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What’s the Point of Pointe?

Capezio pointe shoes

By Katherine Moore of Dance Informa.

Blisters, stress fractures, taping, padding…these are some of the perks that come with being a professional ballet dancer who dances en pointe for a living. For years and years, ballerinas have endured countless hours of training, some of them painful, in order to perform on stage wearing shoes that feature a hard box around the toes and a rigid sole under the arch of the foot.

Why? What is so special and compelling about dancing en pointe that it makes all the difficulty worth it?

When Louis XIV of France first took the ballets of the courts and put them onstage, women wore heeled shoes when dancing. Standing on toes, even leaping, was not really possible. With the emergence of the Romantic era and a growing artistic trend towards fantasy, audiences wanted to see dancers fly, which dancer and choreographer Charles Didelot first accomplished by introducing partnered lifts and aerial wiring mechanisms that allowed dancers to soar across the stage. Likewise, costuming was changing to allow for more ease of movement and heels were cut off of shoes.

At the same time, the technical, virtuosic demands of dancing ballet were also elevating. Soon, teachers and choreographers became curious as to how the physical body could give the illusion of flight without the aid of wires. Both men and women were asked to perform movements on the tips of their toes, but it was ultimately the women who won out. Although dancers had already begun experimenting with padded shoes to aid standing on their toes, when ballerina Marie Taglioni performed La Sylphide in Paris in 1832, she was dream-like. Standing on her tiptoes, she appeared to glide and float across the stage, and with this, the age of dancing en pointe for women was officially ushered in.

Tiffany Hedman and Sarah Hay in Capezio

Tiffany Hedman of Boston Ballet (left) with Sarah Hay of Semperoper Ballett, wearing Capezio.

“Pointe work is what we think of when we say ‘ballet,’ no? So it plays not just a role in the ballet world, it is the ballet world,” says Tiffany Hedman of the Boston Ballet.

Pointe shoes have changed a lot over the years. Their materials and shapes have been engineered to suit the ever-growing technical demands of the ballet profession by providing more support and more ease of movement. Still, the arduous process of training for pointe work requires enormous effort at a young age.

Like other professional ballet dancers, Hedman began training early. She started ballet at the age of three, and began pointe around 10 years old. In conjunction with the foot and ankle strengthening she practiced in flat shoes, just putting on a pair of pointe shoes was enough to begin challenging Hedman’s feet.

“Back then…I felt like a foreign object was on my foot, where now, my feet, believe it or not, are most comfortable in a pointe shoe. They are a part of my body when I have them on, they are not just a shoe, they are an extension of me,” she says.

Courtney Lavine of American Ballet Theatre, like Hedman, has the privilege of wearing custom-made pointe shoes by Capezio.

Courtney Lavine of American Ballet Theatre in Capezio

Courtney Lavine wearing Capezio

“For a long time I struggled with finding pointe shoes that were the right fit. I have always had extremely long and narrow feet. Some of my friends compare my feet to skis, as a joke of course. Up until I joined ABT, my pointe shoes were always too wide, which made dancing in them more difficult. I finally teamed up with the shoemakers from Capezio and they custom make my shoes to fit my foot,” Courtney explains.

Once a dancer finds the right fit, how can dancing en pointe communicate something different than dancing in flat shoes or even barefoot? According to Hedman, dancing flat emphasizes weight where dancing en pointe emphasizes lightness, and it requires that the dancer is more grounded into the floor.

She says, “I personally … find flat work harder at this point in my career. I have done a piece by Jiří Kylián called Petite Mort where we are in bare feet. That took quite some time for me to get use to! We dance on marley floor, so it is a bit sticky with just your bare feet. I felt really exposed, and it caused me to take a much different approach.”

To Hedman, pointe shoes are an essential part of her artistry as a professional.

“I think [pointe work] communicates elegance, beauty, gracefulness, a sense of being in a dream. It is not the norm in life so it gives a sense of mystery to the audience; it represents beauty. For dancers, it is what allows us to express ourselves. A businessman may use a pen to communicate, and we use our body and our pointe shoes. It makes you feel regal and you have to match that in your artistry,” she says.

However, Lavine acknowledges that choreography for pointe has changed throughout the years to encompass more ideas than just the dream-like regality in which it began.

“Now dancers and choreographers use pointe work to communicate so much more. New tricks have been created and people are continuously figuring out new ways to make pointe work interesting. Yes, pointe shoes still allow dancers to dance with a light airiness, but in the 21st century pointe shoes are even more important to the art of ballet than ever before.”

Clearly, pointe work is still an integral part of the ballet world. To dancers, choreographers and audiences alike, it is difficult to imagine ballet without pointe.

The power of pointe work can even be relevant to students who are not planning on a professional ballet career.

Hedman says, “As pointe work is obviously an unnatural thing that we try to make look natural, it forces you to be more aware of your body. It improves coordination, but most importantly, pointe work is not something you can do without dedication. In any area of life, learning discipline and being totally committed to a project will always be worth your while... Pointe work definitely isn't easy so if you can master that, you can master anything!”

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Main sources:
Ballet Basics, 5th Edition, Sandra Noll Hammond
History of Dance: An Interactive Arts Approach, Gayle Kassing