Going up en pointe is what thousands of young ballerina’s aspire to. Watching senior girls dancing gracefully and effortlessly across the floor inspires many, just watching them put on their pointe shoes is magical.
It shows delicate strength and beauty that only ballet can exude. Getting to go en pointe though, requires years of work, hours of training and plenty of stretching. It truly is something that many dancers have been preparing for since they were very young, and once they start they know they have achieved a great standard of ballet and they are a true ballerina.
Does Age Matter?
Can you simply put an age on being ready for pointe-work? Are all girls at the age of 12 at the same ability and development? No. Being ready means a lot of different things. An age doesn't reflect any reference to their ability and maturity. So what do you really need to know before you go en pointe?
A Dancers Strength & Ability
Part of being ready for pointe work is physical strength, part is flexibility, part is body shape and size. A dancer must have the proper control of the small muscles in the feet and toes as well as the larger muscles in the legs, hips and central core. More specifically a dancer has to have the discipline required to maintain attention to technique, she must have the technical skill, and she must have the maturity to be aware of herself and her body.
The amount of physical strength required to go on pointe is often underestimated, in part because trained, skilled dancers make it look effortless and beautiful. Pointe work requires more than strong legs, which are decidedly important. Strength and ability in controlling small muscles of the feet and toes is important. In particular the strength should be built up in the metatarsal , this is the muscle under the ball of the foot. This muscle is used when going through demi pointe and raising en pointe.
Preparation is crucial to successfully dancing en pointe. If not ready a dancer not only risks injury, but she may also learn and form bad habits that put her at risk for more serious issues later. Dancers are cautioned to not purchase or use pointe shoes before a trained instructor or teacher has determined her readiness for pointe work.
What to Avoid?
Building up strength in your ballet will build up not only your ability and physical strength but your health too, you can avoid problems like: Flat Feet, Weak Ankles, you can reduce problems from hyper mobility, and instead build up the strength to cope with it. If you do have any medical conditions, it is worth reviewing whether it can cause any problems in pointe work, and it is never a problem to start pointe work at a later age, just ensure that you do have the strength when you do start.
If you experience pain in your feet, knees, legs, hips or lower back, they can all be interlinked. For example a weakness in the ankle, can cause your feet to roll in as you walk, this in turn can cause pain as you try to compensate in you hips or knees. So it is recommended that you check these problems before going en pointe.
Problems that may affect your pointe shoe fitting, or pointe work:
Any of these problems can be overcome, but it is important to be aware of them, and inform your pointe shoe fitter (if they haven't noticed).
Flat feet can be strengthened if you exercise your feet correctly in your ballet class, please see Metatarsal Exercises to see how to extend your arch when pointing your foot in ballet.
Rolling ankles can be strengthened if you focus on the lines you make in ballet, please see Metatarsal Exercises to build up your ankle strength. During your pointe shoe fitting it may look like the shoe is twisting off your foot, by building up the strength you will reduce this, and lift out of the shoe correctly.
Developing bunions can be protected in pointe shoes, you can get toe spacers and separators which keep the big toe in line, or you can get bunion guards which protect the prominent knuckle and reduce friction. You may find that you do get extra discomfort from the bunion in your pointe work, but by protecting the area you can reduce this, if not eliminate it.
Bad alignment of the joints can cause pain generally so it is highly important to try to resolve this problems before going en pointe, please see Metatarsal Exercises to improve the alignment of joints.
Inflexible joints do not always improve, and this can make pointe work particularly difficult. Do try and improve flexibility by gentle stretching exercises, this is better executed when supervised by your dance instructor or teacher. If the problems persist and you feel the problems are not improving it may be advisable to see your doctor or a podiatrist. If you are just doing pointe work as a hobby.
High arches, this may surprise you as it has always been a good thing to have a high arch in ballet, but for pointe work high arches can make buying pointe shoes difficult. It depends on how high your instep actually is, but the amount that your foot shrinks when pointed is what causes a problem. The average foot is always shorter pointed than flat on the floor, and because of this pointe shoes are fitted very securely to avoid the heel of the shoe slipping off. If you increase the amount your foot shortens then you increase the likelihood of the heel slipping off your foot when you are dancing.
There are ways of resolving this during your fitting, Grishko have two styles of shoes called Vaganova and Fouette, both of these shoes have a particularly high vamp, this is good for a high arch as it supports the top of the foot, and avoids your foot "spilling" out of the shoe. The obvious thing to do would be to fit a smaller shoe, but the shoe must not be crushing your toes, so quite often a shoe cannot be fitted perfectly both flat and en pointe, when a student has high arches. Because of this wide covert elastic can be used to hold to foot closer to the shoe when en pointe. Also sewing the ribbons as I explain later will also help towards keeping the shoe on your foot. All in all, give the fitter time, and they will find a shoe that both supports and fits as well as possible for you.
