Dancing Shoes

A small miracle took place when Italian ballerina Marie Taglioni first rose en pointe. She elevated a simple shoe into a tool for conveying sublime artistry. While it takes a ballerina endless hours and many years of training to be able to perform such miracles, let us not forget that her shoes will have also followed a very laborious regime. The unsung heroes who manufacture them pour long hours of highly skilled work, preserving a long standing balletic tradition and a 150 year-old craft.

For any person as obsessed with watching ballet as we are, or for those who dance, dissecting this key component of classical dance gives a greater insight into the art itself. As we start a series of posts focused on dancer’s tools,  we look here into the anatomy of a pointe shoe and its manufacturing process.

Parts of a pointe shoe

Irrespective of brand, pointe shoes are typically composed of the same parts. We have illustrated this section with pictures of Capezio Pavlowas:

  • Most shoes have a stiff box – or block – made with layers of fabric, paper and glue (very much like papier-mâché), whose stiffness will vary depending on the shoe’s model, width and length.
  • As the box extends over the toes, it encases them and gives them a supporting platform upon which the dancer stands.
  • Halfway into the foot, the box’s upper layer of satin, leather and/or canvas forms the upper which is joined to the outer sole by a series of pleats.

  • The area covering the toes is known as the vamp. The edge of the shoe can be lined with a drawstring to help adjust the foot.
  • The inner shoe is lined with canvas.

Side view of a "traditional" pointe shoe

  • Underneath the shoe,  a small thin leather sole allows for flexibility. Most models have a full sole, but some have split soles or soles combining leather and fibre to increase shoe pliability and improve foot articulation.
  • Between the outer and the inner soles a hard spine made of leather or a more resilient synthetic material – the shank – forms the shoe’s core. A full shank runs the length of the sole. Ideally it should be hard yet supple and conform to the dancer’s arch.

Back view of a "traditional" pointe shoe.

Top view of a "traditional" pointe shoe.

Note that Gaynor Minden shoes are particularly distinctive. They neither have boxes made of a paper/fabric/glue combo, nor a separate leather shank. Instead they are built from a single box/shank combo made of long-lasting elastomeric (a synthetic material) to ensure the shoes do not soften too soon. With the shank and box forming one single piece there are no pleats underneath.

Manufacturing

Traditional pointe shoes follow a process referred to as turnshoe. They are put together inside out on top of a last (a foot-shaped mold made of wood or plastic). They are not separated into right or left although some ballerinas have custom made lasts to replicate the shape of their own feet. Parts of this process have been automated but most of the shaping work is still done by hand.

The Upper

The parts forming the upper (vamp, wings and lining) are cut from fixed patterns using hydraulic presses, with special orders hand-cut from individual patterns. Seamstresses join the upper with the backs and sew in the satin and cotton lining. A back strap is also sewn in and, if the model calls for it, a drawstring is added.

The upper is placed inside out over the last and the shoemaker assembles the block over the lining with several layers of fabric, paper and special glue, which need to be worked on for a long time. The shoemaker pulls the upper and handles it with various instruments molding it into a pointe shape (squared, tapered, etc).

The Soles

Soles (inner sole and outer sole) and shank are cut out of large pieces of leather using mechanical presses or by hand. They are shaven – to even out the surface – and buffed. They are placed inside the shoe and fastened with glue and nails.

Shaping & Stitching

The shoemaker works the shoe in the last, shaping it from the outside with a small hammer and getting rid of any bumps in the toe area. The final part of the process – pushing the handmade pleats into position – is one of the most critical, as it will determine the fitting and flexibility of the shoe. The pleats are stitched and the excess fabric is removed. The upper is also stitched to the sole and the shoe is turned right side out. Finally the shoe is placed on a rack (or a hot-air oven) to dry all the glue.

See a video of a pointe shoe being manufactured

For those of you interested in the specifics of manufacturing Gaynor Mindens, see this video featuring the company’s Head of Design, Eliza Gaynor Minden

If you are interested in pointe shoes or other ballet tools generally, look no further than our Tools of the Trade playlist in our YouTube channel.

