Wearing a pair of reinforced satin slippers, with a bit of padding stuffed into the toes, Marie Taglioni walks onto the stage of the Paris Opera. Then, to the amazement of her audience, she rises – and continues to make history by dancing on the tips of toes throughout the show.
Nowadays, professional ballet dancers don’t have to face that immense challenge to achieve the beautiful lines created by pointe. Instead, their extended toes are supported by a dense box in the tip of shoes which gives them a couple inches of level surface to work with. So much easier.
Once upon a time, there lived the world of ballet without the notion of pointe. Dating back to the reign of Louise XIV, ballet was a dance adapted from the ballroom styles of the court, and dancers wore heeled shoes. It wasn’t until 1726 and the choice of Marie Camargo that the shoes transformed into the soft slippers worn by today’s young dancers, letting performers achieve better turns, higher jumps, and overall, more nimble movements.
Unlike many other art forms, the point of ballet is to be beautiful. The art of ballet can be measured, using the criteria of how graceful, ethereal, and precise a dancer is with her movements. The goal is to appear weightless, and be a unified body composed of thoughtful lines and angles. A ballet class just wouldn’t be right without the teacher exclaiming “Turn-out!” or “Extend!”
With these qualities in mind, Charles Didelot created the “flying machine” in 1795, using wires to suspend dancers so that they were literally flying! Still, there was a drive for the dancer to extend the full line of their legs without the aid of a machine or extreme pain. Throughout the 1800’s and into the present, pointe shoes have evolved to provide more support and control to the dancer, keeping up with the increasing technical difficulty of the art. Typically, modern pointe shoes are characterized by a toe box consisting of layers of fabric, paper, and glue, as well as a still internal sole called a shank. The sturdy construction of the shoes does limit movement, but the outcomes are quite work of the price.
Though a ballerina who bounds across the stage may seem to do so with little effort, that is all just part of the art. In reality, pointe shoes are quite uncomfortable and can easily produce a range of maladies, ranging from blisters and bunions to muscle strains and broken legs. Only after years of training can a ballerina gain access to pointe work, provided that she has a strong core and and stable ankles able to bear the weight of her entire body.
Pointe shoes are ridiculous things that require tender care, cause pain and discomfort, and take hours of work to wear with minimal proficiency. But it’s all worth it. Just watch a ballerina float across the stage atop mile-long legs tipped with satin shoes and you’ll understand. With pointe shoes elevating her dance to fantastical levels, you don’t care about the pain, and neither does she.