Pointe Shoes: Technology of a Fairy Tale
Dainty, pink and shiny, made from angel dust, pearly satin and little girls’ dreams. Pointe shoes have been a symbol of beauty and grace from the moment they first appeared onstage in the late 19th century, and it seems not much has changed since then.
Originally designed to create the illusion of weightlessness and ethereal grace needed to embody the sprites and spirits that populated the ballets of the Romantic era, they make ballet dancers today flit across the stage as nimbly and otherworldly as they did in the past.
The pointe shoe’s big moment arrived in 1832 when Marie Taglioni danced the part of the Sylph in her father’s new ballet, La Sylphide. She wore reinforced satin slippers that enabled her to stand on the tips of her toes, creating the illusion of being suspended en arabesque in mid-air. The pointe shoe came into its own in the late 19th century, owing largely to two Italian dancers, Virginia Zucchi and Pierina Legnani. Both ballerinas moved to St. Petersburg where they danced under the direction of the great Marius Petipa. Their arrival exposed the Russian dancers to new skills and techniques. Even the legendary Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova was mesmerized by Legnani’s ability to execute 32 fouettés en pointe. Pavlova herself contributed to the evolution of both pointework and the actual construction of the pointe shoe. She is credited with adding a reinforced insole and a sturdy box to her pointe shoes.
Both Pavlova and Ballets Russes ballerina Tamara Karsavina had their pointe shoes made by Romeo Nicolini of Milan, with Pavlova ordering as many as 2,000 pairs of shoes in a year. It is also worth noting that American dancewear brand Capezio had a Nicolini and a Pavlova pointe shoe model in their collection at one time.
Traditonally, pointe shoes are made using paper, cardboard, burlap and glue (more commonly referred to as ‘paste’) tightly packed together and molded into a so-called ‘box’ that encloses the dancer’s toes and forefoot. The shank usually consists of cardboard or leather, or a combination thereof.
Pointe shoes are big business, and while many pointe shoe makers of the past have gone out of business, several new brands have popped up, eager to fill a niche. But the market is dominated by just a handful of brands whose shoes can be found in most countries across the world.
Freed of London was founded by Frederick Freed and his wife in 1929. Today, Freed’s Covent Garden flagship store can be found in the same location as the brand’s original workshop. In 1993 the brand was taken over by Japanese company Onward.
Freed pointe shoes are especially popular amongst dancers in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. Most New York City Ballet and Miami City Ballet dancers wear Freed pointe shoes.
The unwavering popularity of Freed pointe shoes can be attributed to the brand’s philosophy of customization. The features of the brand’s Classic model depend on the specific shoe’s maker. This means a Freed Classic pointe shoe can have a short or long vamp with a square or tapered box. When it comes to Freeds, it all depends on the ‘maker’, that elusive craftsman whose personal stamp can be found on the sole of each shoe. One of the best things to happen to a ballerina using Freed pointe shoes is to ‘meet her maker’-literally, of course!
American dance brand Capezio was founded in 1887 by Italian immigrant Salvatore Capezio. Capezio rose to fame after making pointe shoes for Anna Pavlova in 1910 during the famous ballerina’s North American tour.
Many of the pointe shoes currently produced by Capezio are popular with dance students because they commonly feature a low/medium vamp and a generous platform offering good balance.
Capezio pointe shoes are made using traditional methods and materials, and although the company has experimented with new designs in the past few years it hasn’t been able to shake of its image as a supplier of student shoes. You would be hard pressed to find a professional dancer wearing Capezio pointe shoes.
Bloch was founded by Jacob Bloch, a cobbler who began making pointe shoes in Sydney in 1932. After crafting shoes for dancers from several touring Russian ballet companies, his popularity spread across Australia.
Today, Bloch is one of the world’s largest dancewear manufacturers with corporate headquarters in Sydney, Australia and a European head office in London.
While sticking to traditional manufacturing methods, Bloch has made sure to introduce a multitude of innovations to the market throughout the years and has given dancers TMT paste, a heat activated material that allows the shoe to be molded to the foot using hot air, ¾ sole pointe shoes and split sole stretch satin pointe shoes.
