All About Pointe > The Old Style Pointe Shoe

 

To a layman, a ballerina seems incomprehensibly fussy about her shoes. But for a dancer the pointe shoe is more than just a tool of the trade, more than a tradition, more than a costume. It is an extension of her body, intimately related to her profession and her art. It is the essential "equipment" that makes her dancing possible.

Because the conventional pointe shoe is rigid when new, the dancer must break it in. This may involve any or all of the following: manually flexing the shoe back and forth, jumping on it, slamming it in a door, bashing it with a hammer, soaking it in warm water or alcohol, and scraping the sole. Finally, the shoe is often brushed with floor wax or shellac to give it a few extra minutes of life. All dancers sew on their own ribbons, which crisscross the ankles, keeping the shoe on and upright in the full-pointe position. Many use elastics as well. The breaking-in process can consume up to several hours of a dancer's time.

Once broken in, it quickly deteriorates. The conventionally-made, old-style pointe shoe often has a life span of only one performance. During the performance of a full-length ballet a ballerina will often replace her shoes at least once. The box becomes too soft to brace the toes adequately or the shank loses its stiffness. Sometimes old shoes can be re-used for class or light rehearsal, occasionally they are autographed and sold as souvenirs, but most are just thrown away. This lack of durability is not the fault of the dancer - it is the result of constructing what is ultimately an athletic shoe out of paper and paste.

The toe box of the pointe shoe generally consists of layers of burlap and paper, saturated with glue. (Some boxes are actually made from old newspaper!) With wear the box softens and conforms to the foot, but optimum suppleness lasts only a short while before the box becomes too soft.


The shank or midsole is usually made from some form of paper such as cardboard or fiberboard. Steel shanks are seldom used. (The only exception might be the rare case of men's pointe shoes.) Sometimes a reinforcing strut is secured to the underside. Glue, stitching and small nails hold the shoe together. The outer satin material is gathered in pleats under the toe. Any irregularities or lumps in the pleats will make a shoe unstable and thus unusable.

Because of this construction, traditional pointe shoes offer no protection to the feet and ankles. Female ballet dancers (those who dance in pointe shoes) suffer injuries that barefoot modern dancers and slipper-shod male dancers avoid. Stress fractures, tendinitis and black toe-nails are common. An alarming 80% of professional dancers suffer ankle injuries.

Why? Most theatres were designed for opera, not dance; the stage floors are made from wood laid directly on concrete. It is hard on the body to repeatedly jump on such stages, especially in traditional pointe shoes which lack shock absorption.

Another factor in dancers' injuries may be the deterioration of the traditional paste and burlap toe box. As the box becomes soft, it fails to provide sufficient support. A less obvious drawback to the traditional box is that it may soften in some areas but not others. This may cause the dancer to become improperly aligned when she stands en pointe. Improper alignment places stress on the ankle joint, and that stress increases enormously with the momentum of springing onto the full pointe position.

Gaynor Minden solves these problems by using an elastomeric toe box and shank that never soften or break, and require no breaking in. Instead of pleats Gaynor Minden provides a sound and shock-absorbing panel of high-density urethane foam, and adds protective cushioning throughout the shoe.

Laboratory studies report that Gaynor Mindens do indeed outlast traditional pointe shoes and that dancers (test subjects) are indeed better aligned in Gaynor Minden's elastomeric toe box than in traditional paste and paper toe boxes, suggesting a possible safety benefit with Gaynor Minden. But, ballet has an inherent risk of injury. No pointe shoe or toe pad can possibly eliminate that risk. However, correct technique is safe technique. Dancers should seek out informed and careful teachers who understand the biomechanical aspects of the art.

Why the lack of innovation or improvement until now? Because a dancer must conceal her exertions under a serene and radiant smile, the tremendous athleticism of ballet is often overlooked, as is the need for proper equipment. Although the physical demands of ballet are as rigorous as those of any sport, "high performance" has historically been expected of artistic interpretation rather than of shoes. Only dancers and those who live with them know of the problems associated with old style pointe shoes.