The first toe-dancing shoes were merely satin slippers, much like today’s technique slippers. They had leather soles and some darning on the sides and under, not on, their pointy tips. They fit like kid gloves and were just stiff enough for a tremendously strong dancer like Marie Taglioni to achieve a brief, thrilling balance on pointe. It must have been a lot like dancing barefoot.
Toe-dancing slippers underwent a significant construction change toward the end of the nineteenth century when Italian ballerinas further reinforced the toes of their shoes, creating the forerunner of the modern toe box. These “blocked” toes enabled the dancer to sustain much longer balances and to turn multiple pirouettes on pointe. The shoes were less supportive than those of today, and still pointy at the tip, but the extra box strength revolutionized ballet technique, and choreography along with it.
Virginia Zucchi, of tutu fame, Pierina Legnani, of fouetté fame, and their compatriots changed ballet forever when they traveled to St. Petersburg with their reinforced shoes. Better shoes, along with their robust Italian technique and their newly developed trick of spotting their turns, gave them an enormous advantage over their less-well-shod Russian rivals. Not to be outdanced, the Russian ballerinas quickly adopted reinforced shoes.
The cobblers of the day obliged their customers as best they could with the materials available to them. There were no durable synthetics or shock-absorbing foam cushions in the 1890s, so shoemakers had to rely on what they had: burlap, leather, paper, canvas, and glue. Anna Pavlova was probably among the first to add a reinforcing leather midsole. (This, supposedly, was part of her secret shoe preparations. She is also said to have danced on shoes with wider platforms, then later to have retouched all her photographs to make the tips appear narrower, preserving the Romantic ideal of dancing on the tiniest point.)
Over the years pointe shoes have grown heavier and sturdier, and wider at the platform. They have evolved into different shapes and styles, but even today most are still made the old way. It was not until the late twentieth century that synthetic components made from thermoplastic elastomers and urethane foams were successfully introduced into pointe shoe design.
Advances in female ballet technique owe a debt to advances in ballet shoes. Camargo danced better when she removed the heels; Taglioni, by darning her slippers, furthered the ballerina’s rise to preeminence; Legnani and Pavlova took female virtuosity further still with reinforced boxes and shanks. These great and resourceful dancers improved their shoes, thereby expanding their vocabularies and pushing the limits of technique. What new possibilities will today’s dancers explore with theirs?