Dancing On Pointe: The Impact Of Ballet Footwear


The type of training a dancer receives can often lead to problems. Different dance styles utilize different muscles and body positions. Ballet dancers develop their bodies to absorb specific forces and punishment that are quite different than the forces exerted on a modern dancer who is dancing barefoot. In the same manner, ballet and modern dancers receive different training than jazz or tap dancers wearing hard-soled shoes.

Many problems can arise going from class to class. Varying types of dance puts undo stress on alternating areas of the body. Maintaining top physical condition is critical in preparation for these various bodily assaults. Proper strength and conditioning lessens the chance of injury and strain placed upon the body, stretching and flexibility training is also pivotal. This preparation will especially help dancers who train various styles of dance as part of their daily regimen.

Selecting suitable footwear is also vitally important to the health of dancers’ feet and their longevity. In order for a shoe to fulfill its function, it must fit properly. In general, given the choice between a slightly larger or slightly smaller shoe, select the larger shoe. Further, if one foot is larger than the other, choose the larger size. When measured for proper footwear, compare the sitting and standing size of the foot. Most measuring devices measure three things; length from heel to longest toe, heel to the ball of the foot and width. It’s best to fit the foot from heel to the ball of the foot, rather than the toe, especially if you have Morton’s Neuroma, which is a short first metatarsal. The heel counter, or cup around the heel, should fit snugly, but not be stiff so it causes irritation from excessive motion. The vamp of the shoe, or part that covers the forefoot, should be wide enough to accommodate the forefoot without being too loose to cause blisters or too tight to cause corns, toe deformities and cramping of the muscles. The toe box should allow free movement of the toes without pressure. Pointed toes or toe boxes that slope can cause irritation to the nails and digits themselves. Additionally, toes should not strike the end of the shoe. Feet can swell during long dance routines and rehearsals and shoes that don’t fit correctly can cause severe problems in the future.

Ballet slippers should fit snugly, ensure there’s no room in front of the toes and elastic at the instep to hold them in place. Toe shoes can have high arches added, elastic adjusted or be reshanked or reblocked. Choose a heavier toe box when first beginning pointe training, it should be stiff and strong. Use lambswool in the front of the shoe to cushion the toes. Ballet shoes are the hardest shoes to fit because there is an abundance of choice.

Understanding the difference between soft ballet and pointe slippers is paramount. A soft ballet shoe is made of either leather, canvas or a stretch satin. The toe is pleated into the sole of the shoe and has a soft leather platform or shank. They are usually lined in leather and often have a suede insole or sock. They are completely flexible and can be rolled into a ball. They have a drawstring made of either cloth or elastic and stay on the foot by attaching elastic across the instep of the foot.

A point shoe has a hard box front and a hard shank usually made of durable paper. The material most often is satin, but the shoe can be made of leather or canvas as well. The toe is pleated and the shoe has a drawstring of either cloth or elastic. The box of the shoe is made of Hessian or burlap cloth with a water soluble glue, which is what gives the shoe its wooden appearance.

To fit both ballet flats and pointe shoes follow these simple guidelines. Both shoes should fit snugly, one reason why parents find ballet so expensive, because they cannot fit to allow for growth. The softer quality leather slippers generally stretch a great deal, thereby lasting through a growth period. A ballet slipper, though snug, should not be too tight at the heel nor should the toe cross. All of the toes should be flat when standing and the ball of the foot should be flat on the floor when on demi-pointe.

Pointe shoes are especially difficult to fit, a fitting mistake can be costly. It’s not unusual for a dancer to buy two pairs to accommodate differently sized feet. Shoes will last longer if two pairs are alternated, allowing each pair time to dry out between wearings.

A shoe with a low heel is preferable to one with a high heel. It gives a smooth line and also keeps from digging into the very sensitive Achilles tendon. When a shoe is cut low in the heel it often slips off. Elastic can be attached at the back, on the outside, to better secure and stabilize the shoe.

A pointe shoe cannot be fit for durability. The choice of an extra shank for a beginner can prevent the foot from developing the muscles it needs for strength and stamina. To fit the pointe shoe correctly, first stand in second position. Relax the foot muscles and spread the toes and then gently demi-plié. The demi-plié second position stretches the foot, toes and heel to their longest point. Next, place the foot on pointe, not arched. This is necessary because if cold during the fitting there will be less blood flow and damage to the fine muscles and joints is possible. The big toe should be touching the inside of the platform during the fitting, if it’s pressing, then the shoe is either too big or is sliding forward.

It is important to look at the shoe itself once settling into it. The sides of the shoe are what support the foot when on pointe, so these should be tight, but not cause soreness. The big toe should be able to touch the inside of the shoe with no undue pressure other than the normal pressure of being held inside the shoe and there should be no baggy heels. The result is that when on pointe, the foot supports the shoe and the shoe supports the foot. No padding of any kind is recommended inside of the shoe as this upsets the balance of the shoe. If the shoe is fitting correctly, it will protect the foot. If not, a new shoe may be required as it be difficult to balance on a shoe that is too big for or too wide. It’s imperative to get the right width and the length to ensure a long, safe, happy and comfortable dance career.