Ballet – the beautiful, mesmerizing dance form which embodies the element of gracefulness and elegance. If you are a ballerina in training or are raising one, feel proud of yourself. Indeed, you are contributing to a form of art that has been alive for more than half a millennium since its birth in fifteenth-century Italy.
While there are different forms of performing ballet, one of the reasons it is looked upon with such awe is the toe dancing. You might be familiar with the stereotypical image of a ballerina standing with great poise, beautifully balanced on only her toes. This is known as pointe, and it is a remarkable achievement for a ballerina to be able to perform it.
Dancing pointe is impossible without having the right shoes.
These shoes, called pointe shoes, are reinforced at the toes to help the ballerina balance herself. Pointe shoes are extremely special, and for many ballerinas, getting them is a statement of commitment to the art. In this article, we aim to answer some of the most common questions that people have about pointe shoes, so read on to know everything there about them!
What are pointe shoes?
As mentioned earlier, pointe shoes are special shoes that ballet dancers must wear to be able to toe dance or perform pointe. The shoes came into existence after people wanted the dancers to appear as if they were floating and as if they were like air spirits. Dancing pointe is very hard work and it is impossible to perform it for long periods of time without having these shoes.
Pointe shoes are reinforced near the toes with material that makes their structure like a box. However, on the outside, they look lightweight and dainty, giving the wearer an illusion of weightlessness. While they can be made in any color, most dancers seem to prefer shades of light pink.
Who wears pointe shoes?
Customarily and commonly, female ballet dancers (known as ballerinas) will wear pointe shoes. Such ballerinas have been training to perform ballet for a significant amount of time and are dedicated to the art.
It is uncommon for male ballet dancers (called danzatores) to wear pointe shoes. But exceptions are made, particularly if the danzatore is portraying a female character for comic effect. For example, in the Cinderella ballet, the role of the stepsister is often given to a danzatore. Instead of wearing pointe shoes, they may opt to wear leather or canvas slippers that lend flexibility while jumping.
Why do they wear them?
Ballet is often known for the dancers dancing on toes, called as pointe work. The essence of dancing pointe is to appear weightless, almost as if the dancer were floating on air.
The movements require great strength but must appear effortless. Pointe shoes enable ballerinas to look graceful and brave, creating an illusion of lightness around them.
What age do ballerinas wear them?
Even if you have a child who is learning ballet for quite some time, you must make sure that they are of the right age to wear pointe shoes.
Most dancers are between 11 and 13 years of age, for they must have been undergoing rigorous training to ensure that their legs have enough strength to wear pointe shoes.
The feet, ankles and legs must endure the stress of dancing on the toes, and in most cases, the child will not develop this strength until the preteen years.
How does a dancer dance pointe?
To dance on pointe, ballerinas must learn the right kind of foot placement and body alignment, that they can learn through three main techniques. These techniques help them get up “en pointe”.
• Relevé: the dancer rises through the toes until the foot is completely stretched vertically, and the box of the pointe shoes rests on the floor.
• Sauté: the dancer jumps up and lands en pointe, after briefly being in the air.
• Piqué: the dancer steps onto their foot en pointe, and lifts the other leg into the air.
How do toe shoes work?
Pointe shoes have not been around for a long time, considering that ballet has. The shoes were made in the early 1900s when ballerinas started to opt out of wearing soft slippers because the steps, turns and balance of pointe became impossible to perform. Pointe shoes help the dancer transfer her weight to under the arch and around the toes.
The shoes have a stiff midsole called the shank that presses against the bottom of the foot. Shanks can be of varying lengths and flexibility. Along with the shank, there is a fabric that extends back from the toe box to the top of the foot, called the vamp. Together, they add to the supportiveness of the shoe.
Then there is the toe box that encases the toes that helps the dancer by providing an oval-shaped platform at the tip. There are different types of boxes, and some may be stiff. They may also have extended sides called wings that add more support to the sides of the foot.
Where were pointe shoes invented?
To know how pointe shoes were born, we must backtrack to the history of ballet. In 1681, ballet began to become more popular after the French King Louis XIV founded the Royal Academy of Dance. At that point, ballet dancers wore shoes which had heels.
A few decades later, Marie Carmargo became the first dancer to wear flat shoes that let her take long strides and make jumps while dancing. After the French Revolution took place, heels were completely replaced by flats which were secured to the feet with ribbons and had pleats under the toes that made leaping and turning possible.
As time passed, the demand for dancers to look more elegant and weightless increased. Marie Taglioni was the first ballerina to truly dance en pointe without the help of harnesses when she performed in La Sylphide. After this, more and more ballerinas tried to replicate the style and there was a need to have shoes that would support dancing on toes.
Italy was the pioneer in designing pointe shoes, making shoes which had a sturdy platform on the front with a lot of fabric layers. The platform made standing on toes easier and the fabric meant that landing on the toes made next to no noise.
The modern shoe was born after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova started using them. Anna had high, arched insteps that made her susceptible to injury when dancing en pointe. Her feet were slender and tapering that caused additional pressure on her toes, for which she inserted toughened leather soles that hardened the toe area into a box.
How are the shoes made?
