There’s two things that say ‘ballet’ like nothing else – one is the tutu and the other are pointe shoes. These special shoes look delicate and dainty but these specially designed and created shoes are what keeps ballerinas on the tips of their toes and dance gracefully across the stage.
So to honour the work of the pointe shoe, here’s a guide to the basics of it.
History on Ballet Pointe Shoes
Back in 1726, Marie Camargo made her debut dancing for the Paris Opera Ballet. She brought with her the entrechat changing her feet from fifth position front to back and then to the front once more. To do this she wore a shorter skirt and the typical heels but quickly realised the shoes weren’t helping her. So she switched to flatter shoes and the first ballet shoes were born!
Skip forward to the early 1800s and the first pointe shoes were first mentioned. Marie Taglioni used them in 1832 when dancing La Sylphide – some of those shoes are still in the Haydn Museum in Austria. They were soft sating slippers that had a flexible sole made from leather. Stronger shoes were to come with the famous 32 fouettes from Swan Lake using slippers that had less of a point to them and a much stronger sole. They also contained a moulded box and were the start of the modern pointe shoes.
Making and fitting pointe shoes
Making pointe shoes takes around 11 different steps. Experts train for two to three years to become qualified to make them and most of them will never have seen a ballet! Once qualified, an expert shoemaker can create around 40 pairs a day because there is no switching from left to right with pointe shoes, all are the same. Ballerinas often remain loyal to their shoemaker throughout their career.
Most ballerinas get their first pair of pointe shoes at around the age of 11, but this can vary depending on discussions with their ballet teacher. It is a very exciting time for young ballerinas but also can be a little daunting as it takes a lot of training to be able to dance en pointe.
Getting that first ballet pointe shoe can be complicated and there are a number of things to consider including:
- Length of the shoe
- Size in relation to each other
- Length and breadth of the metatarsal region
- Instep height
- Transverse arch size
Another complexity is that the bones of the foot don’t completely harden (known as ossifying) until you are in your early 20s. This means that the fit of these early shoes is very important to avoid harming the growth of the foot bones.
Keeping pointe shoes in condition
The mixture of what goes into the making of pointe shoes varies between shoemakers but is a complex list. Materials can include burlap, smooth leather, coarse linen, satin, papier-mache as well as things like flour, dextrin, paper and potato starch.
The ballerina’s kit to keep their shoes in condition is also a varied and interesting one. There are the usual things like plasters, toe pads and sewing equipment. Then there are the other things like a screwdriver, pincers, a sharp knife, a scraper and even hot glue that are all on hand in case tiny fixes are needed to the shoes while they are in use. After all, without the right pointe shoes, the ballerina cannot perform to her best!