To The Pointe

During the New York City Ballet’s seasons at the David H. Koch Theater in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, a film offering a backstage glimpse of the dancers’ lives plays as a loop on a screen beside the box-office windows. People waiting to pick up tickets invariably watch with particular fascination during the segments about pointe shoes. In the same vein, when I do residencies in the Bronx and Brooklyn with my arts-in-education company, Ballet Ambassadors, the kids always love having the chance to pass around a pair of pink satin pointe shoes and then watch a demonstration of the technique we use for dancing on our toes. Curiosity about this hallmark of the ballerina’s trade seems to be pretty much universal. Here then, in the interest of demystifying pointe work for you, is my insider’s take on the topic:

“Good feet” are a prerequisite. Ideally, a career-track ballerina should have high and supple arches, flexible ankles, and toes that are all almost the same length. Girls with less than perfect feet can learn to dance on pointe but they typically don’t get jobs in the big league companies
Girls should not take pointe class until about the age of eleven. A baby’s skeleton is mostly cartilage with just a shell of bone. By adulthood, the skeleton has hardened, or ossified, although some cartilage remains in areas such as the nose, ears, and spinal disks. Putting a girl on pointe when the bones in her feet are still malleable can cause permanent damage. Usually an eleven-year-old has bones ready to withstand the rigors of pointe work. Of course she should have started taking ballet lessons several years earlier in preparation for the big day when she finally rises up on her toes. During my workshops in elementary schools, I have the children put their fingers on their noses and wiggle them to find out what cartilage feels like. Then I have them chant “The inside of my toes is a soft as my nose.” There are always giggles all around, but the point (pardon the pun) is made!.
Pointe dancing originated during the Romantic Era in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1795 in France, Charles Didelot invented a “flying machine” with wires to lift dancers up on the tips of their toes. However, Marie Taglioni is credited with being the first ballerina to dance a full-length ballet, “La Sylphide,” on pointe in stiffened shoes. The year was 1812 and she was portraying an otherworldly creature with wings. Many of the classics, including “Swan Lake,” “Giselle,” “La Peri,” and “Sleeping Beauty” feature airborne spirits or fairies, but today’s ballerinas also wear pointe shoes to dance pieces without a narrative as well as stories about mortal heroines.
Ballerinas are very fussy about which kind of shoe they wear. There are many brands of traditional shoes made of burlap and glue. They have to be “broken in” and then they are useful only for a very short time before they are no longer rigid enough to provide support. Our shorthand for that situation is “My shoes are dead.” However a newer type of pointe shoe created by Gaynor Minden is more durable because the shoes are fashioned out of the same high-tech materials used in athletic shoes. Because Gaynors are relatively comfortable and make dancing on pointe easier, proponents of traditional shoes claim that Gaynor users are “cheating.” Gaynor aficionados, though, are rabidly in love with these innovative shoes. I’m a Gaynor convert myself, and so is my dancing daughter but none of the ballerinas in my company wear them. To each her own!
A sprung floor covered with “marley” is best for pointe work. Bloody toes and cracked or bruised toenails are far less likely to plague ballerinas when they dance on studio floors and stages with some “give” created by wood planks placed over raised platforms. In addition, a non-slip surface helps prevent falls. The brand name of the first such surface, “Marley,” has become the generic for this product although other brands such as Harlequin and Roscoe are more commonly used these days. Of course my stalwart Ballet Ambassadors ladies have to dance on hard and slick school stages as do the members of other itinerant troupes. The solution is “rubberized” shoes. We have a shoemaker glue sections of Cat’s Paw rubber to the tips and heels. This provides an added bit of cushioning and some traction.
If there’s a little ballet student in your life who is yearning to have her first pair of pointe shoes, I hope you’ll share this information with her. What’s more, if you’ve always wished you could make your girlhood dream of dancing on your toes come true, why not go for it? Dance schools all over the country offer adult ballet classes. You wouldn’t be the first woman of a certain age to live out a long-held ballerina fantasy of going on pointe!
Sondra Forsyth, Co-Editor-in-Chief at ThirdAge, is a National Magazine Award winner. She writes for major magazines and is the author or co-author of eleven books. She was Executive Editor at Ladies’ Home Journal, Features Editor at Cosmopolitan, and Articles Editor at Bride’s. A former ballerina, she is the Founder of Ballet Ambassadors, an arts-in-education company in New York City from 2001-2014. 

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