Dance Shoes Rochester, NY

March 2019 - The Pointe Shoe




"A toe shoe is an eccentric as the ballerina who wears it: their marriage is a commitment." - Toni Bentley

Toe shoes. Hard-box shoes. Pointe shoes. No matter what name is used for these particular items, it usually invokes the same mental image. A lithe dancer in a beautiful white tutu dancing gracefully upon the stage as effortless as can be. Other thoughts often rise to mind as well. Movies like The Black Swan took people behind the scenes into how a dancer molds and breaks down her pointe shoes, and also hinted at the pain behind the craft. But what does it truly mean to be a pointe dancer? What goes into the shoes that keep them up on the tips of their toes? For over 150 years, these shoes have been continually upgraded and modified to fit current research and allowing dancers the safest time upon the stage while in them.

First, we need to explore some basic vocabulary that relates to the pointe world in general.

VOCABULARY

Core strength - Muscular strength throughout the torso, including the back, pelvis & abdomen.

Breaking-in - The numerous ways a dancer can mold and shape the shoe to better suit her comfort and control.

Rolling to pointe/rolling through - Passing through demi-pointe on the way from flat to en pointe.

Platform - The flat surface at the end of the pointe shoe where the dancer balances en pointe.

Vamp - The lower end of the shoe covering the forepart of the foot. Includes the block/box and platform.

Wing - The outer sides of the box, which increase stability when en pointe.

Block/Box - The hardened enclosure of a pointe shoe's front. The block/box is commonly made of multiple layers of paper, fabric and glue.

Shank/Insole - A rigid piece of material (leather, plastic, cardstock) that strengthens the sole to provide support for the dancer’s arch. Shanks/insoles are manufactured in many different strengths to suit any particular dancer and vary by brand & style.


THE PHYSIOLOGY BEHIND POINTE SHOES

Pointe shoes are designed and created to support the dancer's foot in a relatively unnatural position called plantar flexion - dancing on the tips of the toes by extending the toes straight and using the muscles of the foot to support the unusual position. (You use this foot positioning in every day life when pressing down on a gas pedal or standing on your tiptoes to reach something high up.)

In that position, the weight rests on the metatarsals (the five long bones in the top of the foot), which are supported by the foot muscles. Three bones—the tibia (shin bone), the talus (strong foot bone) and the calcaneous (heel bone) come together to lock in a single pressure point in the middle of the ankle, that transfers the weight from the body down through the leg.

Being en pointe strains the muscles and the bone joints on the top of the foot because they are overextended from their usual flat position. Strength is required because if the muscles are not strong enough to hold the foot bones in place, they collapse; this can lead to instability, ankle injuries and falls. If feet are too flexible and the dancer lacks strength, then it is hard to find pointe shoes that fit properly and is dangerous to go en pointe. If a dancer is put on pointe too early, lacking strength and ossification (hardening) of their bones, there is the potential for lifelong injury. Pointe shoes are designed to protect the toes and stretch them into a gentle curve. The curve allows the muscles to help prevent the toes being crunched or knuckled inside the box. The amount of pressure on the toes after a jump is around 240 pounds! It is all about the strength and control of the dancer to keep oneself from injury.

I know what you're thinking. This sounds awfully complex and even a little dangerous. Well, you wouldn't be entirely wrong, but there are common misconceptions and myths that come with pointe work. Let's go over those next.


THE REALITY OF POINTE

#1: Pointe shoes are very painful and make your feet bleed/become disfigured.
While it is true that pointe shoes are not the most comfortable shoes you'll ever own, they are made to protect your feet. When first training in them, there are some new calluses and discomfort levels the dancer will encounter. But pain, sharp and strong means something is wrong! That is why it is so absolutely important for students (and professionals) to be fit by a trained pointe fitter. Our job is to make sure you're getting the most appropriate fit for your individual foot, looking at numerous aspects like arch flexibility, toe shape and much more. Your feet will need some extra TLC for certain, but it's not a horror movie. If it is, talk to your teacher or the place you were fitted for shoes ASAP.

#2: There's nothing inside pointe shoes so it has to hurt.
While it is true that dancers years ago had teachers who only allowed lambswool or tissues (or nothing at all), this is not the norm now. We have had many innovative products come out in the last twenty years or so, from gel toe pads to space packs that go between individual toes. There are a plethora of accessories for dancers to utilize now. While it will never be an entirely painless craft, it has come a long way from bleeding toes and bruised skin. Some companies even put small gel cushions in the toe of their box now!

