Going on pointe for young girls (aged 11) is considered a rite of passage. To the dedicated ballet devotee it takes a lot of hard work work, pain and determination to achieve the epitome of dance. Injuries are a regular part of a dancer’s life who cope with many stress fractures and bouts of tendonitis throughout their career. A complication is dancers become so used to foot discomfort they become unable to discriminate chronic suffering from acute damage. In a normal course of event when we have chronic pain it prevents couch potatoes from exercising.
Pointe shoes may appear pretty but looks can be deceiving. Ballet slippers are papier-mâché pumps made of satin, calico, card, Hessian and thick glue. The soles are made from cardboard. Many are hand lasted and made inside out. There is no right and left slipper but the ballet dancer will customize their shoes with use. The tips and sides of traditional pointe shoes are hard with the former made from layers of canvas, burlap and glue. The block is built up by layering Hessian with a form of wet tissue paper and fine card, and each layer is spread with a sticky glue like paste made form flour and dextrene. The shoes are baked for ten hours before the seamstresses and cutters trim the satin and sew in the drawstrings. Fitting shoes is considered important by experts and good fitting shoes can keep foot damage to a minimum. Tradition determines pointe shoes are supplied without ribbons and the ballerina will sew these on themselves.
Professional ballerinas can wear through three pairs of ballet slippers per performance. More supportive Pointe Shoes are not the complete answer to dance perfection and all experts agree good technique with warm up stretches is necessary too. Combined with good shoes this may reduce the injuries pointe dancer face in their career.
Although there are many ballet shoe factories around the world just under half of the pointe shoes are made by Freed Factory in the East End of London. Ballerinas tend to stay with the same shoemaker from their student days and the better quality shoes are hand lasted. It takes two and a half years to learn how to make ballet slippers and a lifetime to perfect them. Many are true works of art and craftsman shoe makers sign their slippers with their insignia on the sole.
Some ballerinas spend hours customizing their pointe shoes. Done as a labour of love they may squash them a door frame, or scrape them with a Stanley knife or cheese grater. A common superstition is if the ballerina cuts herself when sewing her ribbons she must smear the blood on the back of the shoe for good luck. Finally the shoes are coated inside with shellac, a sticky solution that seals the inside. Otherwise the heat of the dancer’s foot breaks down the papier-mâché block. Many put nail varnish around the edges to stop them fraying and stitch a seam in the shoe to accommodate bunions. Some will reinforce the block by darning the edge of the shoe. Most girls reuse the ribbons from discarded shoes. Unseen at the side of the stage are trays of powdered rosin. The ballerinas spray their legs and feet with water before scratch like chickens in the rosin tray to coat their feet and soles with the sticky amber residue, this stops them from slipping.
Dame Margot Fonteyn’s pointe shoes sold in auction for more than $5000 a pair. When Swiss Italian Marie Taglioni gave her final performance in 1842, her fans clubbed together and paid 200 rubles for her shoes. They then boiled them and ate them.
Chun Che and Chan Hon Goh are two ballet teachers and choreographers who have lived with these problems and decided to design a new pointe shoe. The Diamond Pointe emerged through experience and consultation. The new point shoes have been designed for young dancers in their early teens, and practicing three or four times a week. Ballet dancers are traditionalists and would not wear a safer shoe unless it looked like the real thing. The Diamond Pointe has a supportive arch which helps the foot when the heel is off the ground. The shank is designed to reduce stress injuries. Principle Shoes was set up in 1996 and sells to stores across the US. Other innovative footwear comes from Gaynor Minden who supply shock absorbing plastic footwear which are light weight and hardwearing.
McCurrah I 2003 These shoes were made for dancing The Times Magazine
July London 35-38.