Men on Pointe
By Laura Di Orio of Dance Informa
Pointe shoes are not only for females. Today, there exist many all-male dance companies who perform on the tips of their toes. Their work is often comical, with exaggerated roles and costuming, but their technique is often strong and exciting. So what is it like for men to be on pointe? Are some steps harder? Easier? Is it difficult to find shoes that fit? And is it becoming more prevalent in the dance world? Here’s a deeper look into men on pointe.
Elena Kunikova, a choreographer and coach who is considered to be one of the leading experts on classical ballet, says that sometime during the early 19th century, long before pointe shoes were invented, both men and women were trying to rise on the tips of their toes, as they were “trying to project a very light, ethereal quality.” Later, only women danced on pointe, but all along, Kunikova says, men used pointe shoes as a tool for strengthening their feet.
For some time now, female roles in some traditional comedic ballets, such as the Ugly Stepsisters in Cinderella, have been performed by men, occasionally on pointe. Then, in the early 1970s, three men formed the Trockadero Gloxinia Ballet Company, and the genre of male dance comedy was born. When the company first began, the dancers called themselves ballet enthusiasts, as they were more theatrical than technically proficient.
Now, however, many all-male dance companies exist – Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Les Ballets Grandiva and Les Ballets Eloelle – and these dancers are highly technical and adept on pointe.
“When I first joined [the Trocks],” says Victor Trevino, artistic director of Les Ballets Grandiva/Les Ballets Eloelle, “the number of dancers who could do fouettés was minimal. Now it seems like every guy who auditions can do them, and many can do doubles and triples. I see more and more guys who are very comfortable working on pointe.”
Trevino points out that one of the advantages men have is that they build muscle much more quickly than women, which makes it easier to build leg strength on pointe. As a result, generally, men can do a lot of the harder tricks.
Kunikova says that there should not be any difference between men and women in terms of dancing on pointe and that one’s feet are either good for pointe work or not, but she does agree that a man’s strength can be to his advantage.
“Since men’s feet are strong, and male technique and vocabulary has more jumps, they master pointe work relatively fast,” Kunikova says, who is also a company teacher and coach for the Trocks. “I saw some dancers with very little experience in dancing on pointe basically learn it on the job.”
“Believe it or not, but all kinds of turning, traveling steps, such as chainés, soutenus and piqué turns, may not be easy, but they feel easier on pointe,” says Giovanni Ravelo, a dancer with the Trocks, who started to dance on pointe six years ago.
That said, dancing on pointe does have its hurdles for men. Ravelo, for instance, says it felt like he was doing ballet for the first time when he first wore pointe shoes.
“The hardest part for me was to learn how to adjust my body alignment to perform the steps I was used to performing on flat and make them look effortless,” Ravelo says. “Adjusting to this new sensation of being elevated but at the same time looking to be grounded was a real challenge.”
Trevino adds that partnering men on pointe can also be a very different experience. “Men have a very different balance of weight, and their upper bodies tend to be heavier and more muscular,” he says.
Finding the right fit and size of pointe shoe may also take some extra searching for men. “It took me almost a year to find the right shoe,” Ravelo says. “I tried many brands and finally settled on Capezio. For me, the lighter the better. I’m a size 10, so it wasn’t hard to find my size in stock shoes, but I do have to ask for a couple adjustments like a ¾ shank and an extra wide box.”
Trevino recommends that pointe shoes always be specially fitted, but he adds, “I say leave the dancing without toe pads to the women.”
Humor is a large part of the performance experience of men dancing on pointe. Often times, the work that companies like the Trocks, Grandiva and Eloelle present are exaggerated in terms of style or character.
“The Trocks are about the old Russian ballerinas’ glory,” Ravelo says. “We aim for those golden years of divas in ballet, and we find material for humor by exaggerating the mannerisms of their style. Sometimes we don’t need to do anything. Just performing as they did in their day is funny nowadays.”
Ravelo says that not only do he and the other Trocks perform the ballerina roles, but they also dance the male roles, which often portray dumb princes, narcissistic heroes or flighty poets.
Trevino says that this comedic approach has brought new audiences to dance. It has also been an outlet to get men on their toes in the first place.
“I think there has always been an interest for men to dance on pointe, but without the comedic aspect there was no way to explore it,” says Trevino. “The comedic aspect, and the rise of more professional companies doing this type of work, also makes it a viable option as a career.”
Performing in a humorous light calls for double duty for these male dancers, as their craft must be both comical and technical.
“I work with them like with everybody else – demanding proper technique and style,” Kunikova says. “In comedy, style is somewhat exaggerated or amplified. It makes the Trocks’ task more difficult, compared with a conventional company.”
Although dancing on pointe for men has become much more accepted, there is still little serious work for men in pointe shoes. However, Trevino says, “I think men dancing on pointe will continue to evolve and someone will figure out how to present men as men dancing on pointe eventually.”
And for now, those men on their toes seem to be enjoying their work. “For me, dancing on pointe, despite the difficulty, pain and blisters, is a privilege,” Ravelo says. “Every time I go on stage and have the opportunity to dance these roles is like a personal homage to ballerinas from the past and the present. I truly admire them. Even though pointe shoes for me are just a vehicle for the kind of show we do and not the main purpose, it’s really amazing to feel the same excitement and struggles that ballerinas feel up there on the tip of their toes.”