“I used to wake up in the middle of the night just to look at my first pointe shoes, or walk in them to go to the bathroom,” says Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo soloist Noelani Pantastico. A dancer’s first pair of pointe shoes are like a graduation cap: They mark a rite of passage. Finding the right cap is tricky, however—and that cap isn’t always comfortable right away. All students require a bit of time to develop their own pointe shoe routines and rituals. But ballet teachers have passed down many tried-and-true solutions to common pointe problems over the years. Share these tips with your new pointe dancers to ease their transition.
Finding the best shoe for a beginner can be a daunting process. “The first fit is the most important because it sets you up for the future,” says Mary Carpenter, pointe shoe expert and fitter for Freed of London.
Be clear about your shoe preferences when sending students to be fitted. There are generally two schools of thought: Some think beginners need a hard shoe for support, while others prefer a softer pair that help develop the supporting ankle and leg muscles. Judy Weiss, master pointe shoe fitter at Grishko, says: “George Balanchine thought that a very light shoe would force students to learn to work their feet instead of being held up by the shank. I’ve been fitting shoes that way ever since.” (If you do encourage your students to buy soft shoes, however, be sure to have them begin with very simple strengthening exercises at the barre to avoid the risk of injury.)
Get to know the pointe shoe fitters in your area, and send your students to the one who best adheres to your ideals. Having all of your students work with one reliable fitter will help ensure that both the students’ needs and your preferences are satisfied.
Once students buy that famous first pair, a few adjustments will probably need to be made. Every dancer’s break-in routine is personal, but show your students some of the more common tricks and techniques to get them started.
Carpenter uses the heel of her hand to flatten a new box before giving the shank a bend at the 3/4 mark. “Once the shoe is on, I mark where the natural arch lies and then curl that part over the barre,” she says. Water can soften the bunion area of the box, but should be used sparingly. Kathy Sullivan, who has taught pointe at STEPS on Broadway for 15 years, uses a spray bottle on the outer sides of the box and then has students work while the shoes are still damp. “That way, the shoes conform nicely to the shape of the foot and half-toe action is easier,” she says. But it’s best to discourage bending shanks to extreme pliability or dousing shoes in water, which “kills” them too quickly.
If the shoes do become too soft, Weiss recommends applying Jet Glue or Pointe Shoe Glue on the inside to the softened areas. Gluing too soon can warp the shoes, so Pantastico stresses doing this only after wearing. “You need to allow the dancer to mold the shoe to her own shape,” she says, and warns dancers to be sure that the tip of the shoe remains flat after gluing.
“The ribbons are like the icing on the cake, but they’re also functional,” says Carpenter. To help your students determine where to place their ribbons, Weiss suggests that you have them fold the heel of the shoe in toward the box, marking where it meets the side satin. When attached there, ribbons support the arch without hindering the demi-pointe position. Many instructors also tell new students to sew ribbons deep inside the shoe, so they nearly touch the shank, which helps stabilize the heel and allows the shoe to move with the foot.
Sullivan recommends using ribbons with built-in elastics, which provide more give around the Achilles tendon. “They are the greatest invention this decade! They give everyone a snug fit around the ankle,” she says.
Advise your dancers to use thicker thread—or even dental floss—when sewing their ribbons, to keep them securely fastened. And show them how to melt the ends of pointe shoe ribbons with a lighter to prevent unsightly fraying.
What’s on the Inside Counts
Every dancer’s foot is different, but generally “less is better,” says Weiss, when it comes to choosing toe pads. Silicon gel pads that cover only the top of the toes and bunion area allow the sole of the foot to feel the floor, as does lambs-wool, a more traditional cushion. Have students experiment with varying amounts of padding.
Toe spacers can help feet conform more comfortably to the box. Have students with bunions or slanted toes try a spacer between the first and second toes. This stabilizes the foot inside the shoe and relieves pressure on the sides of the foot. Toes may also be taped to prevent blistering, but be sure to tell students to allow enough leeway for them to bend. Pantastico prefers construction-grade painter’s tape to avoid too much bulk.
Though it can be a painful process, beginning pointe work—especially when your students are armed with these tips—is an exciting, transformational part of a dancer’s career. As Carpenter puts it, “It is a privilege to be on pointe. It’s a step toward becoming a ‘real ballerina.’”
Taylor Gordon is a dancer and writer in NYC.