The Point of Pointe Shoes
What are pointe shoes?
Pointe shoes are specially-made shoes worn by ballerinas to allow them to dance on the tips of their toes.
PBT Corps de Ballet dancers
What are pointe shoes made of?
Pointe shoes look dainty, but they really aren’t. The tip of the shoe is a rigid box made of densely packed layers of fabric, cardboard and/or paper hardened by glue. The dancer depends on it to be extremely sturdy: the entire weight of her body is balanced on a small platform in that box! The rest of the shoe is made of leather, cotton and satin. Each shoe is custom hand-made to fit each dancer's specifications. No two pairs of pointe shoes are identical!
New PBT Corps dancer JoAnna Schmidt putting on her pointe shoes in PBT Studios
Why do ballet dancers wear pointe shoes?
Pointe shoes make ballet dancing look magical and even daring. They create an illusion of lightness and give a sense that the ballerina is floating on air.
Do male dancers wear pointe shoes?
Not normally. Sometimes men will wear pointe shoes for comedic effect, such as for the Stepsister characters in Cinderella (men are often cast as the sisters). Male ballet dancers usually wear a leather or canvas slipper with a soft sole, which allows the foot flexibility when jumping.
Makoto Ono in Swan Lake, 2010. Note the style of slippers Makoto is wearing.
Can a dancer just put on a pair of pointe shoes and start dancing?
No! Each time a dancer gets a new pair of pointe shoes, she has to break them in. Some methods include:
- darning the platform of the box to provide traction and to prevent the satin from fraying
- pounding the box of the shoe with a hammer to soften it
- opening and closing a door on the box
- cutting the satin off the box and using a carpenter's file to rough up the sole
- lining the inside of the box with floor wax or shellac to mold the shoes and prolong wear
All dancers sew on their own ribbons and elastic to hold their shoes in place.
New PBT Corps member JoAnna Schmidt sewing ribbons onto her pointe shoes
How long do pointe shoes last?
Not long—sometimes for just one performance (or part of a performance!), depending on the difficulty of the ballet. A professional ballerina can go through 100-120 pairs of pointe shoes in one season. At a cost of about $80 each, PBT spends close to $100,000 on pointe shoes per year.
When can a ballerina start dancing on pointe?
In most cases, somewhere between age 11 and 13. A young dancer must have several years of good dance and strength training to ensure that her feet, ankles and legs are strong enough to handle the stress of dancing on her toes.
Level one students in class at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School. These girls are 9-10 years old and will not start pointe work until they’ve had more training.
When did ballerinas begin dancing with pointe shoes?
Italian ballerina Maria Taglioni was the first ballerina that we know of to dance on pointe in the early 1830s, but the method probably began earlier. Taglioni and her contemporaries stuffed the toes of their soft shoes with starch and other materials, but soon Italian cobblers made harder shoes for them using paper, burlap and satin. This prototype evolved into the modern pointe shoe.
Maria Taglioni in 1831. Lithograph by Chalon and Lane, Victoria and Albert Museum. Photo source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Taglioni
Check out these links for more information on pointe shoes:
- The Physics of Pointe Shoes: a Science Project: http://pointeshoephysics.blogspot.com/
- The Anatomy of a Pointe Shoe: http://www.capeziodance.com/howto/articles/HowTo_Articles_AnatomyofaPointeShoe.php
- How Pointe Shoes are made: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNl7fIAyhMk
Did you Know?
New York City Ballet founder and renowned choreographer George Balanchine said that his fascination with pointe — how it lengthens the dancer’s leg and enhances its beauty — led to his interest in choreography.