The first pointe shoe was a “barely-there” slipper, a mere scrap of a thing with some extra stitching and a tapered toe. Romantic era ballerinas, like pointe shoe pioneer Marie Taglioni (1804–84), relied entirely on strength of leg and plenty of fortitude to stay en pointe while simultaneously appearing ethereal and sylph-like.
Dancers today, however, can balance longer en pointe and perform ever more remarkable feats without having to develop heavily-muscled legs to do so because nowadays pointe shoes have a supportive shank – a piece of rigid material – to stiffen the sole and a relatively solid box to encase the toes.
How soft or hard should your pointe shoe be?
How soft or how hard a dancer wears their pointe shoes is a matter of personal preference. Most like to feel the floor through the shoe and roll through the foot on to pointe with maximum articulation. Because feet are different, professional dancers tend to spend a great deal of time “breaking in” and customising their shoes by slicing and shaving the shanks and hammering the boxes.
“Dancers want shoes which feel like they have been worked in but are new,” says Sandie Windsor-Richards, Bloch’s National Manager of Dance Products and Services who has talked to dancers about their needs for over forty years .
“Shanks used to be exceptionally hard with very little give,” says Windsor-Richards. “Modern shanks have been developed using many different compressed materials with varying thicknesses and strengths to create shanks which have resilience with ‘give’ and ‘return’ features.”
Cosmetic changes in the shoe also contribute to its degree of flexibility and lightness such as its vamp length, box size, paste and puffing design (the layers of different fabrics which hold the paste and create the box). It’s a balancing act to get the design and strength of shoe just so.
Which pointe shoe is right for me?
A flexible, lighter and softer pointe shoe is often recommended for beginners because it increases the proprioceptive input and ultimately their muscle strength. “Harder shoes can result in the students not using their feet properly,” says the Australian Ballet School’s physiotherapist Sarah Way, “clawing their toes in an effort to get up en pointe and not attaining a full pointe position.” A more flexible shoe helps beginners rise onto pointe “fractionally” through the half pointe, three-quarters and even seven-eighths and so awaken and fine-tune the smaller intrinsic foot muscles. It teaches how to pull up out of the shoe engaging all the leg muscles as well as those of the core.
Way also suggests that a dancer with a stiffer foot may benefit from a more ‘giving’ shoe, “If the shank is (too) strong, the student may fall back off, or not be able to attain the correct en pointe position,” she says. “This can result in injury as the student’s line of gravity will fall behind them, throwing them off balance.”
Another problem when a shoe is too hard is that a student is more likely to compensate in other areas to get en pointe, such as bending their knees and sickling their feet.
The demands of different choreography and different dance schools also determine how flexible a shoe a dancer will wear.
“I rely on my pointe shoes being soft most of the time but particularly with contemporary ballet. For contemporary works I love to feel the floor and so more grounded into the movements.” says West Australian Ballet demi-soloist and Bloch Artiste Melissa Boniface. “For me, it has to be that perfect balance of softness and support.”
A professional pointe shoe fitter can help
Because a dancer’s body and technique change throughout the course of their training and career, their choice of shoe may also change. That’s why dancers, and students may need to try out the various sizes, designs and strengths of shoe to find the one that best suits their foot, level of experience and repertoire and it is helpful if dance teachers are aware of the new styles available for students dancing at all levels as well.
Some dancers find their perfect shoe early in their dancing journey. Boniface has been wearing the same custom shoe based on the Bloch Sonata her entire career. She once tried a different shoe when she danced in Canada, “But that lasted not even a day! I went straight back to my custom Bloch.”
When it’s time for new pointe shoes, it’s important to make an appointment with a professional pointe shoe fitter in Bundaberg and be prepared for it to take some time to find the “right” shoe. Click here to make an appointment at Palace En Pointe
By Emma Sandall
Emma danced with Bejart Ballet, the Royal Ballet, Scottish Ballet and West Australian Ballet. She writes a regular column for Dance Australia Magazine: ‘Ask Emma’.