By Sharon Wehner, Colorado Ballet Principal Dancer
Pointe shoes. They are to a ballerina what a bicycle is to a competitive cyclist, a pair of skates to a figure skater, a set of clubs to a golfer. Both functional and aesthetic, they are an integral part of her artistry, indeed her life. There are dozens of brands of pointe shoes, and hundreds of sub-types within those brands. They may all be pink and satin, but beyond the simple traditional exterior (which has maintained the same fundamental look since Marie Taglioni first donned a pair to appear as a weightless sylph in La Sylphide in 1832), they have evolved vastly in terms of materials and support. Taglioni’s pointe shoes were little more than soft ballet slippers with extra darning on the tips and sides. Modern pointe shoes, first worn by Anna Pavlova at the beginning of the last century, consist of two key structural components: a re-inforced box at the end to support the tips of the toes, and a firm shank along the sole to support the arch. Materials used to construct them may include cardboard, paper, glue, fabric, and even fiberglass. The various “models” of pointe shoes are meant to address a wide range of the ballerina’s needs and foot shape. Imagine the variety of running shoes on the market today--pointe shoes are just as specialized.
Beyond this, a ballerina must prepare the shoe to her specific liking before she can dance in it. A pointe shoe arrives without ribbons or elastic, because everyone likes to sew them differently depending on their needs. They also must be broken-in to conform to each dancer’s foot. Some people take a hammer to them, some bang them on concrete, some bend them in the crook of a door. When I get a pair of shoes, I spend about 3 hours preparing them before I ever put them on my feet. I darn the tips (a practice that some dancers prefer because it evens out the platform of the box, and also makes the shoe “quieter” and less slippery), I sew on ribbons and elastic, I cut the shanks on the inside so that it bends in the proper place of my arch, I cut the satin off the tips, I pour a teaspoon of good old-fashioned shellac on the inside and let it soak in overnight (this extends the life of the shoe), and lastly I place a small strip of Dr. Scholl’s foot and shoe padding on the inside to allow for the uneven length of my toes. Throughout the lifespan of any one pair of shoes, I will continue to “doctor them up”--my lunch break is often spent re-darning the tips to get a few more “wearings” out of the pair.
My first experience with pointe shoes harkens back to the age of 9. I had just been accepted to the summer intensive program at San Francisco Ballet. Nine is relatively young to start en pointe, but since the summer program required at least some pointework, my teachers started me early. I had been dancing since the age of 3, so my feet, legs and core were strong enough to handle the shoes. I remember going with my mother to get my first pair--it was like Christmas. We purchased the smallest size possible. The minute I got home, I disobeyed my teacher’s restrictions. I put them on and danced around my bedroom, even took them out to the front yard and dirtied them up on the sidewalk. It was magical.
My first pointe class consisted of 15 minutes at the barre. To some, it was a bit of torture--the painfully slow rises through the instep and toes, the quick jarring springs up over the arch, the burning repetition--releve, eleve, echappe, passe-- over and over again. To me, it was heavenly. Even my first blister, which left some of my friends sobbing after class, I cherished. It was like a badge of courage, a rite of passage in the ballerina’s journey from childhood into adolescence. Blisters, corns, bunions, bruised toenails, even losing toenails--they all came par for the course in the world of pointe. They still do... Along with the first pointe class, a budding ballerina must learn to cope with all the ailments of the feet. Tape, band-aids, corn pads, New Skin liquid bandage, Second Skin burn pads (for blisters), Ambesol numbing ointment, Neosporin, epsom salts, Betodine, rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, Tiger Balm, Arnica--all friends to the ballerina’s foot. And as a professional, nothing beats a bucket of ice in which to plunge the feet after a hard day’s work. I have one set up under my dinner table.
A common question I get about pointe shoes is: “how long do they last?” There is no short answer, because different ballets require different levels of hardness, or what a ballerina refers to as “deadness”. On a scale of 1-10, a brand new pair of shoes would be a 1 in terms of deadness. For a ballet like Swan Lake, I use three different pairs for each act. Act Two requires a shoe that is about 4 on the level of “deadness,” Act Three requires a harder 2 to withstand the 32 fouettes, Act Four can suffice with a softer 7 or 8. Of course this will be different for every ballerina. I have known some dancers who will change their shoes in the wings during their partner’s two minute variation, just so that she will have the perfect pair for her next dance.
As you can see, pointe shoes are a very personal and specialized part of a ballerina’s career. In her lifetime, she will spend more hours sewing and preparing shoes, caring for the aches and pains of the feet, and training her body to withstand the rigors of pointework-- than she actually will performing on stage. It is a love-hate relationship that a ballerina has with her shoes. But most ballerinas would agree that the sacrifices made to create the effect of being light on her feet are well worth it. Pointe shoes are part of what gives the ballerina her effervescence and mystical weightlessness. Like Victoria Page in The Red Shoes, dancing en pointe is not just dancing, it is living. And, to me at least, a life without pointe shoes would feel just a bit less magical.