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The Hidden Tribulations Behind Ballet Shoes

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The Pointe Shoe

The Hidden Tribulations Behind Ballet Shoes

By Bess Rouse

When I was twelve, my mother took me to Kling’s Motion Unlimited to buy my first pair of pointe shoes. This was an event that I had awaited since I had started dancing five years prior. I had seen and heard about the horrors of pointe dancing: oozing blisters, bleeding toes, infected ingrown toenails, etc. Finally, this was my chance to find out for myself.

After putting on the first pair of Capezio shoes, I understood. My toes were completely squished together and were unable to move. My feet felt like they had been suction-wrapped and then coated in metal. Without the toes’ ability to splay and grip the floor, my feet rocked from side to side. Even standing on one foot became an impossibility. Balancing en pointe (on the tips of the shoes) was the only position that seemed at all comfortable. The satin that covers the shoes made the floor feel like an ice rink. Also, the ribbons that characteristically criss-cross around the ankles do not come already sewn on the shoes, so the shoes constantly slipped off my feet. I had entered the world of “real” dancers.

Pointe shoes are supposed to help the dancer achieve the illusion that she is weightless, that she moves without effort. The shoes extend the abilities of the dancer’s foot by essentially providing her with a set of hard toes. With these toes, she can look like a ghost skimming across the floor, or a fairy taking flight. However, if the shoes fail to provide the proper support and flexibility, she can look like a baby deer learning to walk, stumbling over her own legs. In that first pair of shoes, I looked like the baby deer.

When pointe shoes are first purchased, they are hard, restricting, and impossible to dance in. The toe box, which encases the toes, is often made from layers of burlap and paper soaked in glue. This part of the shoe must be exceptionally strong, as it needs to support the dancer’s entire weight as she balances and maneuvers. The toe box can be so hard that the audience can hear the shoes clapping against the stage over the sound of the music.

A hard insole, the shank, supports the arch of the foot as the dancer is en pointe. Shanks are made of anything from cardboard to steel, depending on the desired strength. If a dancer has a weak foot that is flexible, she needs a strong shank to support her arch. If, however, her foot is strong and relatively inflexible, a weak shank allows the foot to arch without inhibition. The entire slipper, or boot as it may be more accurately called, is deceptively covered in delicate pink satin, hinting at the ideality of softness rather than the reality of harshness.

There are some tricks that most dancers use to prepare theirs shoes for dancing. These techniques are generally learned through word of mouth. At the beginning of my first pointe class, for instance, a classmate (whose older sister had danced) reached into her giant ballet bag, pulled out a huge cigarette lighter, and proceeded to burn the edges of her ribbons. The rest of the class was amazed. Our ribbons, which we had attempted to neatly tie around our ankles, had fraying threads streaming everywhere. By the next class, all of us had our own lighters and frayless neatly tied ribbons.

Learning to cut the satin off the tips of the shoes only takes a couple of slippery falls to the ground. However, breaking in the toe box is the most challenging part of the process, because a delicate balance between maintaining the strength to support the foot and allowing flexibility for articulation is difficult to achieve. At some point in their dance careers, many dancers try using water or rubbing alcohol to mold the glue that makes the toe box hard. Also, the shank must not be brittle, but should be both supple and strong. By gently bending the shank back and forth, it becomes more limber. Some dancers then paint the inside of the shoe with Future floor wax, shellac, or super glue so that the strength is maintained and the shoe does not deteriorate.

Since the ultimate goal is to have the shoe feel as if it is part of your foot, every dancer’s actual method for molding the toe box and shank is unique, as all feet are unique in their strength and flexibility. I, for example, tried using steam and water to mold the toe box, but found that both completely destroy the glue. Rubbing alcohol allows you to reshape the box, but it rehardens completely. To further break in the box, I hammer the area where the toe knuckles come into contact with the shoe. Besides softening the box, hammering reduces the amount of noise the shoes make on stage.

Many Russian makers, such as Grishko, design shoes with very pointed toe boxes so that only narrow toes can fit comfortably. Other companies, like Sansha and Blocke, make square boxes that look clunky and unattractive.

In the late nineties, Gaynor Minden began producing a shoe that takes most of the guesswork out of the break-in process. The box and shank are made of a material, elastomeric, which never breaks and can be reshaped using a hair dryer. The toe box also has a shock-absorbing panel that reduces noise and pain on impact. Though the shoe is revolutionary, many dancers still choose to carry out their individual break-in methods. Preparing the shoes to be danced in is ritual. It must be learned and perfected to be a ballet dancer, and is not easily swayed by advances in technology.

The most important lesson, which I learned through several months of sheer pain, is that your shoes should fit. This may seem obvious, but with all the lore that surrounds pointe dancing, having your toes squished and uncomfortable seems par for the course.