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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Ins and Outs of Pointe Shoes

Have you ever wondered how that itty bitty little pointe shoe can support your entire body when you do your ballet dancing? Advances in female ballet dancing technique owe a debt to the technological advances in pointe shoes over the past few decades.

The pointe shoe is designed to support you with its toe box and its stiff midsole or shank. In this way your weight doesn’t only rest on your toes, but on the entire oval shaped platform at the end of the box. The shank in turn presses underneath your arch to support your forefoot. That is why you should make sure that your point shoe is not too wide and hugs your forefoot, so that the box can do its job and support you properly. The vamp on the pointe shoe also helps by preventing you from falling forward and out of the shoe and enables the shank to do its work by keeping the sole of your foot firmly in place inside the pointe shoe.

At first the shanks were made of stiff leather, but leather alone was not an option when dancers began to demand more from their pointe shoes. Today most of the traditionally made shoes have a shank made from a thin stiff material like fibreboard, cardboard, or other types of specially treated paper products. Fibreboard does break and some dancers deliberately crack their shoes in a certain place to control where the shoe bends, but once broken in the shank starts to deteriorate, and this renders many a pointe shoe unusable after as little as one performance. Steel has been tried, but also not popular due to its lack of pliability.

The block of the pointe shoe is not made of wood as a lot of people seem to think. Most of the traditional pointe shoes are made with strips of burlap, canvas or even newspaper, which are saturated in glue then layered like a papier-mache. With wear the traditional box will soften and conform to the foot. Ballet dancers have developed several ways to prolong the life of their pointe shoes. Some include painting the insides with floor wax or shellac. Ballet dancers have been plasticizing their own shoes for ages, long before the synthetic toe boxes came along.
It does seem amazing in this day and age that the pointe shoe design has remained quite unchanged for so long, especially as everything else has advanced so. The problem is that in ballet dancing the aesthetics must always be honoured.  Nobody dares spoil the sleek delicate look of the pointe shoe.

More and more shoes nowadays are made from synthetics, which do offer the advantages of making the shoe last longer, by retaining their shape and stiffness, however these shoes must be fitted with more precision. Many also argue that use of these shoes by the inexperienced dancer does nothing to strengthen her foot the way a more traditionally made shoe would do, as the dancer would need to break them in by working them in and thus strengthening her own feet.

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