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The Pointe Shoe

by Marian Horosko
September 6, 2008
The pointe shoe, is a pink (usually) satin slipper worn by ballerinas and is blocked or stiffened from the tip of the toe, the box, to the beginnings of the metatarsal bones. It has a shank (arch support) made of various materials, usually strong leather, and there is a drawstring around the upper portion of the shoe, to keep the shoe snug on the foot. The study of pointe work for girls should begin no sooner than the age of 11 when the metatarsal bones are sufficiently strong to withstand the work on the toes. The metatarsals play an important part in the technique of pointe work since rising (élevé) and descending, (abassier), should appear smooth, soundless, effortless and as natural as rising on the toes to reach for something too high in a cupboard or book shelf. Another method of rising on pointe is through relevé, or a slight spring to the full pointe and a slight spring to return to the floor. Most unaesthetic is the pogo stick approach wherein a dancer impales herself on pointe, hoists up and bangs down. The idea is to be soft, appear effortless and natural. No shoe can do this for a dancer. It's all in the strength of the foot, knees and thighs.

Although the shoe is largely satin, glue and leather, the cost mounts since the pleating of the satin to wrap it around the box and affix it to the bottom of the shoe is still done by hand. Made-to-order specifics add to the bill. A certain amount of mayhem to the new shoe is an individual choice in order to soften the box and accommodate the shape of the foot. This includes banging on a hard surface, moistening the box with alcohol or water, using liquid adhesive inside the shoe's heel to keep it from slipping off despite fastening the shoe with satin ribbons and elastic around the ankle, and darning the tip of the box with cotton thread to eliminate skidding. There is no end to the amount lamb's wool, and sponge pads jammed into the box to make it fit snugly and be comfortable. Few 18th century ballerinas, as seen in lithographs, wore padding as pointe technique in choreography was not as demanding. You were just supposed to float up there somehow.

The shoe is "broken in" usually at the barre. For ballets that require a great many boureés (traveling steps) on pointe or marching as in "Stars and Stripes" the harder the box the better. For 18th century classics, such as "Giselle," a soft, silent shoe is preferred. Balanchine had us wear old shoes during class so that we could explore the possibilities of going on pointe whenever we felt venturous enough to do so. The shoes are supplied by the company and are one of the major costs since every dancer has a number of pairs.

Because of lithographs and paintings, most audiences think pointe work, or "tippy toe dancing" as the Russians called it, started in France. It didn't.

The Medicis of Florence during the Renaissance, along with other wealthy merchant families, sponsored the arts. When Catherine de Medici married Henry II of France she brought with her the love of spectacles including her ballares, full-evening productions and produced what is called the first ballet, "Ballet Comique de la Reine" in 1581. It consisted of primo ballerinos, prima ballerinas and lasted ten hours.

Later in Paris, Louis XIV maintained the sponsorship of the arts and founded the first school to develop professional dancers. Artists such as Carlotta Grisi, Marie Taglioni and other famous performers, many who had studied at La Scala, choreographers, Italian teachers, and poets created the Romantic Period. Some dancers wore soft; others, blocked shoes, but the first reviewed for dancing on pointe was Cecilia Castellini in 1778, who was praised for her "flexible points," although some sources say it was two German sisters who first managed the feat.

Recommended: "When All the World Was Dancing," at the NYP Library at Lincoln Center, Dance Archive. "The Paris Opéra Ballet," by Ivor Guest or anything by Guest. The Paris Opera Ballet, "In the Company of Stars," a book of glorious photographs by Gérard Uféras. At the Metropolitan Museum, see bronzes, sculptures and paintings by Edgar Degas of the period. The famous "The Ballet Class," is not a class (no barre) but is set in the traditional "Green Room" (notice the wall color), where dancers, students and parents gather during or after a performance. It is believed that the ballet master is from the Taglioni family.
A dancer in the Paris Opera Ballet

A dancer in the Paris Opera Ballet

Photo © & courtesy of Gérard Uféras

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