By the time of the French Revolution (1789-1799) ballet dancers exchanged heeled shoes and heavy costumes for lighter, flat-soled slippers, pointe shoes, and flesh-colored tights. This allowed performers freedom to move and achieve greater grace. The move to en point is thought to have been the brainchild of a Swedis dancer called, Charles Didelot who had studied dance and performed in France and Russia around 1800.
Didelot is credited with advancing the art form with innovations and developments in style and costume. Among other things he created a “flying machine” of rigged wires that carried dancers into the air. This made them appear weightless which delighted audiences who came to expect more challenging movements in dance.
Pointe shoes evolved with a flat toe box as a platform. This base helped develop calf and leg muscles during strenuous routines and allowed the entire weight of the body to be precariously balanced on the rigid points of one or both feet. The new footwear enabled maneuvers like pirouettes, arabesques and the dancers required to develop skill, strength, agility, and grace.
Pointe shoes may appear pretty but looks are deceiving. 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. 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 and the ballet dancer customizes 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.
Some ballerinas spend hours customizing their pointe shoes. Done as a labour of love they may squash them a door frame, or scape 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 she to accommodate bunions. Some will reinforce the block by darning the edge of the shoe. Most girls reuse the ribbons form 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.
Going on pointe for young girls (aged 11) is considered an achievable dream and rite of passage. But to the dedicated ballet devotee it takes a lot of hard work, pain and determination to achieve the epitome of dance.
Ballet dancers do suffer many foot ailments as they develop the en pointe technique. 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 for many dancers is they become so used to foot discomfort they are unable to discriminate between chronic suffering and acute damage. Chronic pain in couch potatoes would prevent them from exercise.