Ballet Business : Pointe shoes deconstructed

a ballet dancer wearing pointe shoes during rehearsal

pointe shoes in rehearsal at English National Ballet photographed by Bex Singleton

It’s Not Magic; it’s linen & often flour

It’s not magic that keeps a ballerina on her toes – it’s a mixture of materials – often burlap, flour, dextrine*, paper, potato starch, rough and smooth leather, coarse linen, satin, papier-mâché, held together with glue of a secret formula.

You may have seen dancers strutting about, stork-like, backstage, scratching in the rosin tray.  Rosin, which is made from pine tree sap, is used to stop their feet from slipping.  It’s not uncommon for dancers to use other materials too, for example detergent, cleansers, Coca-Cola & rubber cement.

You’ll also find dancers backstage, banging out the noise of their pointe shoes by hammering them, shutting them in doors etc, and this action (which you can often hear echoing around the building) displaces the rigidity of the box and makes the shoes quieter.  Ideally, from an audience perspective, you don’t want to hear a herd of elephants on stage, which is what happens if the shoes haven’t been worked in this way.

a ballet pointe shoe

pointe shoe deconstructed Photograph : Cheryl Angear Photography

Julie Heggie has been the shoe mistress at English National Ballet for 25 years.

During that time, she has seen many innovations in technology and her role has expanded to encompass the range of shoes now available, and the problems that dancers can have with their feet.  English National Ballet is an international company, and its dancers bring with them shoes from around the world.

Feet & Pointe Shoes

The foot is a complex structure made of 26 bones & ligaments, muscles, tendons and nerves.

a diagram showing the bones of the feet

The anatomy of the foot

This photograph shows a pair of pointe shoes worn for rehearsals.  You can see some of the customization carried out by the dancer – especially the vamp which has been cut into a v (often to make the shoe appear longer and to accommodate bunions) and then sewn to hold the shoe together.  Toe pads of all shapes, sizes and materials are used inside the shoe to cushion the toes and elastics, which are sewn in to give security around the heel area, are used to stop the shoe from slipping off the heel (often a percieved fear rather than an actual one).

There are three types of foot – Greek, Egyptian and Peasant.  A Greek (or Morton’s) foot has a longer second toe and narrow width foot, an Egyptian foot has a long first toe and then the others taper with a narrow width foot, and finally the Peasant (or Giselle) foot has three toes the same length and is a medium width foot.

It’s worth mentioning here that it’s the dancers foot that makes the ‘pointe’, not the shoe.  Essentially, the pointe shoe is a covering for the delicate bones of the feet, to allow the dancer to extend their line and to jump and turn as the choreography demands.

Julie Heggie is one of three shoe mistresses in the country; she is based at English National Ballet and there is another at The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet. “The shoes in other companies are dealt with by a member of wardrobe,” she tells me. Heggie has seen much change over her 25 years, “when I first took the order book over all the girls work Freed pointe shoes and all the boys wore Gamba soft toes.  Simple. Now of course its escalated, to roller blades and clever things we have to devise.”

What happens when a dancer first joins the company ? “When they first come in, they would have a fitting with me, and I would look at the existing shoe that they’ve brought because they’ve been to school, they’ve worn the shoe through schooling; they consider it fits them and it works for them.  Company life and company work is very different to school, even The Royal Ballet School.  It bears no resemblance, and so a shoe may not service them well enough within the company whereas as a student it was fine.  As a student these days, they are very much left to go and do their own shopping without any over-seeing, so when they come, often the shoe doesn’t fit them.”  If the dancer joins the company at a lower level, which is usually the case, Heggie will ease them in gradually by going through a sampling process and making suggestions for the shoe that she considers they should be wearing.

There are very few bespoke makers, so working within her budget, Heggie will often stick with the brand of shoe that the dancer is currently wearing but “it might mean a little bit wider or a bit longer, just little tweaks that will make it more effective, because also you have to remember that we have a tight budget to stick to, so a dancer that’s wearing a shoe that maybe won’t last the week, has to be reined in.  They can only wear the allotted amount that I give them. So I’ve got to make them last as well as look nice on the stage. A lot of aesthetic goes on, because the ballet staff are concerned about the look, so we get a lot of feedback from how a shoe looks from an audience point of view, from the ballet staff.”