Another problem you may find with having a high instep is the added pressure on the shank of the shoe may cause it to snap, and obviously the life of your pointe shoe is shortened dramatically. (For ways of reducing this please see Pointe Shoe Problems featured later)
Incorrect Point, this is down to your ability as a dancer and can quickly be resolved, please see Metatarsal Exercises for a guide on the correct way of pointing.
Even if you do not fit the criteria above to do pointe work you can do things to prepare and build the strength and ability you need, one way is with demi pointe shoes.
Demi Pointes, What are they?
You may have heard of soft blocks, exam shoes, delcos, or demi pointes, these are all the same thing. These shoes are in between a flat ballet shoe and a pointe shoe, they are designed to build up strength and balance and they help you to understand how a pointe shoe is going to feel, I will explain:
Typically a pointe shoe will have 6 layers built up in the toe block, this is obviously alot harder than a flat ballet shoe, but a demi pointe shoe has only 4 layers, so again harder than a ballet shoe, but softer than a pointe shoe. Because it is harder than a ballet shoe it works the feet much more. But as it is softer than a pointe shoe you do not actually go en pointe.
A pointe shoe has a very thick sole compared to a flat ballet shoe, this is because it has a shank on the inside of the shoe for support en pointe. Similarly a demi pointe shoe has a thicker insole than a flat ballet shoe, but not as thick as a pointe shoe. Due to the leather sole alot more strength is needed in the foot to point. Also because the leather sole is raised on the outside of the shoe it can feel wobbly the first time you wear them, and more balance is needed to control the shoe. This therefore improves balance in the foot, strengthens the muscles around the ankles, and the muscles that support the arch of the foot.
Demi pointe shoes should be fitted as neatly as a pointe shoe, the foot therefore has to get used to working in a much more compact/confined space. It is hard to begin with and the muscles will ache. It is exactly this extra work required of the feet, ankles and calf muscles that will make and keep them strong.
Usually demi pointe work will be started in Grade 5 in preparation to start pointe work in Grade 6. If you intend to start pointe work earlier than this then you should also start demi pointe work 1 year before pointe work. It is important to continue to wear demi pointe shoes once you have started pointe work. Wearing demi pointe shoes will make you feet strong and keep them strong.
So you've looked through the above information and you and your teacher have decided you are ready for Pointe work. Now you need to locate a reputable Pointe Shoe Fitter, generally these can be found through suppliers website, make sure that the shop you intend on visiting has good feedback, and experience. If they've been fitting for years then they should know how to fit.
There are many things to consider when buying a pair of Pointe Shoes, what brand? What style? What shape? What strength? All of these questions are considered by a pointe shoe fitter during your pointe shoe fitting, with their knowledge and expertise they will find the pointe shoes most suitable for you.
It is advisable for your first pair to find a shop with more than one brand of pointe shoes, there are many differences in pointe shoes and you can restrict yourself by selecting just one brand, e.g Freed. When you are fitted with pointe shoes from several different makers, there is much more choice, and you are more likely to find a shoe that caters for your needs.
Reputable pointe shoe makers supplied in the UK, are:
Bloch, Grishko, Capezio, Sansha, Gaynor Minden, Freed of London.
How Should a Pointe Shoe Fit?
It is important for all shoes to fit well. Shoes that fit poorly put a person at risk for blisters, bunions, or at worst, sprains and strains. In pointe shoes a carefully and expertly fitted shoe is absolutely crucial for safety and preservation of the feet. If a new dancer wears shoes that are not correctly fit she risks permanently damaging her feet. She also risks severe blisters, sprains, strains, and even fractures.
You need your Pointe Shoes to give maximum support, they should never be big, or have growing room. The shoe shouldn't feel roomy, and very rarely do people think their Pointe Shoes are "comfortable". You will feel support and security from the shoe all around your foot. A pointe shoe that is too loose can allow the your foot to slide down into the box of the shoe, bending her toes at an unnatural angle and increasing the likelihood of painful blisters on the knuckles of her toes. She would also lack the stability to extend through her foot and ensure proper technique and turn out. Equally as damaging is a pointe shoe that is to tight, as you are at risk of developing bunions or strains.
Fitting for pointe shoes is not as easy as going to the shoe store and picking out a pair that is pretty. It takes a considerable amount of time and dozens of pairs of shoes. Often a dancer will try on 15 or more pairs of shoes to get the best fit possible. This is partially because there are so many aspects of the shoe to fit, the specialized nature of pointe shoes, and how securely they need to fit. Expertly fitted pointe shoes are not just for pleasing aesthetics and comfort. It is an issue of safety as well.
It is strongly advisable to always get your pointe shoes fitted by a qualified pointe shoe fitter (please note, this does not necessarily mean your dance teacher).
