-out. How long your pointe shoes will last is not something a fitter or teacher can tell you for sure. They can only make an educated guess based on your strength, technique, growth rate, and frequency of usage.
Why are pointe shoes fitted with no growing room if a child is still growing?
A very important point to remember is that Pointe shoes are a professional tool. Pointe shoes have to fit tight so that they can provide adequate support to allow the dancer to dance safely on pointe. We need to bear in mind that during pointe work the dancer places her entire body weight on the tips of her toes, this is not natural! These shoes have evolved and improved over generations to help ballerinas work in the safest way possible.
If a pointe shoe has extra space in it then it doesn’t do what it is designed and intended to do and your feet and ankles will take all the pressure and strain. This is dangerous! Pointe shoes need to fit your foot correctly now, not the size your foot will be in six months time. It is not a problem to wait until your foot has finished growing to get pointe shoes.
Last but not least…the biggest burning question of all…
When can I get pointe shoes?
This, unfortunately, is not a question with a simple answer. Starting pointe work is not just a matter of age or physical maturity; readiness depends on strength, technique, mental attitude, and commitment. Chat with your teacher to discuss a pre-pointe assessment, working in demi-pointe shoes, and anything else you can work on to help you make a successful transition to pointe work.