If the shoe is a good fit then it’s left alone, and the next time Heggie might see the dancer would be following an injury. “If they attend physiotherapy and it’s a foot related injury then of course we’ll look at the shoe to make sure that it’s not causing it, or it’s not helping to cause it.  And then also change it so that it supports the foot if it needs it.”

On a performance day, Heggie attends with the wardrobe team.  For long-haul overseas trips, this can mean a lot of advance planning because the containers may be sent by sea several months ahead.  For a European trip, such as to Seville, the containers will be sent overland and the team will arrive 3-4 days before the dancers, to lay everything out in their dressing rooms and make sure everything is ready.  Being performance ready is an on-going occupation, as there will be several casts for each show, each needing their own shoes.  “We all have personal skips which we keep in the theatre and for a dancer that carries their wash bag, rehearsal leotards, performance ballet tights, shoes and makeup.  For us it carries our blacks, which we have to wear when the show is on.  Apart from that, as support to the dancers we carry an enormous amount of kit. I carry all of the shoes for the dancers, and I also carry elastic and sewing kit for my part in their performance wear.”

ballet pointe shoes upside down

Pointe Shoes Photograph by Cheryl Angear

English National Ballet has a massive warehouse in Marden, Kent, where all of the costumes and touring equipment is housed and it’s also where the colours can be mixed and the shoes dyed – Heggie does all of that & spends the majority of her week based there, with one day dedicated to HQ in London where she holds clinics for the dancers, which she describes as “a bit like an MP’s surgery, really.”  During these sessions she will work around their schedules, handing out the dancers allocation of shoes (up to 10 pairs a month unless they wear Gaynor Minden’s, when the allowance is lower because the shoes last longer but are much more expensive) and listening to any concerns the dancer may have, as regards their feet. There are currently four dancers at English National Ballet who have chosen to wear Gaynor Mindens; none of them came into the company wearing them. They are less maleable than a turned shoe and they have plastic components, but you can put them in the washing machine.  Heggie says “if you choose to wear them, there’s nothing to be done with the shoes. You can’t bespoke them in any way so, a bit like any boys shoes, if it fits you, and it suits your foot you can wear it; it if doesn’t then you can’t wear it because we can’t change it to make it suit your foot.” Maria Montanez, marketing manager at Gaynor Minden, Inc. says, “actually, Gaynor Minden offers extensive customization. We customize shoes for ENB dancers, as we do for our many other professional customers. We adjust toe boxes, vamp heights and shapes, quarters and sides, including bespoke wings. And that’s in addition to offering a choice of five different shanks at no extra cost which, by the way, we can also customize with reinforcers of different stiffnesses at locations specified by the dancer.”

“Once the show is about to start, “at beginners,** or the five minute call, I will go up to the wings and take my position, and everyone knows that I am stood there, and as soon as the curtain goes up I check everyone’s entrance, make sure they’ve got the right shoes on, make sure they are clean, make sure they are pancaked, and make sure the boys look smart and tidy enough.”  This happens for every act of every performance.”

Very last minute cast changes, due to injury, are the one thing that can trip Heggie up. “I have been known to dye a pair of shoes in 10 minutes; hairdryers at the ready! I don’t like doing it because of course it leaves marks on the lino and then the stage crew get into trouble.  That’s usually what catches me out.  A last minute, very last minute change.  Touch wood they don’t happen too often.”

Pointe Shoes In History

In 1726 Marie Camargo made her debut at the Paris Opera Ballet and introduced the entrechat.  To display these fast changes of her feet from fifth position front to back and front again, she had to wear a shorter skirt.  At the time she was wearing the usual heeled shoes but as her jumps became more complicated she switched to flatter shoes which later became pointe shoes.

Pointe shoes were first documented around 1815-1830 in England and France after Catherine de Médici commissioned the first ballet in 1581.  Dancers would perform on a ballroom floor, but later, in Camargo’s time when skirts were raised and the feet became more of a feature, the stage was raised so that the audience would have the best view.