#3: My friend has "x" shoe and I want to wear them too!
Well, if your friend and you have the same exact foot shape, then there's a possibility! But what works for them might be inappropriate for you. Your goal is to feel as comfortable and supported as possible. Trust me, both your shoes and theirs will look busted and less pretty before you know it! Get what is right for you.

#4: Once my child has been in ballet a few years, she's ready for pointe.
This is one of the most difficult discussions in the pointe environment, and something that is unique to every single dancer out there. The truth is that some very talented children may be strong enough to begin pointe work at 8. Others not until they are well into their teens. A few, unfortunately, the answer is never. So many factors play into when a child is prepared enough to go en pointe. If you are concerned, asking your pediatrician or family doctor is never a poor idea. Make sure they believe the bones/muscles are stable and formed enough. Talk to your child about the serious risks and need for strict training that comes along with it. A teacher should never put a student up who isn't ready, and the vast majority of them do not. They will know when is best, and will likely approach you when the time comes.

#5: Pointe shoes only last a few hours.
This is half-truth, and we need to take a moment to dive into the shoe itself to understand it a little better. The majority of pointe shoes are made to last about 24-48 hours. That sounds unbelievable but it's true! However, that number for the average student is broken down into half-hour or hour segments. If you take class once a week en pointe (at a full hour each session), that means the shoe will most likely last you about half the year. It is not uncommon for a first-time wearer to see their shoes last a full year, just given the nature of barre work and how strong the muscles are (or are yet to be). There is no firm answer on longevity, however, and when your shoe begins to feel like it isn't supporting you anymore, it is time to get a new pair. (Professionals can go through a few pairs a night!)

#6: Pointe shoes are handmade.
This is true and a very laborious and dedicated process. Some companies (such as Freed) have particular makers that a dancer stays with their entire life due to that maker's particular form being the most perfect for their foot. Other brands have streamlined it a little more, and continued to innovate and push boundaries past what was previously thought attainable.

This last topic is where we will focus next!


THE POINTE PROCESS

We will touch on two companies who craft pointe shoes - Freed and Grishko. There are a variety of other brands (ones you might know well, such as Bloch, Russian Pointe etc) but in order to understand what goes in to making the intricate shoe that gets a dancer en pointe, we need a little inside look at how they are made from scratch.

FREED has been making pointe shoes since 1929, each pair handmade by trained craftsmen. Their custom paste is made in-shop every day in a large mixing machine. Every maker has a unique stamp that is put into the sole of the shoe like a signature - maker ♖ and maker ✰ both create the same size and width shoes...but their own mold is unique to them and therefore small nuances might mean a dancer's foot fits one better than the other.

GRISHKO was founded in 1989 by Nikolai Grishko in Moscow, Russia. Theyattribute some of their original designs to Russian scientists who helped perfect the shoe. They proudly employ over 50 deaf makers, as the founder believes their attention to tactile details help in creating shoes that are more precise.

Kick back with a warm cup of tea and your favorite dancer to enjoy the intriguing videos below. These do their companies justice in explaining the detailed process that gets the pointe shoe from idea to reality every single day!



BREAKING DOWN TO RISE ABOVE

Even after that intricate process of creation, it is very common for ballerinas to modify or break down their shoes right from the start to better fit the feel that they want. It can seem absolutely backwards to "destroy" such an expensive shoe (the average price ranging from $80-120 a pair) but they are such an individual extension of the dancer, that often it is needed. Let's explore some of the pointe shoe hacks that exist!**

• Calamine lotion or liquid foundation is applied to the outer satin in order to reduce the shine and/or alter the color, known as "pancaking".
• Scoring the satin over the platform (or removing it altogether) to increase traction during turns or jumps.
• Dampening the box, usually with a small spray bottle or cotton balls, to break it down and soften it a bit.
• Banging the sole (near toe) of the shoe against a hard surface, typically a wall. This makes them quieter when dropping from en pointe.
• Breaking the shank down/in half in the location where the dancer's natural arch is.

**It is never advisable for students to do these, as it is possible to damage your shoes in a way that renders them unusable. Some of the tricks are seemingly more innocuous than others, but it should never be attempted without the supervision and guidance of a teacher.




We hope you've learned something about this particular shoe and what it means to use them. As always, Bailey Slipper Shop is here to provide education and professional fittings for pointe shoes whenever your dancer requires. Our staff have been trained with safety and particular style understanding in mind so that we can see your dancer making the next step in their career feeling empowered and as comfortable as possible!

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