Pointe shoes: Pointe shoes are a type of shoe worn by ballet dancers so that they are safely supported when dancing on the tips of their toes during pointe work.
Pointe work: Pointe work is the part of ballet technique that sees a dancer support all of their body weight on the tips of their fully extended feet, which are encased in pointe shoes. It was conceived in response to the desire for dancers to appear weightless and otherworldly. Also known as toe dancing or dancing en pointe.
The history of pointe shoes
Ballet today is readily associated with athletic yet elegant ballerinas gracefully balancing on the tips of their toes. However, the practice of dancing en pointe only came about as the art form evolved and individual dancers pushed the discipline in new directions.
The art of ballet was established a good 200 years before dancers began to don reinforced slippers and showcase toe dancing. The beginnings of ballet can be traced back to 1533, when Henry II, the king of France, married Catherine de’ Medici, an Italian noblewoman. Catherine was a great patron of the arts so the marriage, which united French and Italian culture, helped to cement ballet as an essential courtly entertainment.
Just over a century later, in 1661, King Louis XIV founded The Académie Royale de Danse in France. His passionate commitment helped to drive ballet’s transition from a pleasant social or courtly event to a distinct theatrical performance art, complete with codified rules, etiquette and conventions. Ballet was no longer simply a pastime for amateurs – it was elevated to the position of a discipline that required professional training.
Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ballets were largely performed as part of an elaborate celebration for the royal court. A combination of poetry, the visual arts, music and dance was used to glorify the monarch during these ceremonial spectacles, which were known as ballets de cour.
In the mid-seventeenth century, French ballet master Jean Georges Noverre rebelled against the pretentiousness of such productions because he believed that ballet alone could tell a story and reveal relationships between characters. Noverre subsequently introduced the ballet d’action, an expressive style of ballet that conveyed a plot and was a precursor to the narrative ballets of the nineteenth century.
The first ballet shoes
The first ballet shoes, worn by King Louis XIV’s dancers, were heeled slippers. These shoes were elaborately decorated with buckles, which meant that they were not the easiest to wear and prohibited jumps and a lot of technical movements. As the focus shifted towards codified ballet technique, softer silks and leathers were used to construct the shoes. This made it easier for the dancers to point their toes and execute more intricate footwork.
It is believed that revolutionary French dancer Marie Camargo, of the Paris Opera Ballet, may have been the first dancer to remove the heels from her ballet slippers. Certainly, by the time of the French Revolution (towards the end of the eighteenth century) and once the ballet d’action was accepted, the heeled slipper had been replaced by a new flat-bottomed design.
This new design liberated dancers. The shoes were secured to the feet with ribbons, which wrapped around the ankle, and pleating under the toes ensured a better fit. The dancers were able to articulate though their feet and achieve a full extension more appropriate for ballet as an art form beyond the royal court.
Acrobatics and illusions
The origins of pointe work reside in the showy stunts of a few acrobatic Italian performers in the early nineteenth century. Notably, Amalia Brugnoli was one of the first dancers to haul herself up onto the tips of her toes to give audiences something spectacular to wonder at.
Ballet dancers became eager to experiment with ways of creating the illusion of skimming weightlessly as if in flight after being inspired by French choreographer Charles Didelot’s “flying machine”. This was a contraption that he invented in 1796 that allowed dancers, who were suspended on wires, to stand on their tiptoes before leaving the ground. It was this aspiration to make the impossible possible that drove the eventual evolution of pointe shoes.
The toe-dancing trick was refined in the Romantic era by ballerina Marie Taglioni. She made it into something much more elegant, effortless and elevated than the acrobatic dancers had managed. She worked tirelessly to make dancing en pointe look easy, which is a quality still associated with pointe work today.
The shoes Marie Taglioni danced in were no more than soft satin slippers, with leather soles, that were heavily darned at the tip for support underneath the metatarsals and toes. They were not hard or boxed like today’s pointe shoes are so she relied entirely on the strength of her feet and ankles.
Marie Taglioni rose to fame when her father, Filippo Taglioni, created the ballet La Sylphide (1832) for her. The ballet was designed to showcase Marie Taglioni’s talent. It capitalised on her incredible strength, expressive arms and soft, billowy leap. Dancing en pointe had an aesthetic rationale in La Sylphide and was not merely an acrobatic stunt. Hence, thanks to her endurance and ease en pointe, Marie Taglioni managed to combine a desire for simplicity and modesty with the virtuosity demonstrated by the flashy Italian performers of the past.
The soles of Marie Taglioni’s shoes have been studied and are revealingly scuffed and worn at the metatarsal. This indicates that she stood on a very high demi-pointe and actually danced on what today’s dancers would consider a transitional part of the foot that is more than demi-pointe, but less than full pointe – the three-quarter pointe.