Genevieve Gosselin is believed to have danced on pointe in 1815 in Flore et Zephire.  In 1832 Marie Taglioni danced on pointe in La Sylphide, in shoes made by Janssen of Paris.  No films or recordings of her performance exist, but some of Hanssen’s shoes are in private hands and at the Haydn Museum in Austria.  The shoes had no box, they were soft satin slippers with a flexible leather sole.  In 1832 Amalia Brugnoli danced on pointe in London.  Several ballerinas from the romantic era followed and turned what was essentially a technical feat into art – Fanny Elssler in 1833, Carlotta Grisi in 1836 and Fanny Cerrito in 1840.  The famous 32 fouettes from Swan Lake were probably first seen in 1892 and danced by Pierina Legnani.  By this time the slippers had become less pointed and had a flatter base with a much stronger sole, and crucially, a moulded box.

ballet pointe shoes worn by Venus Villa in rehearsal

Venus Villa on pointe Photograph : Cheryl Angear Photography

It takes around 11 different steps to make a pointe shoe, and most makers take two and a half years to train and have been in the business man and boy.  Most of them will never have seen a ballet.  As a general guide each maker can produce around 45 pairs a day, and there is no left or right as in traditional shoes. Some ballerinas will have the same maker throughout their careers, and it can be a stressful experience if a maker retires – as happened recently with Bob Martin.

The First Pair

When the time comes for the first pair of pointe shoes, usually around the age of 11/12 years, the excitement can be so great that ballerinas would happily sleep with them on !  However, when it comes to having a pointe shoe fitted, there are quite a few things to consider including : the length of the shoe/their size in relation to each other/the breadth and length of your metatarsal region/the height of your instep and the transverse arch.  There are four width fittings : super-narrow USA, x, xx and xxx.  Just as with clothes, most ballerinas would prefer their shoes to be narrow and slim so that their feet will look slender and a true extension of their body.  It’s quite a lot to take in and if you can, the advice is always to take someone with you, perhaps your teacher, or to go to a manufacturer with a qualified fitter. The bones of the foot do not fully ossify (harden) until around the age of 20/23 years, and so it’s vital that the early years of pointe shoe wear are well-advised ones.

Heggie reinforces this advice, “they need to go with someone or they need to go to a supplier that has a fitter, rather than, with the best will in the world, a shop assistant, because it is so crucial.  Especially first pairs. Even dancers within companies need another person’s eye.  It’s very size led, as with everything. Models are size 0 and no-one will admit that their feet are anything more than a size 5 slim fitting.”  And there is nothing standard about pointe shoe sizing; nor is it possible to guess from your street shoe size what your correct pointe shoe size is. “There are some manufacturers that exist that have a fitting regime where the shoe fits extremely tightly.  European shoe fitting isn’t that way.  You can’t say if you’re a five then you’d be a four in a pointe shoe. You might have a longer second toe. You can’t say as a rule of thumb that there is a formula to pointe shoe fitting.”

Heggie provides advice once dancers join the Company, checking that the shoes they have brought with them are the right fit, but astonishingly, young dancers are often left to their own devices when it comes to finding the right pointe shoe.  Nancy Osbaldston, an Artist with English National Ballet confirms this, “in school I used so many different types of shoes. I went to Bloch, Freeds; I just went off to the shops and got everything.”  Did she have any advice ?  “Never, I just didn’t think I’d be able to find the perfect shoe by myself, so I just had whatever I could find.”

a ballet dancer talks about pointe shoes

Nancy Osbaldston

I spoke to Osbaldston about her experiences with pointe shoes and her transition from student to company life.  As a student she wore Freed Studios, which suited her well, but as the company workload increased she found that she needed a customised Freed shoe (Freed Studios are stock shoes and as such will fit many people). What happened ?  Osbaldston says “I got injured for 6 months and it was a bit scary.” Basically she developed bunions which flared up under the workload.  I asked them both what caused the bunions and Heggie said “I think the structure of the foot has to be addressed. You have to hold your body and even if it’s a bunion it means there is something out of alignment in the foot and the leg.” What was the treatment ?  They both chorus, “rest.”

Osbaldston says, “I had a lot of acupuncture on it which helped but eventually it just came out in a massive bruise.” One of the treatments that dancers don’t tend to consider is Chiropractic, which is ideally placed for misaligned joints as it focuses on manual adjustments (which generally do not hurt) to restore equilibrium.  Rest, alone, may be insufficient and it’s important to realise that bunions are not an automatic response to wearing pointe shoes.  It’s much more likely that your feet are out of alignment and if they are, you need someone who can treat them, both to prevent bunions in the first place and to manage them if they’ve already developed.  Some Chiropractor’s are trained in Applied Kinesiology, which is a system of muscle testing that allows the practitioner to hone in very specifically on the misalignments, as well as checking your whole body for problems.  Muscle testing incorporates the organs of the body, which can produce surprising results.  For example, pain in the ankles, a very common complaint from ballet dancers, can indicate a bladder problem, which can easily be treated but isn’t something the dancer might even have been aware of.  One thing to bear in mind though – you shouldn’t expect that one or two adjustments will fix the problem permenantly.  While it’s often the case that you can feel better immediately, the weakness in the joints/organs will take time to strengthen and it’s very important not to drop out of treatment if you want to see lasting results. The bonus is that with muscle testing, dancers can see their bodies becoming stronger and as a result they are able to do more work, but crucially, without repeated injuries.

