Bloody blisters, bunions, bruised toenails, and not to forget calluses.
Does the thought of these foot pains sound appealing? The thought of these problems make most people cringe. “There is no glory without pain,” is a saying that depicts the world of a ballet dancer perfectly. When I tell people that I am a ballet dancer, the first question most people excitedly ask is, “Can you stand on your toes?” Upon my response of, “Yes, but only with my pointe shoes,” their next question is, “Don’t those wooden shoes hurt your feet?” To be honest, the answer to this question is both yes and no. To be capable of gaining appreciation ballet dancers and to be able to understand how pointe shoes can create feelings of elation, frustration, and pain, it is first important to understand the reason behind why ballet dancers wear pointe shoes.
Just as a violin player needs a bow to aid in the beauty of a piece of music, a ballet dancer needs her pointe shoes to aid in the beauty of a dance. Pointe shoes are a ballet dancer’s tools. A pointe shoe’s intent is to make the dancer appear light and elevated from the floor; it helps create the appearance of an elongated leg. A dancer’s ability to turn and balance on a small toe tip aids in an audience’s entertainment and approval of the art. All of these reasons for wearing pointe shoes enhance the beauty of classical dance. The desire of a dancer to achieve mastery of the pointe shoe takes year to achieve. Even the highest level prima ballerina absoluta strives and struggles to achieve perfection on pointe that can in all reality never really exist; yet, the development of control, strength of body, and improvement of certain skills adds to a dancer’s elation, self-satisfaction, and esteem.
The strife to achieve the illusion of a beautiful leg line and elevation from the floor do not come without physical costs. When a ballet student is around eleven or twelve years old, has had at least three years of ballet training, and is strong enough to support her whole body weight on the tips of her toes, a ballet instructor may recommend that the student is ready to begin pointe shoe training. A ballet student’s first pair of pointe shoes is most often an experimental pair. The student may feel very uncomfortable and shaky in this pair. For instance, I attained my first pair of pointe shoes when I was eleven. The Capezio Pavlowas pinched my metatarsals, gave me bloody blisters, and folded my big toes’ skin beneath skin. Because I had heard older, more experienced dancers complain about their feet, I believed that my feet problems were normal. Unfortunately, I danced in these shoes for about a year. Fortunately, I smartened up. I found out that dancers protect their feet from blisters by allowing tough calluses to form; calluses are a ballet dancer’s friend and a necessity for pointe shoe wear. I also found out that there are hundred of different styles and brands of pointe shoes to fit different feet needs. Though ten years later I am still looking for a perfect fit, finding a pointe shoe that fits and does not create blood has dwindled from a crisis to a small inconvenience.
When a person needs a new pair of gym shoes, it is fairly easy for that person to find a shoe that fits their foot. There are normally hundreds of gym shoe retailers within city limits. This is not the case when it comes to buying pointe shoes. If lucky, a dancer may have a small dance supply shop in their city. Usually these shops only carry a very small stock of a few brands of pointe shoes. From that stock it is virtually impossible to find a pair that fit properly. Not only do pointe shoes have length and width options, they also have shank hardness and length, vamp length, tip size, box hardness, and shoe material options. If these options did not exist, the beautiful line of the leg and the elevation of a dancer’s body would not exist either, because no two feet are of exactly the same size, shape, flexibility, or strength. The dilemma of finding pointe shoes to fit the needs of a dancer’s foot is not only a frustrating experience but a costly one costing between $45 and $80 for one pair of pointe shoes.
When trying on pointe shoes, the dancer needs to check a multitude of features. As outlined at http://www.freedoflondon.com/cat/pointeshoefitting.php, the dancer needs to check that the shoe’s box contains all of her toe joints, that the shank does not twist away from her foot, and that the sole does not extend higher than her heel when the foot is placed on pointe. She also needs to check the strength of the shank. If the shank is thick and does not bend easily, it has a more supportive, hard shank intended for dancers who either have weak arches or greatly arched, weak feet. If the shank is thinner and bends easily, it has a soft shank and is intended for dancers with either flat arches or strong feet that can support themselves when on pointe. Another area of consideration is whether or not the dancer prefers the traditional English paste shoes made of leather, burlap, paste, and satin or the new synthetic shoes made of elastomeric materials and polymers. The most popular type of synthetic shoes are made by Gaynor Minden and are designed to last longer; yet, just as I do, many dancers still prefer the traditional paste shoes.
The frustration of a new pair of pointe shoes does not end after the fitting and purchase of them. There is a process that a dancer must go through before wearing her shoes. Each dancer needs to customize her shoe so that it fits her foot like a second skin. Though this process is highly individualized, many of the same steps must be followed. For instance, no pointe shoe comes with ribbons or elastic attached. Contrary to popular belief, the ribbons are not there for decoration or to make the dancer’s ankles look pretty! The ribbons must be sewn securely with unwaxed dental floss or think carpet thread in line with the arch of the dancer’s foot. Dancers even burn the edges of the ribbon with a lighter to prevent fraying. The elastic, though sometimes not a necessity, is usually sewn at the heel of the shoe, so that the heel of the shoe does not side off of the foot. Because no two feet are the same, it would be impossible for the manufacturer to sew the ribbons and elastic on in the right places, at the right angle, and with the
right tension. Another detail that a dancer needs to pay mind to is whether or not the shoe gaps near the metatarsals when on half or ‘demi’ pointe. If this occurs and the shoe does not contain drawstrings, it is essential to darn the shoes with darning thread or crochet thread back and forth across the top of the foot to hold the shoe securely to the foot. Yet another aspect to consider is whether or not the dancer typically breaks down the box of the shoe quickly. If this is an issue and the dancer would like a stiff, supportive box, she may thinly glue the inside of the box with super glue or cyanoacrylate glue. This gluing technique is very useful in extending the life of the shoes, considering their cost and typical lifespan, which can range anywhere from one year for a beginning student to three pairs per performance for a professional ballet dancer. These are just a few elements of preparation before wear.
George Balanchine, the famous choreographer who created American ballet once said that if no pointe existed, he would not be a choreographer. Then again, he never had to wear pointe shoes. Ballet is a beautiful and joyful art form; yet, it is strenuous and often painful. Some of the pain that is endured while dancing on pointe can be dampened with the proper fitting pointe shoes. Though a pair of properly fitting pointe shoes will not take all of the soreness away, a properly fit pair will extend the life of a dancer’s career, hindering some bloody blisters, bruised toenails, and bunions.