Sources and Further Information

  1. The Pointe Book by Janice Barringer and Sarah Schlesinger. Princeton Book Company, 2nd Edition, 2004. ISBN-10: 087127261X [link]
  2. Russian Pointe Shoe Fitting Guide [link]
  3. Gaynor Minden’s official website [link]
  4. The Pointe Shoe Information Exchange – All about brands and makes – [link]

Her favourite ballets feel like good books – one can see them 1,000 times and they always feel fresh. Linda loves Giselle, all full-length MacMillan plus Song of the Earth, Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, Balanchine’s Serenade and Agon, Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations.

21 Comments

  • [...] theballetbag.com via Kayano on [...]

  • July 20, 2012

    Jordan

    ❤ Ballet is great and most people say pointe is painful so im a little scared to get en pointe❤.

    But i will always 💗 Ballet ❤

  • July 20, 2012

    Jorfan

    I am about to get en pointe in a few weeks in trying to build up my vocab. A little more

  • [...] The Anatomy of a Pointe Shoe [...]

  • November 10, 2011

    ayako baba (@ayabb2)

    Dancing Shoes « The Ballet Bag http://t.co/Tb1YMvTy

  • October 4, 2011

    Elizabeth (@elizabethmfleur)

    Are there any articles discussing the fixing of the ballet shoes for en pointe? I have been in ballet off and on for years, but still haven’t taken the plunge because I keep having to stop for prolonged periods of time (my daughter, Emma, was born). Twitter @elizabethmfleur

  • February 18, 2011

    Emilia

    Dear Bonnie,

    Not sure whether we ever got back to you on your comment above (sorry it’s hard to keep track of older posts) – yes of course do feel free to email us at theballetbagATgmail.com we love networking with other cool bloggers ;)

    We’ll look into the broken link, thanks for heads up. Thanks also for taking part in the survey!

    E.

  • January 6, 2011

    Bonnie

    Hi Linda,

    I just finished taking your survey. I’d like to see more on Natalia Osipova because she’s my favorite ballet dancer right now :) Your site has lots of great content!! I haven’t gone through all your articles, but I want to learn more about how to analyze and watch ballets, how do you recognize different parts of a ballet if you’ve never seen it before etc. I’m an adult student dancer so anything related to that is also close to my heart.

    BTW I clicked on this link

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2010/jul/20/bolshoi-ballet-guide-dance

    in your Bolshoi article and it’s broken :(

    On a side note, if it is ok with you, can I e-mail you for some feedback on different parts of my blog and some stuff I’ve been working on for my website? Your site is awesome so hope I can get some feedback from you!

    Thanks,
    Bonnie

  • January 6, 2011

    Linda

    Thanks Bonnie! We hope to have more articles on our “tools of the trade” tab in the future. Make sure to vote on our reader survey here http://bit.ly/ejIsy2 and comment below to let us know what you would like to see @ TheBalletBag :)

  • January 6, 2011

    Bonnie

    Though I wear Pointe Shoes, I did not have that much knowledge about its anatomy and the manufacturing process. It was a great read. Thanks!

  • September 28, 2010

    Claudia Redmond

    A piece I made about Bob Martin who made Pointe shoes for Darcey Bussell he is now consulting at Bloc once a week

  • August 14, 2010

    Linda

    Various companies offer customised pointe shoes. Off the top of my head, Freed, Bloch, Grishko and Gaynor M accept special orders (though I think you need to order a minimum amount of pairs and its a bit on the expensive side). There is an article on this topic at The Perfect Pointe webpage (a great resource):

    http://www.the-perfect-pointe.com/SpecialOrderingPointes.html

    The most important is that you enlist someone experienced in placing special orders to help you. If the instructor at The Joffrey gave very specific comments on how the shoe should be modified, then you should consult with that person / or a professional fitter on how to submit the order.

    Sometimes dancers do spend a long time trying to find the perfect shoe, so it is also a matter of trying different brands / models.

    Maybe worth trying are Freed Classics which have specific makers. If your daughter finds a maker she likes, then she can try a number of shoes from that maker.

  • August 14, 2010

    Young Dancer's Mom

    I am so confused. My daughter is in 2nd yr of Pointe. She has extremely high arches as well as “very flexible feet” She is staying up on left foot especially without the foot buckling. One teacher suggested new Pointe shoes, had a “professional fitting in Ann Arbor” then Teacher said she didnt need the new shoes, Instructor at Joeffrey suggested custom made shoes after 2 weeks of insturction but failed to inform us where to accomplish that. If we could find somewhere that actually makes the Pointe shoe to fit her foot we would be thrilled. Any suggestions?