A qualified pointe shoe fitter will be able to examine strength and ability in a dancer, and will ensure that the shoes are giving the correct support. Left to your own choice you would most likely fit yourself with shoes that are too big and would give little support, making your dancing a difficult and painful process. Achieving a perfect fit will reduce injury risks as well as ensure the correct technique.
So what should you expect from a pointe shoe fitting?
First of all a pointe shoe fitting takes half an hour to an hour on average, so give yourself plenty of time, so that the fitter can be thorough, and you can give feedback through the fitting.
You are required to have the following for your fitting:
Particularly when it is your first pair of pointe shoes, you must rely on the fitter and their expertise in fitting you. The order of the next few points may vary depending on your fitter.
Initially your fitter may not fit with toe protectors (toe pads) this is perfectly acceptable, and my personal preference during fitting. By fitting without it allows the fitter to fit more precisely to the foot and may expose a problem with the foot, like a twist in the ankle or the foot rolling. If the fitter immediately uses toe pads they may mistake these flaws as issues with the toe pad, not the feet.
Usually by this stage the fitter has all the criteria needed to select a few suitable styles to fit, now the fitting process will really begin, do allow your fitter to now take control, listen carefully to any further questions they may ask, as they will require your feedback to determine whether a shoe is suitable for you.
Just reading through all of this information and expertise takes time, so you can understand why it is recommended to go to a qualified fitter, rather than buy over the internet. You can also understand why they may charge for this service, particularly if you are not purchasing any shoes that day. It is a lengthy process and a fitter will use their knowledge to find the most suitable pointe shoes for you and your dancing. Going to a shop with a large stock gives you a better chance of a well fitted shoe, they will have plenty of styles, strengths and sizes to fit you with, and you can generally be fitted and purchase your shoes at the same time.
It is important to note that generally where ever you feel discomfort there is a product that can cushion or protect. If you explain your problem to your fitter they generally can find the right product for your needs. There are many different ways of protecting your toes. Bunheads are a very reputable company making different designs of toe protection.One of the biggest problems, when it comes to pain or discomfort, is a poorly fitted shoe so make sure your shoe fits and supports correctly, a fitter can always check for you.
When you wear Pointe Shoes it is essential ribbons give as much support and security as possible. Rising through demi pointe and onto pointe in new shoes there is a tendency for the back of the shoe to remain rigid whilst the foot bends, without ribbons the heel piece will flick off your heel, so you want your ribbons to hold the heel piece as securely as possible.
The ribbon you use should be nylon pointe shoe ribbon, this is matt on both sides and generally doesn't slide against your tights, but remains in place. The most common ribbon used is roughly 1" wide. The extra width of the ribbon also helps to give better support and security during class.
By sewing your ribbons this way you will get support from the strength in the ribbon, it will pull the base of the heel piece closer to your foot, and if it has hooked under the shank in the shoe this will hold it closer to your foot.
Breaking in pointe shoes is a necessary step whenever a dancer acquires new shoes. If a dancer dances on unbroken shoes she risks discomfort as the shoe is not molded to her foot properly. The process must begin with an expertly fitted pair of pointe shoes.
Please note this section does not refer to Gaynor Minden pointe shoes, as these have a different design to them.
Ideally you should break in your shoes as you wear them, they do not need hammering down, or bashing in the door. You don't need to steam the shoes to get them warm. All you need is a bit of time and your feet.
First things first, how does a pointe shoe change shape? A pointe shoe is not a wooden block, it consists of glues and materials layered up. Because of this technology in the shoe it is designed to react to the heat and moisture from your feet when you dance. The shoes reaction to this heat and moisture? It gradually softens and molds to the shape of your foot. So, by just using the strength in your feet you are breaking in the shoes to your ability. Often the pointe shoes are scored under the metatarsal area of the shank to allow you to rise through demi pointe.
If you are struggling with this or you have an upcoming exam, then I would suggest breaking them in by hand. Again this doesn't require much force, it's just simply applying pressure in the correct areas. By doing this you will be softening parts of the shoe, and therefore you will be shortening the life of the shoes, so don't apply too much force.
To mould the arch of the shoe closer to you foot, you should put on any padding that you will be wearing during dancing, then put the shoe on. Rest your foot en pointe. Turn the heel piece inside out. Feel down to your instep. Mark the corresponding place on the inside of the shoe on the shank. Remove the shoe and using thumbs and a hard surface work that part of the shank until it bends nicely. There may be some cracking or popping sensations as you do this. This is normal. Do not entirely break the shank, just soften it a bit. Then put the shoe back on the foot. Again, place that shoe en pointe. The shoe should now have a nice bend in it and fit closer to the instep of the foot. Repeat with the other shoe.