Russian company Grishko was founded in 1988, recruiting craftsmen from various theater workshops after these were forced to close amid the trials and tribulations of the era.
Grishko pointe shoes are handmade using natural materials. All Grishko models are based on four lasts (Fouette, 2007, Vaganova, Elite) and fit a variety of foot shapes.
While still a student at Eastern Michigan University, Russian-born Aleksandra Efimova started importing and selling pointe shoes made by a group of former Bolshoi theater craftsmen who had formed their own company called R-Class. She aptly named her new company ‘Russian Pointe’. Things were tough in the beginning, but almost twenty years later Russian Pointe is flourishing, supplying dancers across North America, Europe, Australia and Asia with handmade Russian pointe shoes.
RP pointe shoes are unique in that every model can be ordered in a variety of specs: Width, vamp length, throat (U or V shape) and shank strength can be selected to fit a specific foot shape.
While the big brands were busy shaping layers of paper and fabric into a pointe shoe box, there was a modern pointe shoe silently waiting in the wings, ready to take the stage by storm.
Just like the career of a dancer, the lifespan of a traditional pointe shoe is notoriously short: Some dancers are known to use anywhere from 4-6 pairs of shoes over the course of a single performance. Dancers routinely resort to little ruses intended to prolong the lifespan of their shoes such as reinforcing the shank and box with jet glue. Not only is this wasteful and time-consuming, considering pointe shoes need to be broken in and prepared before they can be used, but it also puts a huge financial burden on ballet companies, dancers and students.
Towards the end of the 20th century, technological advances and scientific discoveries heralded a new era of pointe shoe construction. Lightweight, shock-absorbing and silent, this new type of shoe was ready to be worn straight from the box and featured a shank that was virtually indestructible. In 1993, Gaynor Minden pointe shoes were ready to be worn, waiting in all their shiny, satiny glory in the newly opened GM store in Manhattan’s Chelsea. But was the ballet world ready for Gaynor Minden pointe shoes?
Eliza Minden, a keen dancer since childhood, introduced the final design of her ground-breaking pointe shoe in April 1993. Aggravated by the pain she saw many dancers endure due to ill-fitting pointe shoes and the high overheads ballet companies faced by having to purchase large amounts of pointe shoes for their dancers, she decided to pay put to these problems by offering a modern solution.
Gaynor Minden pointe shoes are made using thermoplastic elastomers and Poron, a shock-absorbing urethane foam. The shank and box are designed to never change shape and not break down like those in a traditional pointe shoe would. This of course makes Gaynor Minden shoes much more durable and cost effective.
The controversy was immediate. Gaynor Minden pointe shoes were branded ‘cheater shoes’ by many and dismissed by a bevy of ex-prima ballerinas, teachers and dance critics.
Following Gaynor Minden’s success several niche companies selling hi-tech pointe shoes were quick to pop up. One of these companies, Capulet, made a pointe shoe using D30, a soft material with superior shock-absorbing qualities. Flyte, another British company, designed a futuristic pointe shoe using polymeric compounds. Both companies vanished without a trace after the rush of novelty and excitement over their new products wore off.
Many ‘traditional’ brands have since jumped on the bandwagon by adding hi-tech components to the construction of their pointe shoes. Some examples are the Diva by French brand Merlet, Grishko’s DreamPointe, Janas by Italian brand Rudolf, the Relevé by Domyos, the Mayer BX1 by Studio Danza and the new line of F.R. Duval pointe shoes.
When it comes to traditional paste shoes, their proven track record paints a clear picture of what we’re up against. The same cannot be said about the new generation of hi-tech pointe shoes, and only time will allow us to judge the full effects and ramifications of their use on dancers and their art. While companies like Gaynor Minden extol the virtues of their pointe shoes online, there have been numerous complaints about bruised toe nails and painful ankles. The quest for comfort at any cost can be detrimental to art, technique and, ironically, even safety.
Which pointe shoes do you wear? Have you ever danced in hi-tech pointe shoes? Have your say in the comments below!