  • May 22, 2010

    Emilia

    We love your suggestion kdt – duly noted!

    Many thanks, E.

  • May 22, 2010

    kdt

    This is great – how about adding a follow-up piece: “What Ballerinas do to These Lovely Shoes Before They Wear Them” — you could show the various ways different dancers take these artfully-constructed shoes and then semi-demolish them before deeming them fit for wear. Pounding, twisting, gluing, sewing, removing pieces . . . . every dancer has her own routine.

  • January 4, 2010

    Linda

    It was my pleasure. I am aware of the pains ballerinas go while trying to find their perfect shoe. Certainly GM’s, as any other make of shoes, can be the ones for some people while being wrong for some others, though you are not the first one who has commented on the knuckling issue.

  • January 4, 2010

    May

    My own journey with trying to find the perfect pointe shoes has been like trying to find the perfect man. You dance in a pair which is sort of ok, but sometimes you can’t help but think “is there another better pair out there?”.

    For some people GMs will be their perfect pair, but not for others.

    What I’ve found difficult with GMs is that because of the plastic box+shank combination, I find it very difficult to roll through the shoe when rising and lowering. Also, because the shank is pre-arched, the feet have to do relatively “less work” when the feet are in pointed position, either weight-bearing or non weight-bearing. I also find my feet have a tendancy to knuckle in GMs, possibly due to the fact that the feet feel pointed hence the rest of the legs don’t feel like they have to put in as much effort.

    I also found that my feet have to work so much harder when I switched back to traditional shoes (as I found GMs are not for me). Either it is really a strength issue, or that traditional shoes just require a different way of working than GMs.

    Thanks Linda for the post! Certainly somewhere to point people to when they say, “Yeah pointe shoes are made of metal / wooden tips innit…”

  • December 29, 2009

    Linda

    Indeed the shoe doesn’t make the dancer and the most important thing for a young student is to find a shoe that fits like a glove. I am unaware of any conclusive study that throws out the conclusion that GM’s make dancers’ feet weak. One can find infinite threads in ballet forums regarding this issue but if GM’s are the best shoe for x ballerina, then she should use it.

    I think students should always follow the advice of their teachers and have an experienced fitter when buying pointe shoes for the first time. I’ve also heard some parents feel the need of putting their child in GM’s given that they last longer, but teachers and fitters know better and eventually the student will be able to determine which is the best shoe for them.

    GM’s certainly have a huge brand presence given that they are the newest “kid on the block”, so it is not strange that many girls might want to emulate its spokespersons.

    NYCB’s pointe shoe video is on our Tools of the Trade playlist on YT. We particularly like the part in which Wendy Whelan is helping Megan Fairchild with her shoes :)

  • December 29, 2009

    Anna

    Yeah, I don’t see Gaynors as a “cheater shoe.” Shoes don’t cheat, dancers do. The problem I have with them is that a lot of students see Genia Obratzsova, Gillian Murphy, Alina Cojocaru et al wearing them and then think it’s the *shoe* that makes the great. I think that’s why a lot of teachers say Gaynors make your feet weak. Instead of strengthening their feet, they rely on the shoe. No other brand seems to inspire that kind of thought.

    I’ve also seen GM also inspire some bizzare brand loyalty. A lot of girls cram their feet into Gaynors even though the shoe obviously isn’t right for the shape of their foot and is causing problems. But they have no problem switching out of Freeds or Capezios or RPs if they don’t work. I find it odd.

    I also don’t like the look of Gaynors — I can always pick out who is wearing them in the corps — but that’s just personal taste.

    L – No link the to City Ballet pointe shoe video? I thought that was quite well done.

  • December 29, 2009

    youdancefunny

    Does it bother you as much as it does me that people call Gaynor Minden’s “the cheater shoe?” I personally don’t think it’s such a big deal if they offer more (or different) support compared to other shoes, and in the end it’s not the shoe that does most of the dancing.

  • December 29, 2009

    uberVU - social comments

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by theballetbag: Bag Lady L. dissects the Pointe Shoe in this new Ballet Bag post: http://bit.ly/7uwwca