Pointe shoes are specially made shoes that allow ballerinas to dance on the tips of their toes.
They create a sense of lightness and give an illusion that the ballerina is floating on air. The fluidity and grace of their movements when dancing on pointe seem so beautiful, simple and effortless. The truth is, most haven't a clue of the blood sweat and tears that go into dancing on pointe.
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, paper and cardboard hardened by glue. The dancer depends on it to be extremely sturdy: the entire weight of their body is balanced on the small platform of that box! The rest of the shoe is made of leather, cotton and stain. This allows them to be strong enough to support the dancers on pointe, but also malleable enough to allow them to articulate movements through the intrinsic muscles and joints of the foot and ankle.
All pointe shoes are hand made and professional ballerinas shoes are custom made to fit each individual perfectly. Click here to watch two Royal Ballet dancers visit the Freed pointe shoe factory to learn more about the making of their pointe shoes.
The design of pointe shoes remains a highly skilled art and has not changed much since its inception. The first known ballerina to dance on pointe was Maria Taglioni, in the early 1830's. Her shoes were designed by a cobbler in Paris and were much softer than the pointe shoes you see ballerinas wearing today. Taglioni and her contemporaries would have only gone onto pointe for brief moments during their performances. Soon after, Italian cobblers evolved the original design into the modern pointe shoe, by making the box harder using paper and burlap. This allowed ballerinas to dance on pointe for much longer periods.
Click here to watch a short video produced by The Royal Opera House about Maria Taglioni and her first known performance on pointe in La Sylaphide.
The decision to go onto pointe is not an easy one; a teacher considers many different factors to determine whether a student is at the right stage of physical and mental development. Factors considered include the students basic ballet technique, core control and turnout, age and maturity, and specific strength and mobility of the feet and ankles. Some students will be invited to a pointe lesson to work on these factors as preparation, but may not be invited to get pointe shoes until their teacher has confirmed they are ready. Going on pointe can be detrimental to students feet if they are not prepared or developed enough before they begin.
Pointe shoes have a certain mystique and there is a well-earned sense of accomplishment that goes along with getting that first pair. Young dancers don't usually care that pointe work is sometimes painful and frustrating with slow hard-won rewards.
Pointe work begins at a close, steady pace with exercises performed only with the aid of a barre. Due to the uneven sole, even standing in pointe shoes requires ankle strength and can take some getting used to. Eventually dancers will exhibit enough strength to complete some steps in the centre, however expect progress to to be gradual. Students will practice many of the same steps and movements they learned in their regular ballet class, but will execute them on pointe. Some of the specific steps that are practiced regularly on pointe include relevés and courus, ultimately students will accomplish more complex steps such as turning sequences.
Click here to watch a short clip from the unusual perspective of the pointe shoe!