Pointe work is one of the notable elements of classical ballet. Dancing en pointe is certainly a milestone for many dancers after a few years of ballet training. While it may seem effortless for a ballet dancer to glide weightlessly across the stage like a sylph, much work is needed to get on the tips of the pointe shoes. It requires strength, balance and flexibility to work in perfect harmony throughout the body.
History of Pointe
In the courts of Europe back in the 18th century, dancers wore heeled shoes in line with the era’s aesthetic. In the 1730s, Paris Opéra Ballet dancer Marie Camargo was the first to remove her shoes’ heels, forging the way for the soft slipper we know today. The slipper allowed Camargo to perform leaps and fast allégros (a-lay-groh) that were not possible in heeled shoes, thus expanding movement vocabulary for ballerinas.
Marie Camargo. Courtesy Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library
Credits: Pointe Magazine
In 1823, Italian dancer Amalia Brugnoli introduced pointe work to ballet audiences, rising up to the tips of her toes in Armand Vestris’ La Fée et le Chevalier. Brugnoli wore lightly stitched square-toed satin slippers, and had to use her arms and a visible amount of effort to get up on her toes.
Marie Taglioni in La Sylphide. Courtesy Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library
Credits: Pointe Magazine
Later in the 19th century, Italian shoemakers developed reinforced pointe shoes with stiff boxes made from newspaper, flour paste and pasteboard. The shoes’ cardboard insoles were reinforced with leather. This paved the way for choreographers to incorporate pointe work into their ballets. One of such choreographers was Marius Petipa who took advantage of the aesthetics of pointe work to enhance the character's poise on stage.
Early-20th-century prima Anna Pavlova had very high, unstable arches, so she put leather soles inside her pointe shoes and hardened the box for more support. When she made her first trip to the United States of America in 1910, Pavlova had her company outfitted in shoes made by the Metropolitan Opera shoemaker Salvatore Capezio. This set the stage for the launching the first international pointe shoe brand. While Pavlova helped bring pointe shoes into the modern era
Making of Pointe Shoes
Anatomy of Pointe Shoes
1. Throat Line: the opening of the shoe nearest the toes
2. Block/Box: the stiff toe cup that encases the toes
3. Vamp: the part of the shoe that covers the tops of the toes and the foot
4. Shank: the stiff insole that provides support
5. Sock: the soft fabric that lies directly underneath the foot and runs the length of the shoe
6. Drawstring: wide, firm cotton or elastic that passes through the binding around the shoe and is tied at the top of the vamp for refining the fit
7. Binding: the fabric channel through which the drawstring runs
8. Vamp: the part of the shoe that covers the tops of the toes and the foot
9. Platform: the part of the pointe shoe on which the dancer stands when en pointe
10. Wing: an extension of the vamp with extra-long, stiff sides
11. Side Seam: a seam that joins the front a back of the shoe together
12. Pleats: delicate folds of satin on the underside of the shoe
13. Outer Sole: the bottom part of the shoe, usually made of synthetic or leather, which is in contact with the floor when the dancer stands in the normal flat position
14. Heel Strap: back seam of the pointe shoe
How do I find the right pair of pointe shoes for my feet?
Photo Credits and Information: Energetiks
The instep is the topmost surface of the foot between the toes and the base of the ankle. The level of ‘curve’ or flexibility you have here combined with the flexibility of your arches and ankles determines how ‘bendy’ your feet are, and what type of shank will suit you best.
The arch is the curved area underneath the foot (mirroring the instep) which is used to assess the foot type according to ‘flatness’. Someone with a high arch will have a large gap between the middle of their arch and the floor, whereas someone with no arch will have no gap at all (this is called ‘flat feet’), which can make pointe work – and rising en pointe in particular - challenging if not properly fitted.
Similar to the pointe shoe profile (or crown), the foot profile refers to the amount of distance between the top and bottom of the foot at it’s mid-section. This measurement is important for selecting the box shape and profile height of the pointe shoe, as too low of a shoe profile will result in the foot ‘spilling over’ on pointe, and too high of a profile will make the toes sink down painfully into the box.
Foot compressibility isn't a part of the foot, but a rather a measurement of the amount of lateral ‘compression’ that occurs over the metatarsals, which will in turn impact which box width is most suitable for the foot. For example, a wide foot may initially appear to suit a wide, square box, but if the foot has great compressibility (narrows significantly when squeezed lightly by the fitter) it would be far more suited to a narrower, slightly tapered box, as a wide box would result in the dancer sinking down into the shoe when en pointe.
The length of toes, and length of each toe in relation to the others also greatly affects the box type that will be most suitable for the dancer: someone with a second toe that is much longer than the other toes (including the big toe) will usually best suit a tapered box (one that narrows toward the toes) to minimise the empty space inside the end of the shoe, fully support the foot and reduce the amount of sinking. Egyptian, Peasant, Square and Greek are the most common variations amongst foot types due to toe length (see examples of toe shape in the illustration above).
With so many considerations when getting a pair of pointe shoes, it is important to get fitted by a professional, trained pointe shoe fitter. A well-fitted pair of pointe shoes can transform your dancing by maximising your ability, thus making the experience of dancing en pointe a pleasant one.
For dancers who have been dancing for a few years now and have the desire to go en pointe, I have launched two classes of pre-pointe training - Thursday, 8.45pm - 9.45pm and Sunday, 12.30pm - 1.30pm. For more information about the programme, please visit The Right Pointe page.
Stay en pointe,