“The ballet toe shoe is one of the few instruments of torture to survive intact into our time.” - Source Unknown
There is nothing quite like the sight of a new pair of pointe shoes. The shiny, unsullied satin gives them an angelic quality, and these shoes are in every young ballerina’s dreams.
Pointe shoes were created to give dancers an ethereal quality. Before the invention of pointe shoes, dancers literally flew through the air thanks to Charles Didelot’s Flying Machine. Wires were attached to the dancers and were used to support them as they rose onto the tips of their toes, to fly them across the stage and to lower them, for a brief moment, onto the tips of their toes.
Gradually, the use of wires decreased, and in the early 1800’s, dancers began rising up onto their toes for brief moments on their own to delight their audiences. The shoes that were used were merely soft satin slippers with heavily darned tips. (1)
Early pointe shoes did not begin to resemble today’s pointe shoes until the mid 1900’s. Today’s shoes support the dancers much more than the shoes of the 1800’s, but they do not feel as beautiful to the dancer as they look to the audience. Before beginning pointe work each dancer must be made aware of the commitment dancing on pointe requires and the reality of wearing pointe shoes.
As was discussed in my last post, When Is A Dancer Really Ready for Pointe Work?, dancing en pointe places a force equal to 12 times her body weight upon a dancer’s toes. When considering that, it is easy to understand that dancing en pointe can often be less than comfortable.
Correct body alignment and placement coupled with properly trained and strengthened muscles certainly make dancing en pointe an attainable goal and easier, but the dancer and her parents need to be prepared for what will occur along the way.
It is important that pointe work be seen as an extension of ballet technique and not as a new form in and of itself. Missed classes result in lapses in technique and weakened muscles that become major stumbling blocks once pointe work begins. Dancers who begin pointe work need to be able to commit to an increased amount of time in class and be willing to dance year-round, otherwise pointe work becomes difficult, and the risk of injury increases.
Once pointe work begins, small things like toenail length become major concerns, and dancers are ushered into a world of bruised toenails, blisters and callused toe knuckles. Those dancing en pointe must pay careful attention when trimming their toenails. Toenails should be trimmed regularly since long toenails will bend under the weight as a dancer stands on her toes. Contrastingly, toenails that are cut too short can also be extremely painful for a pointe dancer because of the pressure placed upon the nail bed. Moreover, when cutting the nails, dancers need to be extra vigilant about cutting the toenails straight across the top to decrease the chance of developing an ingrown toenail, which can be both painful and lead to infection. Often dancers will develop bruised toenails after a long day of class and rehearsals if the shoes fit improperly or simply due to the nature of pointe work.
Many options are available for dancers to use inside pointe shoes to lessen the stress upon the skin of the foot. Foam pads, gel pads, lambs’ wool and first aid tape can all help, but even the best prepared dancer will eventually develop a blister. Blisters occur when the foot sweats and layers of skin begin to rub against each other due to the pressure of the shoe. Fluid, and sometimes blood, will accumulate between the layers. Occasionally, a blister will burst while a dancer is dancing and result in bloodstains on both the tights and the inside of the shoe. If the blister does not burst, it is best for the dancer to drain the blister, using a sterilized needle, but keep the top layer intact to help prevent infection. All blisters should be treated with an antibiotic ointment and then covered with either a liquid bandage, moleskin or first aid tape. Band-Aids should not be used since the cushioned portion does not stay in one place and will create more friction the next time the dancer puts on her shoes.
Dancers en pointe will also develop calluses on the knuckles of the toes. Calluses are the body’s way of protecting itself, and they are usually not a problem unless they become extremely thick. In that case, it is best for the dancer to consult a podiatrist.
The dancer with a blister, a toenail that is too short or a bruised nail will still be expected to don the pointe shoes for class and rehearsal for a very simple reason. Dance students are in training for performances. A performance cannot be canceled because of any of these minor problems so the dancer must learn how to care for her feet in a way that makes the dancing as painless as possible.
Because of its nature, pointe work places stress upon the feet and toes, and after classes and rehearsals, a dancer’s feet will hurt. Soaking feet in Epsom salts can help and although feet may ache, the discomfort is manageable. With proper training pointe work can be done well and in a healthy manner. Dancers should not be afraid of pointe work because of this discomfort, but both they and their parents need to be made aware of the “dark side” of these beautiful pink shoes before they begin pointe work. It is a part of ballet that takes great commitment and dedication, but the rewards are seen when ballet dancers float gracefully across the stage like ethereal creatures.
(1) Barringer, J. & Schlesinger, S. The Pointe Book. NJ:Princeton Book Company, 2004.