Friday, January 12, 2018

Ballet: From Demi to Pointe Shoes

Marie Taglioni (1804 – 1884)is given the credit for being the first ballerina to dance on pointe but no one is really quite sure. She did perform La Sylphide on pointes (1832) and was certainly a pioneer who developed the technique which was responsible for revolutionising ballet. Toe dancing was transformed into an artistic expression. Needless to say her grace, lightness, elevation and style earned the adoration of her audience and she subsequently enjoyed a brilliant career. She wore well-fitting soft satin slippers with leather sole. The sole and sides of her shoes were reinforced with darning but the tip her pointes was left free. Her dance technique mirrored the bare foot. The dancer's alignment was different and she was less vertical, less straight up and down, with her hips released back and her upper body tilted slightly forward. Her Russian fans loved her so much they were reported to cook her discarded slippers and eat them with a sauce.

The Danes choreographed jumping and bouncing sequences in the 1800s and although the softer ballet shoes of the period were adequate; the later incorporation of pirouettes and balances on full pointe instead of demi-pointe, meant new shoes had to be found. Shoemakers needed to make shoes, soft enough for jumping yet sturdy enough for the balances and turns. At first some dancers resorted to wearing a soft pointe shoe for jumping on one foot and a hard one to support the leg for balances and pirouettes.

The spectacularly graceful and charming Italian ballerina, Pierina Legnani had her shoes made with a leather shank and her party trick was to place a rouble on the floor and chalk its circumference. She then did thirty-two (32) fouettes with the supporting leg never wandering outside the chalk circle. Her influence on the Russian ballet was profound and the Russian school of dance began teaching ballet classes in the Italian method of training. The introduction of stiffer shoes made possible new technical achievements not previously known. The ballerina shoe was considered as an extension of her body and intimately related to her profession and art. It was the shoe, which made the dancing possible.

The conventionally made, old style pointe shoe often had a span of only one performance. Due to their frailty, the danseuse would require to replace her shoes at least once during a performance. This was because the box became too soft to brace the toes adequately, or the shoe shank lost its stiffness. The toe box was made from layers of burlap and paper saturated with glue. These would often swell with wear and conform to the foot, however the suppleness required for dancing was temporary because the toe box eventually became too soft. The shank or midsole was made from cardboard or fibreboard and steel shanks were seldom used. Occasionally the pointe shoes of a male dancer did incorporate a steel shank alternatively a reinforced strut was secured to the under surface of the shoe. The shoes were held together by glue, stitching and small nails with the outer satin material gathered in pleats under the toe. Irregularities or lumps like pleats made the shoe unstable. The original pointe shoes offered no protection to the feet and ankles.

Female pointe dancers tended to suffer many foot ailments, with stress fracture, tendinitis and black nails common. It has been reported 80% of professional dancers suffered ankle injuries. Many dancers used lamb's wool or toe pads the make their shoes more bearable. Too much wading however prevented the dancer from feeling the floor. Traditional shoemaking materials required being thick and hard to provide enough support, but loud clomping pointe shoes undermined the illusion of effortless grace for which the ballerina was striving for. Noisy pointe shoes make the dancer seem heavy and earthbound undermining the ballerina's performance both dramatically and technically. Pointe shoes were generally three sizes smaller than the length of a street shoe. Ballerinas required pointe shoes to fit like a second skin and she needed to feel all five toes. Most importantly they needed to feel the end of the toe box. Each foot was fitted separately. Old Pointe shoes started off rigid when new and had to be 'broken in' by the dancer. The breaking in process took many hours and was done in several ways. These included manually flexing the shoe back and forth, jumping on it, jamming it in a door, bashing it with a hammer, soaking it in warm eater or alcohol and scraping the sole. The shoe was commonly brushed with floor wax or shellac. Shellac is a solution of lac in alcohol or acetone. Applied to surfaces such as wood and plaster, the solution forms a hard coating upon evaporation of the solvent. All dancers sewed their own ribbons which criss crossed the ankles keeping the shoe on and upright in the full-pointe position. Many used elastics. Occasionally old shoes were being used for class work or light rehearsal but most were discarded. Autographed shoes from celebrated ballerinas have become highly prized.

The new pointe shoes allowed the dancer to poise indefinitely on tiptoe. It is her strength and technique, which bring her from the normal standing position. Once on pointe she maintains the position by contracting the muscles of her feet, ankles, leg and torso to pull her up put of the shoe. Without proper training and technique any attempt to toe dance will meet with injury. For that reason, children are never encouraged to dance on pointe. Dancers train for several years in soft slippers before they wear pointe shoes. Then only a few minutes of each class are devoted to special pointe exercises. Eventually dancers progress to wear pointes for long active periods until they can complete the whole class. The pointe shoe supports the foot underneath the arch with a stiff sole or shank. The box of the shoe tightly encases the toes to allow the dancer's weight to rest on an oval shaped platform. The incorporation of elastic materials within the toe box of modern pointe shoes has given more serviceable support to the shoe. Further new pointe shoes incorporate a stable shank giving the shoes the necessary resilience and comfort. Modern pointe shoes are constructed so that the shank and toe box are made from one piece. Shanks have varying degrees of flexibility and the toe box may have different configurations. The upper material is usually pink satin and can be dyed for performance to costume designer's specifications. Pointe shoes are made to fit either foot and it is rare for the danseur (male dancer) to wear pointe shoes. Now the ballerina no longer requires to 'breaking in' her shoes and more robust footwear outlasts the traditional ballet pumps.

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