winner of the Ballet News competition in the ballet pointe room

the pointe shoe room at English National Ballet (with Hannah Joels) Photograph : Bex Singleton

Professional dancers carry a comprehensive range of tools needed for breaking in and customising their pointe shoes.  You might be surprised to see just how much of a DIY store it really is.  Typically a dancer’s kit may include the usual plasters/tape/toe pads/Ouch Pouches/scissors/sewing needles of differing strengths/thimble, but then go on to include a wide mallet/scraper/medium sized screwdriver/pincers/pliers/Stanley knife/Hot Glue/lighters (to singe the ends of the ribbons)/nail varnish/twine/book binding thread & dental floss.

a ballet dancer on pointe is lifted by a male ballet dancer

Senri Kou and the underside of her pointe shoe Photograph : Bex Singleton

One of the questions I ask during my ‘Cupcakes & Conversation’ interviews with ballet dancers, relates to the preparation of pointe shoes – in fact, it’s a question I always ask because there are a million different ways of working pointe shoes, with the technique being personal, and crucial, to each dancer. Plus, people always ask me !

a ballet dancer stands on pointe

Rachel Cossar & her pointe shoes Photograph : Dane Shitagi

Rachel Cossar is a Corps de ballet dancer and her shoes work particularly hard.  When Rachel answered the question : “arghhh, this is still something I am experimenting with. I have been having some major issues with shoes these days…but for now, I stand on the block to flatten it out. Then, once I have taken out the nail in the back, I try to bend the shank to give it maximum mobility. Sometimes I bang them because for some reason, my solos are like absolute bricks,” I was intrigued, so I asked Rachel to explain.

Do you have problems with your pointe shoes or have you found the perfect brand ?  What do you do to your pointe shoes to make them work for you and how long do they last ?

ballet pointe shoes in a pile on a yellow cushion

Photograph by Cheryl Angear Photography

* dextrine – –noun – a soluble, gummy substance, formed from starch by the action of heat, acids, or ferments, occurring in various forms and having dextrorotatory properties: used chiefly as a thickening agent in printing inks and food, as a mucilage, and as a substitute for gum arabic and other natural substances.

**beginners – the 5 minutes call is actually 10 minutes before curtain up.  Beginners is 5 minutes before, and that’s when everyone who should be there, including wardrobe, is there.

a ballet dancer wears stripy legwarmers and pointe shoes

Photograph by Cheryl Angear Photography

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6 Responses to Ballet Business : Pointe shoes deconstructed

  1. Hannah January 20, 2011 at 10:39 pm #

    Wow! What a detailed article which I read carefully for tips. Sadly, my worn in & comfortable pointes broke (snapped shank!) on tuesdayso I’ve had class in painfully hard (albeit slightly broken in) shoes tonight!

    Fascinating article, thanks!

  2. Rachel @ Inspiration in Italy January 21, 2011 at 1:24 pm #

    This was just fascinating! What a complex & beautiful shoe. I found out I have Greek foot too, ha!


  3. Couture Carrie January 22, 2011 at 3:16 pm #

    Very cool post, darling!

    Hope you are having a fabulous weekend!


  4. Ballet News January 22, 2011 at 3:22 pm #

    thank you everyone !

  5. lori vliegen January 22, 2011 at 7:05 pm #

    as someone who knows nothing about pointe shoes, i thoroughly enjoyed this!!! the dancer having the perfect shoe is no different than the artist searching for the perfect paintbrush! i absolutely LOVE the photos of the worn shoes……all of that burlap, potato starch and papier mache is gorgeous!! thanks for your in-depth article! xo

  6. Ballet News August 8, 2011 at 5:51 pm #

    @Lori thank you very much.