Pointe shoes enable the dancer to balance, spin, hop, pounce, slide, and linger on the tips of her toes. Before the advent of the modern reinforced pointe shoe, around 1900, ballerinas wore soft slippers and could not perform the steps, turns, and sustained balances on pointe that we expect of today’s dancers. Pointe shoes provide the necessary support for toe dancing by allowing the dancer to transfer her some of her weight to the shoe in two critical places, under the arch and around the toes.
A stiff midsole, called the shank, presses snugly along the bottom of the foot. Shanks may run the entire length of the shoe or only part way, and they have varying degrees of flexibility. The fabric that extends back from the toe box to the cover the top of foot is called the vamp. It contributes to the shoe’s overall supportiveness by holding the foot against the shank.
The toe box tightly encases the toes, so that the dancer stands on an oval-shaped platform at the tip. Toe boxes may be more or less stiff; they may be shallow and barely cover the tops of the toes, or deep; some have extended sides called wings to provide extra support along the sides of the foot. Most pointe shoes will fit either foot; there is usually no left or right.
But pointe shoes alone are not enough. Although the shoe helps the dancer to stand on tiptoe for long periods of time, it is her strength and technique that bring her from the normal standing position through a mid-position, “demi-pointe”, to the full-pointe position. Once en pointe she continues to work hard, maintaining a contraction of the muscles of the feet, ankles, legs and torso to pull herself up out of the shoe. No one lacking proper technique and adequate strength should attempt toe-dancing. Furthermore the introduction to pointe work must be gradual. Dancers should 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 wearing pointe shoes for half, or all of class. See when to start pointe.