Three-quarter pointe is an extremely awkward position to stand in. Consequently, nineteenth-century dancers often bound their toes tightly into shoes that were too small in order to squeeze the metatarsals, which made it easier to stand on them. However, this also made it easier to dislocate bones. Unsurprisingly, the shoes would not last very long as they had considerable weight to support and lacked durability.
Fully en pointe
The next generation of pointe shoes appeared in Italy in the late nineteenth century. This was the period when Marius Petipa included thirty-two fouetté turns in the Black Swan pas de deux of Swan Lake and long balances en pointe in the Rose Adagio of The Sleeping Beauty.
Italian ballerinas, such as Pierina Legnani, wore shoes with a sturdy, flat platform at the front end. These modified slippers also boasted a box – made of layers of fabric – to encompass, support and protect the toes. They also had a stronger sole that was carefully stiffened (but only at the toes to make sure that the shoes remained as close to silent as possible for dancing).
Advances in both training and pointe shoe design meant that dancers were able to hold sustained balances and execute more demanding and virtuoso movements fully en pointe. All while still retaining the natural ease the Romantic era ballerinas had radiated as they skimmed and flitted in their reinforced slippers.
Pointe shoes today
In recent years, scientific approaches to pointe shoe construction and dance training have improved the support, durability and fit of the shoes and helped make pointe work safer. This allows more freedom than ever before in terms of the choreography that can be performed en pointe.
The design of the modern pointe shoe is often attributed to early-twentieth-century Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. She had high, unstable arches, which left her vulnerable to injury when dancing en pointe, and slender, tapered feet, which resulted in excessive pressure being applied to her big toes. To compensate for this, she would insert toughened leather soles into her shoes for extra support and flatten, curve and harden the toe area of the shoe to form a box.
These alterations made it easier for her to dance en pointe and her modified shoes became the predecessor of the pointe shoe that dancers are familiar with today.
Parts of a pointe shoe
The front of the shoe. It encases and supports the dancer’s toes.
Allows the dancer to stand flat on the floor for balancing, turning and appearing to be weightless.
An area underneath the box/block where the satin is pleated to fit under the shoe.
The part of the shoe that covers the sides and heel of the dancer’s foot.
Reinforces the sole of the shoe to support the arch of the dancer’s foot en pointe.
The opening of the box (can be V-shaped or rounded).
Supports the dancer’s toes and metatarsals.
An extension of the vamp. Different lengths of wings will offer different levels of support.
Dancing en pointe
Pointe shoes work by providing support to a ballet dancer’s feet in two critical places: under the arch and around the toes. By allowing the dancer to transfer some of their weight to the shoe in these two areas, pointe shoes facilitate the execution of steps, turns, hops, jumps and sustained balances on the tips of the toes.
The shank is a stiff midsole that presses snugly against the bottom of the foot, supporting the arch. It may run the entire length of the shoe or just some of the way. Shank flexibility varies, as does the shape and length of the vamp. Dancers must therefore find the options that best support their feet.
The toe box or block tightly encases the toes, providing them with support so that the dancer stands on an oval-shaped platform at the very end of the shoe. Toe boxes are made of canvas, linen and glue and the stiffness of the box may vary in different shoes. Some toe boxes have extended sides (known as wings) to provide extra support along the sides of the foot.
Of course, pointe shoes alone are not enough to dance en pointe. Although the shoes help the dancer to remain on the tips of their toes, it is the dancer’s strength and technique that gets them rising from a normal standing position, through the demi-pointe and the three-quarter pointe, all the way to the full-pointe position. Once fully en pointe, the hard work continues as the dancer must engage the muscles of the feet, ankles, legs and torso to pull up out of the shoes while dancing.
When is a dancer ready to start pointe?
Starting pointe work is a milestone achievement as a ballet student. It is not just about reaching a certain age or extent of physical maturity, although age does have a bearing on bone development. Significantly, a dancer’s readiness to begin pointe work depends on their strength, technique, attitude and commitment.
Generally, students will likely be ready to begin pointe work once they have been taking focused ballet classes for two to four years and can demonstrate appropriate strength, sound technique and a mature approach to learning the art of ballet. This may be at around the age of twelve for some students. However, chronological age alone is inadequate as a criterion for starting pointe work.
Beginning pointe work too soon may risk injury as inadequate motion, strength and stability could place undue stress on the legs, pelvic girdle and trunk. It could also leave the joints and (still developing) bones vulnerable to damage.
Before starting pointe work, a dancer must have good core stability, alignment through the legs and strong and flexible feet and ankles. They must understand and demonstrate postural control, maintain their turnout when dancing, possess a strong relevé, and use and articulate their feet properly.