Pointe shoes need to be made to custom size, taking into account toe length, shape, arch flexibility and strength. There are different models for different needs, but pointe shoes have two common elements:
• A box that encases the toes
• A shank that stiffens the sole and provides support when the dancer is en pointe
The shoes have fabric on the outside that makes the shoe look beautiful. Usually, satin is used, but sometimes canvas can be used instead. The fabric is tightly stretched around the box, revealing its shape.
The shoes also have the following parts:
• Vamp – the upper piece
• Throat – edge of the vamp, V-shaped or round
• Drawstring – binding on the throat, elastic or lace
• Sole – thin, covers bottom to remain inconspicuous
To tie the shoe to the foot, dancers will use ribbons and elastic. The ribbons are wrapped around the ankle and the elastic improves the fit.
Do they hurt your feet?
Doing pointe is not easy, that’s a given. It is not as simple as putting on slippers, but it should not be excruciatingly painful. Feeling pain while wearing pointe shoes is common, but is usually a result of one or more of the following, and can easily be avoided.
• Tight fitting shoes
The right fit of pointe shoes is firm around the front of the foot without squashing the toes. If it feels too tight, your feet might swell and/or hurt.
• Wide box
The box of pointe shoes should be narrow enough to prevent your feet from slipping down. It must be so shaped that the box does not squash your toes but provides support for being en pointe.
• Short box
If the box is too short, the big toe can have a bunion forming on it. Make sure that the wings of the shoe are level with the big toe.
• Weak feet
Dancing en pointe is like levelling up, and many girls might start dancing en pointe before they are ready. Teachers must ensure that their trainees are ready to start dancing en pointe.
If the box of the shoes rubs against your skin too much, the friction can cause blisters to develop on your feet. To avoid this, ensure that your shoes are always dry and that you treat any blisters immediately.
What is breaking in?
New shoes tend to “bite”, leaving sores and blisters on the skin. This is worse with pointe shoes, which is why dancers ‘break in’ to make them more comfortable.
Usually, they will perform releves and eleves that make the shoe more flexible and adapt to the dancer’s feet. Other common methods are striking the shoes on hard surfaces, moistening or heating them, etc.
Sometimes, the following may also be used:
• Toe pads – cushion against the toe box
• Toe spacers – separate toes and reduce bunions forming
• Lambswool – reduces chafing
• Tape – wrapped around toes to reduce blisters
How to figure out if you are ready to wear pointe shoes?
Like we said earlier, beginner ballerinas are not ready to wear pointe shoes. Dancing on toes needs high strength and immense focus. Different teachers have different rules when they decide which ones of their students are ready to wear pointe shoes. However, there are five simple rules that can help you figure out for yourself.
1. You must be the right age.
It is debatable what the exact age to wear pointe shoes is, with some believing that a young dancer of 9- or 10-years of age is ready while others stating that age does not matter but the ability does.
We think that a good rule of thumb is to wait until the foot stops growing (around 11 or 12 years of age), and after the ballerina has completed a few years of rigorous training.
2. You must have adequate training:
Not all ballerinas start out young. Sometimes, you may be in your 20s or 30s and start ballet lessons. In such cases, even if you are well above the minimum age limit, you might not be ready to start wearing pointe shoes. You must first complete training that lets you achieve the form, strength and alignment to transition into doing pointe.
3. You attend 3 classes a week:
The form and strength we mentioned are impossible to achieve without regular practice. A minimum of three classes a week ensures that your body is warmed up and ready to dance en pointe.
4. You are physically ready:
Ballet teachers must ensure that their students are in top form, and check for alignment, position and strength. You must have mastered the basic techniques before you start dancing pointe.
5. You are emotionally ready:
Dancing pointe is hard and will hurt your feet. Are you prepared to undergo this and take on the responsibility of maintaining your form and tend to your shoes? Are you ready to dedicate a set amount of time a week to practice? If yes, go ahead! But if you have doubts, be sure to think carefully before getting ahead of yourself.
How long do they last?
If you are going to spend a fortune on pointe shoes, you want to know how long they last. The wear and tear of pointe shoes depend on three factors – shank wear, fabric wear and box wear.
Shank wear is gradual and over time, the shoe loses structure and breaks.
Box wear occurs in the form of softening of the box and the platform, making it difficult to maintain balance.
Fabric wear is mostly aesthetic and occurs on the outer covering of the shoe, creating frayed edges. This does not affect the performance, but the dancer may not appear professional and hence the shoes are retired or used only during practice sessions.
If they are used moderately, pointe shoes will last for ten to twenty hours, meaning weeks or months of use for students. Professional dancers might wear out a pair in a single performance.
The following factors contribute to the lifetime of pointe shoes:
• Dance technique
• Shank material
• Breaking in
• Performance surface
• Foot strength
How much are Bloch pointe shoes?
Pointe shoes are premium products, and Bloch is one of the nine major companies that make quality pointe shoes. Since 1932, Bloch has been innovating shoes and providing them to major dance companies across the world.
They have a wide range of products with differing comfort, support and other factors that can vary the price. The price range for their commonly ordered products ranges from USD 20 to USD 129.
Pointe shoes are an incredibly special investment in the life of a ballerina. Being able to perform en pointe is a great achievement, but before getting them, one must be sure that they are ready to wear pointe shoes. In this article, we covered some of the common questions people have about pointe shoes. We hope you enjoyed the article and wish you the best in your dance journey!
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