Pointe Shoe Myths Debunked
By Laura Di Orio of Dance Informa
With an art form as ancient as ballet, it is no wonder that rumors and myths have developed about dancing on pointe over the years. Some ballet-based movies and books have only fueled the fire by adding more drama than truth. Dance Informa is here, however, to debunk some of these pointe shoe “myths” and uncover the real deal.
MYTH: Pointe shoes are made of wood.
FACT: Pointe shoes are hard, but they’re not made of wood. They are constructed with layers of fabric and glue, covered with satin, and the sole is made of hard leather. When the glue dries, it becomes hard and provides stiffness and support. These materials are much more pliable than wood, so they’re more easily able to flex and mold to the foot. There are some stories of shoes made of balsa wood during World War II, especially in Japan, where the usual materials (canvas and burlap) were needed for the war effort. After the war, however, wood was never used again. Some newer pointe shoes are made of plastic and rubber, with the plastic providing the hardness needed.
MYTH: Because of the competitive nature of dance, dancers put shards of glass, needles or razor blades in each other’s shoes.
FACT: Rumors and anecdotes in fictional ballet books and movies tell the story of the dancer out to get another dancer – putting grease on stairs, glass in shoes and other forms of sabotage. But for the most part, injuries in dance occur due to the high demands and physicality of the art form, not from other dancers. However, there is one story of Russian ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska, who in 1906 set out to ruin a rival’s performance by opening the latch of a chicken coop, allowing the animals to go on stage. Her subjected ballerina, though, went on with her variation and received a roaring applause. Despite this, for the most part dancers seem to be nice, appeasing people.
MYTH: Once you’ve worn pointe shoes, you can go all the way up on your toes without the shoes.
FACT: While it sounds like a good party trick and although pointe work does strengthen your toes and ankles, it is not advisable to stand up on your toes without wearing the proper pointe shoes. Pointe shoes are hard and box-shaped for a reason – they encase the toes and give you the support needed to be all the way up on your toes. It would be dangerous to stand on your toes in anything other than a supported shoe meant for that purpose.
MYTH: Dancers use raw meat as padding for their toes inside pointe shoes.
FACT: Actually, many years ago, dancers would put raw steak in their shoes to cushion their toes and claimed the meat also provided comfort over blisters, easing the pain. Perhaps this technique originated from the Tartars of Central Asia who put raw meat under the saddles of their horses to medicate the wounds and blisters. Nowadays, luckily, there are all sorts of antibiotic ointments, blister Band-Aids and toe pads that can be used instead.
MYTH: Once you turn 12 years old, you’re ready for pointe.
FACT: There is no age milestone that determines your readiness for pointe. While most teachers and professionals do believe a dancer should be at least 12 years old, there are other factors, such as proper alignment, a foundation of technique, strong leg muscles and a strong core, that are necessary before going on pointe. To be sure, consult with your ballet teacher and, if possible, your doctor to see if you are ready for pointe.
MYTH: Pointe shoes will give you bunions.
FACT: It’s true that dancers can develop bunions over time, but it’s not from ballet or the pointe shoes directly. Rather, toe symptoms such as bunions result from poorly fitted pointe shoes, improper foot alignment and genetics. Be sure to find pointe shoes with a long enough vamp and a box that allows there to be equal impact on all your toes joints when on pointe. Also, make sure that turnout comes from the hips so as not to roll inward on the foot, and place even weight on the heel, pinky and big toe sides of the foot when standing. Hereditary factors cannot be prevented, but focusing on things you do have control over will help keep them in check.
MYTH: You don’t need strong technique to stand on pointe; the shoes hold you up.
FACT: You can’t expect the pointe shoes to hold you up on their own. Rather, you need to lift up and out of your shoes while on pointe, and you must have a foundation of technique on demi-pointe first. Also, when first going on pointe, be patient and don’t expect everything to be perfect right away. Pointe work requires a lot of strength, and although pointe shoes are designed to support your foot, the strength required to stay up comes from you.
MYTH: You can judge what brand or style of pointe shoes will work for you based on what looks good on another dancer.
FACT: Each dancer’s feet, strength and technique is different, so pointe shoes should be professionally fitted to cater to what you need. A dancer’s ideal shoe will be based on many other things besides what “looks good” to you, and what works for someone else may not work for you. A professional shoe fitter will be able to help find the shoe for you with their knowledge of different variables – foot types, shapes, strengths – that go into finding your shoe match.