Fitting pointe shoes
Pointe shoes need to be professionally fitted. There are many options available to make sure that a dancer gets the shoe that will best support their feet. However, until students are very experienced and have understood what works for their feet, they must rely on the advice of trained fitters and their ballet teacher.
Fitters check the shoe’s sizing by:
- inspecting both length and width fit, ensuring that the box sits securely against the toes with all five toes laid flat along the insole
- checking that the vamp depth or shape does not inhibit a dancer’s ability to get fully en pointe
- considering how strong the shank needs to be to provide adequate support to the arch.
Fitters and teachers will also advise on ways to affix ribbons and elastics to the pointe shoes.
Preparing pointe shoes
The purpose of pointe shoe ribbons is to give additional ankle support. The ribbons should be attached to the lining, not the satin, and placed at the part of the shoe where the heel meets the sides of the shoe when it is folded forward. Sewing the ribbon angled slightly forward may result in the most secure and aesthetically pleasing placement, but each individual dancer must find what works best for them.
Elastics are an optional extra. Again, it is up to each dancer to go through a process of trial and error to discover what gives them optimal support.
Tying pointe shoe ribbons
Put on the pointe shoes and take hold of the inside ribbon (the ribbon sewn on the same side of the shoe as the big toe). Cross this ribbon over the ankle bone until it meets the inside of the ankle. From there, wrap it around the ankle once. Hold the ribbon taut.
Next, take hold of the outside ribbon and cross it over the inside of the ankle so that it crosses the other in an ‘X’. From there, wrap it around the ankle once and then around half the ankle so that it meets the other end of the first ribbon on the inside of the ankle.
Tie the ribbons in a secure double knot and tuck the ends tidily away.
“Breaking in” new pointe shoes
Many dancers find that the simplest and safest way to break in new pointe shoes is to carefully massage them, wear them around the house and then take great care to use correct ballet technique when dancing in them in class.
Once a dancer has prepared a new pair of pointe shoes by sewing on the ribbons (and elastics if they choose to use them), they may place the shoes somewhere warm and dry and leave them overnight (the airing cupboard is ideal).
The next day, just before putting them on, the dancer will gently massage the box and wings to soften the shoe, focusing on the part of the shoe that will bend when rising onto demi-pointe.
When the dancer first wears the shoes, gently rolling up through the demi-pointe to full pointe on one shoe (while standing flat on the other foot) will apply pressure to – and encourage a slight softening of – the shoe in the correct place. Transitioning through the demi-pointe in this way will force the shoes to conform to the shape of the dancer’s arches. Walking around on demi-pointe is another useful method.
Introducing pointe work in class
The introduction to pointe work must be gradual. To begin with, only a few minutes of each class will be devoted to special pointe exercises.
Beginner pointe students will need to focus on finding the correct placement en pointe, paying careful attention to their posture and alignment. All the basic ballet technique that has already been acquired will be challenged once a dancer starts to wear pointe shoes, so it is more important than ever to implement all of the technical corrections that a teacher offers.
Students must get used to their feet feeling confined in pointe shoes. Some discomfort is to be expected at first, but students may choose to experiment with using animal wool in their shoes, taping their toes or wearing specially designed fabric pouches to protect the skin on their toes from blisters.
Pointe work will begin at the barre, with rises and relevés. As students develop strength, skill and confidence they will try simple exercises in the centre without the assistance of the barre.
Eventually, students progress to wearing pointe shoes for their whole class. By this time, they will be aiming to perform all the steps that they are accustomed to executing in soft ballet slippers while wearing their pointe shoes.
Dancers and their pointe shoes
A dancer’s relationship with their pointe shoes is passionate and intimate. More so than a relationship between two dancers!
Pointe shoes are emblematic of empowerment and entrapment in equal measures. Dancers wear them for the freedom to create extended lines and show their mastery of technique. Yet the shoes themselves are constraining and simultaneously have the power to make the magic happen or break the spell.
More generally, pointe shoes are notoriously symbolic of those dancers who belong in ballet, which also serves to alienate those who don’t. In traditional training, the young dancers who progress to pointe are those who demonstrate that they have the potential to thrive in the ballet world – to make it their career. But advanced training is expensive and time-consuming and not something all families can commit to. Furthermore, historically, only female dancers danced en pointe and ballet was a white art form.
The stereotypes that exist in the dance world are increasingly being recognised and challenged. This means issues concerning empowerment, inclusion, diversity and representation are slowly starting to be addressed. Hence, the manufacturing and wearing of pointe shoes – and the way ballet culture is experienced and perceived – continues to evolve.
The Red Shoes
If you think your pointe shoes are tormenting you, spare a thought for Vicky!