Another area to mould in is the metatarsal: Holding the shoe in your hands place the thumbs on the inside of the shoe; using a floor or other hard surface roll the shoe through a demi-pointe position. Breaking a shoe in this way allows a dancer to have more control over the pressure used to bend the shoe. This will initiate breaking in the shoes, making it easier for a dancer to continue to break in her shoes as she rises through demi-pointe to full pointe.
It is a wise idea to consult your dance teacher or pointe shoe fitter regarding breaking in pointe shoes for the first time. As some brands and models have different needs.
Did you know this is one of the most important things about your shoes. You are dancing on your shoes and they very quickly become warm, but if they stay warm this will cause you problems. Why? Most pointe shoes are designed to mould to your feet and break-in. This happens because the shoes react to the heat of your feet and soften in. There are ways of speeding this up (see The Breaking-In Process).
After you have worn your shoes they remain warm and soft, to keep the shape you mould you need to cool down the shoes and let them dry out. To do this you must first of all, never:
Instead you should:
*This particularly applies to students in college.
The way to know if you have been incorrectly storing your shoes is that they will feel mushy around the block of the shoe, you will feel like your big toe hurts when you are dancing en pointe.
When this happens you need to get a new pair of shoes to avoid damaging your feet.
If you are experiencing discomfort in your shoes you need to identify why?
If you have had your pointe shoes over 6 months, then you will probably find they are not performing as well as when you first bought them, this is due to the way pointe shoes react to the heat and moisture in the feet. The common faults with a broken pointe shoe are the wings and shank of the shoes. At some stage these will go far too soft, and these areas are key to giving the support you need for your pointe-work, without them you will be damaging your feet and must look at purchasing a new pair.
If your shoes feel mushy then they have not been drying out properly (Please see Storing Your Pointe Shoes). To avoid this occurring again look for somewhere cooler to hang your pointe shoes and leave them for 24-48 hours. If they are still mushy after this then you will need a new pair.
If your feet have grown then you may notice the heels of the shoes slipping off quite frequently, you may also have added pressure on your big toe. There is very little you can do here, first of all try removing any toe pads you wear, see if this improves the fit, and check them over with your dance teacher.
For the heels of the shoes you can reduce them slipping off, by:
You may be surprised to hear that your tights or socks can cause discomfort. Even if you're wearing ballet socks they can cause pressure in a pointe shoe, the seams can be putting pressure on, your toes or rubbing your feet. To avoid this simply get a pair of ballet tights, they have no seams across the top of the toes, they're soft and a lot thinner than cotton socks.
Having a high instep can cause problems with your pointe shoes, to understand this please see the information featured in the What to Avoid section above, under high arches.
My shoes have snapped... There are many reasons why a shoe may snap or break, to identify the possible cause it is advisable to seek professional advise by finding a reputable pointe shoe fitter. They can examine your shoe, to look for indicators as to why there may be a problem. For Example, within a class situation your mind is often occupied by your routine, arm position, head position and just remembering the steps, then if you are required to go en pointe during this ,a student may forget to pull up through the core, resulting in 3.5 times your body weight forcing down on the shoe. The consequences of this will more than likely weaken, if not completely break your shoe. A good pointe shoe fitter would be able to identify this.
If you have had pointe shoes before, but have had a bad experience do tell your fitter as they can try and identify the problem and avoid a re-occurance. It is no good to your fitter to say "I do not like Bloch pointe shoes" as there are over 20 different styles in Bloch pointe shoes, you would be better to identify the style of shoe you didn't like, and explain why you didn't like them. Or even better take the shoes with you.
Similarly a teacher will also have preferences and may recommend not to purchase"Sansha" pointe shoes because they personally do not like the brand, it might be worth finding out what they do not like about the companies shoes and explaining this to your fitter. I have quite often found that a teacher is often influenced by a previously bad fitting shoe, or one particular style of shoe, to disregard a whole company of pointe shoes may not be the solution. Each individual will have different requirements and more fitting options available will help to locate the ideal shoe.
For example, Grishko are a Russian company and have been making pointe shoes for many years, they have some styles of shoes that are very strong and designed for a professional dancer or student regularly dancing en pointe. Because of this your teacher may tell you not to get Grishko, without realising they have other styles that are more suitable for beginners, and other shoes which are easier to break in. A qualified fitter will be able to determine what shoe is suitable, and if they do not do this, then the fitter is obviously not qualified.
Trusting and relying on the fitter is essential and good relationships contacting and communicating can enhance the fitting experience. Fitters do respect and appreciate teachers input, their knowledge of each students ability including problems they may encounter and have to overcome such as rolling in, fallen arches or other problems that could lead to misplacement and difficulty during pointe work is invaluable, but when a teacher is telling the fitter what shoes to fit or not, then they do not trust their ability.