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What are Pointe Shoes?

Amy Pollick
Updated May 17, 2024
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They're pink satin and lift a ballerina to amazing heights. They are the very foundation of advanced ballet technique for women. What are they? Pointe shoes! These shoes are the essential tool of the ballerina's career. Without them, ballet would have a completely different look and feel. An arabesque, with the leg lifted high behind, arms outstretched, is a lovely attitude, and would be with the foot flat or even on demi-pointe - what we call standing on tiptoe - but en pointe, it transcends itself as the ballerina seems to defy gravity. Pointe shoes allow her to achieve this beauty.

Ballet began as court dancing in the 1500s in France. At that time, men got to dance the most fun parts, since they could wear tights in public and their clothing was much less restrictive. Women had to deal with heavy dresses, corsets and farthingales that severely limited their movement. However, in the 18th century, some enterprising female dancers shocked their culture by putting on tights, leaving off the corsets and loosening their clothes so they could dance.

No one knows who the very first ballerina to dance en pointe was, but the first recorded dancer en pointe was Maria Taglioni. She danced an entire ballet en pointe in 1832. More ballerinas wanted to follow her example, and most soon found it extremely difficult to do so in soft leather slippers. Italian ballerinas prevailed on their shoemakers to cobble a harder shoe, and their creations of satin, paper and burlap evolved into today's pointe shoes.

Pointe shoes look soft and delicate, but they're not. They are sturdy shoes - they have to be since they balance the dancer's entire weight on an area about the size of a silver dollar. This flattened, oval platform at the tip of the toe box is what keeps a ballerina en pointe. Typical pointe shoes have a satin upper, a toe box made of paper and burlap stiffened with glue, and a leatherboard or stiff cardboard shank which supports the arch of the dancer's foot while she is en pointe. All this may sound like medieval construction, and it is. The traditional construction of pointe shoes hasn't changed much in the past 150 years. The materials in pointe shoes break down quickly with use, and most pointe shoes will hardly last through a single performance. Shoe budgets for most ballet companies are astronomical.

The Gaynor Minden company has developed a pointe shoe that uses elastometric materials for the toe box and shank. These shanks are unbreakable and, according to the company, require little "breaking in," unlike the traditional shoes. The company claims their shoes will wear out at the tips before the shank wears out, and some dancers and ballet companies have started using these shoes for that reason. Ballet is nothing if not traditional, however, and many companies and teachers are deeply skeptical of the Gaynor Minden shoe. Many dancers have said that it all boils down to which shoe best fits a ballerina's foot and allows her to dance to the best of her ability, using the best technique.

Dancers usually go en pointe only after several years of good training, in which their feet, ankles and legs are strengthened to handle the unique and difficult demands of pointe. A competent teacher will rarely allow a girl to dance en pointe before the age of 11. At this time, the pointe shoes come out for the last 10 to 15 minutes of class, and the dancer works up to wearing pointe shoes for the whole class over a period of several months. There are horror stories of girls whose feet were damaged from pointe technique, and some are true. However, most damage can be avoided by selecting a competent teacher who is more concerned with forming good dancers with good technique than with putting girls en pointe.

A competent teacher will also offer advice in buying good pointe shoes from a reputable maker, and may even wish to be present at the fitting, in order to make certain the dancer gets shoes that fit properly and are appropriate for her. Pointe shoe makers usually offer their shoes with various combinations of features, so a dancer has to be careful to buy the shoes that will offer her maximum flexibility with little loss of control.

There is a wealth of information about pointe shoes and technique on the Internet and in books about ballet. It is an endlessly fascinating subject.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Amy Pollick
By Amy Pollick
Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at WiseGeek. With experience in various roles and numerous articles under her belt, she crafts compelling content that informs and engages readers across various platforms on topics of all levels of complexity.
Discussion Comments
By anon269327 — On May 17, 2012

Pointe is fun and it's not painful if you know how to use them correctly.

By amypollick — On May 04, 2010

@anon82037: You are asking for trouble. Ballerinas aiming to do pointe work spend years doing exercises that are specifically for strengthening their feet and ankles. I'm not saying jazz and hip hop training don't strengthen your ankles, certainly, but pointe is a very specialized style and requires intensive, equally specialized training. Talk to your dance teacher and I'm sure he or she will tell you this.

Besides, pointe shoes are generally not the most comfortable shoes ever manufactured. You also must have them fitted especially for your particular feet.

If you want ballet shoes, just get a pair of soft leather ballet shoes. You can get a pair at any shoe store for $15-$20 in U.S dollars (you can usually find them where they sell the tap and jazz shoes). Pointe shoes run three or four times that price.

By anon82037 — On May 04, 2010

If i wanted to use pointe shoes as a ballerina, do I have to be in dance to wear them because I am in hip hop and jazz. Will i be able to wear them. and are my ankles strong enough to hold my body weight if i have been in jazz and hip hop for the past seven years?

By anon17407 — On Aug 28, 2008

Thank you. I am doing a report on ballet (it's my passion-- I got my pointe shoes last October! Much fun, yet much pain!) and this is PERFECT! Good info!

By anon9506 — On Mar 07, 2008

As a dancer, i stumbled upon this article while looking for reviews on gaynor minden pointe shoes. Pointe shoes inflict such a mix of emotions. When people see a ballerina, especially en pointe, you see grace, poise, and confidence. However, when you are backstage, you see the ballerina almost morph into a different person. She is all smiles until she hits the wings, and her face turns to pain. Once again back on stage, she is all smiles. Pointe shoes make you feel so graceful, beautiful, and invincible. But when they are uncomfortable, the whole experience in ruined. I hope to find a brand that does that for me.

Amy Pollick
Amy Pollick
Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at WiseGeek. With...
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