The pointe shoe, that concoction of satin and ribbons, held together with paper, leather and glue. It’s the iconic image of ballet.
The men of ballet, with their dynamic athleticism, have in recent years done so much to challenge the image of floaty tutus and dying swans. Even so, the eternally feminine pointe shoes still win the day when it comes to finding a symbol for this form of dance.
But, just as with the dancers themselves, the surface beauty disguises strength. More than a pretty costume accessory, the ballerina’s shoes play an essential role in her performance by adding the support she needs to dance on her toes. The pointe shoe has both a shank, which supports the arch of the foot, and a box, which supports the toes. We’ve come a long way from the early days of ballet when dancers performed in high-heeled shoes!
Why Are Ballet Slippers (Usually) Pink?
The satin and ribbons (which of course aren’t decorative either — they keep the dancer’s slippers firmly in place) also extend the line of the leg, especially when they match the shade of the ballet dancer’s legs or dance tights. Most commonly a light pink satin, ballet slippers are often intended to be vanish against the wearer’s skin. For this reason, ballerinas with darker skintones such as Misty Copeland or Michaela DePrince often have custom-dyed shoes. This can mean an extra chore to do on top of the usual tasks of darning, adding ribbons and breaking in new shoes. As dance companies become ever more diverse, perhaps this will change and ballet slippers won’t only come in shades of pink but also ready-to-wear in tans and browns.
Sometimes, to match a costume or draw attention, a dancer will wear pointe shoes in black, white or even red (as in the famous Moria Shearer ballet movie The Red Shoes).
Though they can pose with a grace the rest of us only dream off, dancers’ feet aren’t as pretty as people sometimes imagine. Quite the opposite — their punishing routines leave them with bunions, callouses and injuries. A fresh pair of pointe shoes is a beautiful finishing touch to a stage costume, and covers a multitude of sins. By the end of a tough performance, though, those slippers can be stained, shredded and barely hanging on!
The Evolution of Dancing on Pointe
This lovely video from The Royal Opera House (home of the Royal Ballet) demonstrates the difference a hardened pointe shoe made to the steps a ballerina could perform. It features Gemma Pitchley-Gale giving an elegant demonstration of historic pointe work, dressed in costume of that era, and Fumi Kaneko dancing a more evolved style.
Collectible Autographed Ballet Shoes
In some countries you can buy the worn pointe shoes of professional ballet dancers. Autographed, they can be a lovely keepsake for fans and have value as collectibles. A number of US companies (including NYCB and ABT) sell on their principal dancers’ signed shoes, and The Australian Ballet also allow you to choose a pair signed by your favourite dancer. Sadly, UK principal dancers don’t generally sell or give away used ballet slippers (at least not officially), with or without signatures. You might be lucky enough to pick some up as special competition prizes and auctions. Enterprising autograph hunters also ask their favourite dancers to sign unused shoes!
If you do buy pre-worn ballet shoes for display, watch out for weevils which love to feed on the flour paste that stiffens the blocks in those shoes. Also, don’t be surprised if the ballerina who owned them keeps her ribbons — she has to buy these and sew them onto all of her shoes, so they can be a precious commodity!
Pointe Shoes on Art Gifts
This classic image of a ballet dancer’s legs and feet as she dances en pointe has a Victorian-style engraved appearance. Choose from a wide range of gift items, from a smart black jersey scarf with the ballet shoes motif in white, to greetings cards, phone cases and mugs.