The Ballerina’s shoe was considered as an extension of her body. It was the shoe, which made the dancing possible.
The old style pointe shoe was often only used for one performance and sometimes had to be replaced during a performance because the box became to soft to brace the toes or the shoe sole lost its stiffness.
The toe box was made from layers of burlap & paper saturated with glue. The mid-sole was made from cardboard or fibreboard. Occasionally the pointe shoes of a male dancer did incorporate a steel sole.
The shoes were held together by glue, stitching and small nails with the outer satin material gathered in pleats under the toe. Irregularities or lumps like pleats made the shoe unstable.
The original pointe shoes offered no protection to the feet and ankles. Female pointe dancers tended to suffer many foot ailments such as stress fractures, tendonitis and black toenails. 80% of professional dancers suffered ankle injuries.
Many dancers used lamb’s wool or toe pads to make their shoes more bearable. Too much wading however prevented the dancer from feeling the floor.
Traditional shoemaking materials had to be thick and hard to provide enough support, but loud clomping pointe shoes undermined the illusion of effortless grace for which the ballerina was striving for and made them seem heavy.
Pointe shoes were normally 3 sizes smaller than the length of a street shoe. Ballerinas required pointe shoes to fit like a second skin. Most importantly they needed to feel the end of the toe box. Each foot was fitted separately.
Old Pointe shoes started of rigid when new and had to be ‘broken in’ by the dancer, which took many hours and could be done in many different ways. These included manually flexing the shoe sole, jumping on it, jamming it in a door, bashing it with a hammer or soaking it in alcohol and scraping the sole.
The shoe was brushed with floor wax or shellac, which is a solution of lac in alcohol or acetone. Applied to surfaces such as wood and plaster, the solution forms a hard coating upon evaporation of the solvent.
All dancers sewed their own ribbons, which criss-crossed the ankles keeping the shoe on and upright in the full pointe position. Many used elastic.
Occasionally old shoes were used for class work or light rehearsals but most were discarded. Autographed shoes from celebrated ballerinas have become highly prized.
© Vanessa van Rensburg