Dancing ballet en pointe is hard. The end result might look graceful, elegant and effortless, but the training is messy. Think bloodied toes, blisters and bunions and generally very sore feet. Watching the faces of the pointe class before my own ballet class, I am reminded of why I gave up dancing en pointe: because sometimes your feet just can’t take any more. Pointe work is both physically and mentally exhausting – you’re asking a lot of your two big toes to support all of your body weight, so you have to make sure you’re ready to help them out with strong ankles, legs and core. You have to ensure your body is a buoyant as possible to even make it work, and this is as much of a mental struggle as it is a physical one. Since ballet, or its dance origins, have been around for the best part of 500 years, why and how did we suddenly decide dancing en pointe was such a good idea?
The earliest ballet dancers, back in the 16th century, wore soft slippers with low heels. Back then, a ballet was a court dance, usually led by the King and Queen. It wasn’t until the 18th century that ballet with a particular emphasis on dancing high on the toes, was introduced. By then, ballet had taken on a rather more professional form. Anna Heinel seems to be one of the earliest dancers who was described as dancing on ‘stilt-like’ tip-toe in 1770. She could well have been one of the first dancers ever to do so, adding it to her invention of the double-pirouette.
About 20 years later in 1795, Charles Didelot gave dancers the ability to pause on their toes before leaving the ground, courtesy of wires attached to their costumes. This ‘flying machine’ allowed dancers to express a more ethereal quality and a lightness on the toes, which captured the imagination of audiences and other dancers worldwide and spurred them on to establish new ways to achieve this without wires. Dancing on the toes began to develop, although the earliest ‘pointe shoes’ were little more than satin slippers strengthened by darning the toes and sides. With so little support, dancers were more likely to pause on their toes for a moment or two during dances. The first recorded ballet where en pointe choreography was used all the way through was La Sylphide in the 19th century. Principal dancer Marie Taglioni danced in modified satin slippers en pointe.
Today’s shoes are much more supportive for dancers feet than these early models. Pointe shoes now consist of a hard ‘block’ which encases and supports the toes. This is made from tightly-packed layers of paper and fabric, which are glued together. It is this glue which provides the rigid shape to offer support. The front end is flattened, to allow dancers to balance en pointe much more easily than the earliest, pointed slippers! To support the arch of the foot, the sole of a pointe shoe is made of a rigid material, which often has to be broken in before a dancer will wear them to perform. There are many, many different types of pointe shoe models to choose from, allowing dancers the flexibility of having the best shoe for the job. Quick, intricate choreography often requires a harder, more rigid structure, whereas more expressive, lyrical dances can be danced in a softer shoe. Over time and with wear, pointe shoes become softer.
Dancing en pointe is now an integral part of ballet performances. For professionals, the ballet shoe is the pointe shoe and for amateurs it is the nirvana that you aim to reach, to be a ‘proper’ dancer. I guess it the elegance that comes with dancing on your tip-toes that makes pointe work such an integral part of ballet and such a graceful means to get around the stage, even if it is hard work!