The Red Shoes (1948) is cinema’s quintessential backstage drama, a glorious technicolour blockbuster full of dance and danger. It tells the tale of Victoria “Vicky” Page, a young ballerina torn between her career with a ruthless impresario and her romance with a young composer.
The film enlists the story-within-a-story narrative device by featuring a hallucinatory central dance sequence in which Vicky dances the lead role in a new ballet, The Red Shoes. In the ballet, a girl wears a pair of cursed red pointe shoes. The shoes refuse to stop dancing so she ends up dancing herself to death.
Life imitates art for Vicky as she eventually falls to her death while wearing the iconic red shoes.
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo
This all-male drag ballet troupe has been hurtling through the classical ballet repertoire in size twelve pointe shoes since 1974.
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (affectionately nicknamed “The Trocks”) was founded in the wake of the Stonewall Riots and is committed to providing a stage for dancers who are often underrepresented in the ballet world due to their sexual orientation, gender identity, size, social class, race or ethnicity.
The company’s original purpose was to bring the pleasure of dance to the widest possible audience. The professional male dancers portray both male and female roles, playfully exaggerating the mannerisms of serious dancing while faithfully recreating repertoire with technical skill and daring physicality.
The Trocks boldly defy classical ballet’s conventional gender classifications and promote diversity and acceptance. By refusing to “toe” the line, they vociferously show that anyone can aspire to dance en pointe. Today, the company is loved worldwide for its polished parodies of classical ballets. And social media is increasingly populated by videos of men on pointe, simply dancing as themselves.
New shades of ballet
Pointe shoes that reflect the diverse skin tones of the dancers wearing them were released for general sale only relatively recently.
Traditionally, ballet shoes were “European Pink” or “Ballet Pink” because it was assumed that the dancers were too (the intention was for it to look as if the dancers had bare feet and bare legs, for elongated lines). Of course, dancers are not all one standard colour so those with darker skin had no choice but to cover their shoes (and ribbons) with make-up or paint so that they would match their skin tone. This time-consuming process is known as “pancaking”.
American dance brand Gaynor Minden started selling pointe shoes in two new shades of satin, named “Cappuccino” and “Espresso”, in 2017. Then, in 2018, long-standing British shoemaker Freed of London released pointe shoes, with matching ribbons and tights, in “Ballet Bronze” and “Ballet Brown”. Other brands have since followed their lead and product ranges are gradually expanding.
Redefining what a pointe shoe (or a flat ballet slipper, or a pair of tights) looks like smashes outdated stereotypes by acknowledging that not all dancers are white. Being able to walk into a dance shop, or browse through a brand’s website, and see shoes in a variety of skin tones makes the ballet world a more welcoming place.
This resource is intended as a helpful guide.
It was compiled using the following sources:
Anderson, Zoë (2015) The Ballet Lover’s Companion. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
‘Brown ballet shoes made for first time’, YouTube, uploaded by BBC News, 11 November 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tECGMInZY8Y (Accessed: 5 January 2023).
Bull, Deborah and Luke Jennings (2014) The Faber Pocket Guide To Ballet. London: Faber and Faber.
Freed of London (2018) ‘Ballet Black’, Freed of London Blog, 4 December. Available at: https://freedoflondon.com/ballet-black/ (Accessed: 5 January 2023).
Gaynor Minden (2017) ‘Loving this early feedback’, Facebook, post uploaded 23 January 2017. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/GaynorMinden/photos/a.98287806168/10154322888776169 (Accessed: 5 January 2023).
Glasstone, Richard (1977) Better Ballet. London: Kaye and Ward.
Homans, Jennifer (2010) Apollo’s Angels: A History Of Ballet. London: Granta Books.
‘How To Break In New Point Shoes‘, YouTube, uploaded by Lisa Howell – The Ballet Blog, 12 January 2007, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pX-PNqJr9z4 (Accessed: 5 January 2023).
‘Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo’, YouTube, uploaded by Sadler’s Wells, 25 June 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBYFREnH32g (Accessed: 5 January 2023).
Novella, Thomas M. (2000) ‘Pointe Shoes: Fitting And Selection Criteria’, Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, 4(2) pp. 73–77.
‘The Red Shoes (1948) – Ballet Sequence’, YouTube, uploaded by S&N Editor, 4 August 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktv3-1JTspc (Accessed: 5 January 2023).
Sparger, Celia (1970) Anatomy And Ballet. London: A and C Black.
Weiss, David S., Rachel Rist and Gayanne Grossman (2019) ‘Guidelines For Initiating Pointe Training‘, International Association for Dance Medicine and Science. Available at: https://iadms.org/research-publications/resources-paper/#pointe1 (Accessed: 5 January 2023).
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.