Jurgita Dronina, Principal Dancer with English National Ballet and The National Ballet of Canada. “warm up”, Photo by Serguei Endinian

Pointe shoe issue – A trip in time

From the moment of their first ballet class, little girls have only one thing on their mind: pointe shoes. They envy the older girls’ pointe shoe classes. They grasp the barre with both hands and try to stand on their toes. They pad their soft shoes and decorate their rooms with their favourite ballerina dancing on pointe. But above all, little girls beg their teacher of pointe shoe classes – fortunately, without immediate success…If you ask people in the streets what ballet is, their answers will most certainly contain the word “pointe shoes”. Of course dancers know that ballet is a too complex art to be reduced to pointe shoes. Nevertheless, mastering pointe technique is a key ingredient to a successful career in classical ballet. Most ballerinas enjoy dancing on pointe. Obviously, ballet without pointe shoes would not be the same.

Today, toe dancing is so associated to ballet that we may easily forget: it has not always been there! Or at least not in its current form. There is no real evidence of when and by whom pointe shoes were invented. Dance historians tend to acknowledge the Italian choreographer and ballet master Carlo Blasis as the inventor of the romantic pointe shoe and Marie Taglioni as the first ballerina on pointe. However, other sources seem to reveal toe dancing long before the 19th century. For instance, Lincoln Kirstein describes in his book “Dance. A short History of Classical Theatrical Dancing” young girls with flower baskets dancing on the occasion of the celebration of Artemis: “They took quick, brief steps, moving as much as nature would permit on their tiptoes […]”. Moreover, Kirstein assumes that the Ancient Greeks had a progressive understanding of dance in comparison to ours.
Since the invention of Charles Didelot’s “flying machine” in 1795 – a then quite revolutionary technology that took the ballerina’s weight in order to create the illusion of her standing on the point of her foot – ballet choreographers have been working on developing a technique that would give the ballerinas a more airy, lighter look on stage. The first pointe shoes only allowed the dancers to stand for few seconds on pointe. Nonetheless, Marie Taglioni’s stage appearance in “La Sylphide” in 1832 was a huge success. The pointe shoe era began. It helped to improve the working conditions of female dancers. Pointe dancing was the females’ privilege and gave them a new importance on stage. The more the pointe shoes have been developed, the longer the dancers could stand on pointe. Furthermore, the improvement of the pointe shoe allowed technically more challenging choreographies. Contemporarily, there was need of a special, more rigorous training for the ballerinas.

In the days of Marie Taglioni, Amalia Brugnoli and Awdotja Istomina until some decades ago, toe dancing often included aching and bleeding feet. The pointe shoes of the 19th century and the early 20th century were not as developed as are current shoes, nor did the dancers have appropriate padding tools. For a very long time, pain while dancing on pointe was considered the dancer’s lot. “Bleeding feet will bond us” – Liza Minelli’s saying seems to refer to pointe dancing and it shows to what extent pain was accepted and being considered as normal side effect of the dancer’s profession.

Not every dancer does feel pain to the same extent in pointe dancing, but there may be some pain involved. However, thinking that pain has to be there is arcane. Dance Medicine has proven that if dancers are aware of the needs of their body (including their feet!), they can lengthen their career on stage. Today, there exists a huge variety of pointe shoe labels from Bloch, Capezio and Freed to Gaynor Minden, Sansha and Grishko – just to mention a few. Also some of the pointe shoe accessories such as lambs’ wool, gel tips or gel pads can be a relief while dancing on pointe. There are pointe shoes for the individual requirements of most dancers. And who knows where new technologies are going to lead us in another decade!

By Christine Lehmann