Monday, May 5, 2008

Pointe $hoes

The endlessly fascinating topic of pointe shoes is the next chapter (or two) of this blog. It's such a huge subject in every way that I'll start out with some basic info, and then get into specifics. Please write in with specific questions about things you've always wanted to know about pointe shoes but have never had the chance to ask!

  • Every woman in OBT wears pointe shoes every single day and none of the men do (yes, I know, that is verrrry basic information, but sometimes people ask!).
  • Our pointe shoes are custom made for us at a factory in London by a company called Freed.
  • Each of us goes through dozens and dozens of pairs per season, sometimes hitting 100 pairs or more.
  • They're expensive.
  • And they don't last very long.
  • When they're dead, they go into a graveyard for resale at the OBT boutique (we sign them first).
  • These ones are dead (they've been worn out and are too soft to use anymore):
  • Here's our shoe "room", which is really an area in the back corner of wardrobe:
Each dancer has her own box on one of these shelves with her name on the front and her current supply of new, unworn shoes inside. As we need them, we come and pull out the number and type we need for the rehearsals, classes, and performances at hand.

The reasons why we have the shoes custom made are several. For one thing, you've often heard that everyone's body is different, everyone's foot is different, and that becomes all the more apparent when you are trying to be expressive and technically proficient with those feet. Pointe shoes do a lot more than just hold us up, they also need to allow us to articulate every bone and joint in our feet, use every muscle and tendon, and jump, turn, stand, run, and balance. If all we had to do was stand there on toe, we could probably use tin cans with padding inside. Therefore, since we're dealing with such specialized footwear and each person's foot has unique characteristics, we all have minutely specific things we want from our pointe shoes. We specify not just size, but the exact measurements of every part of the shoe (down to an eigth of an inch), the type and weight of the shank (that's kind of like the inner sole of the shoe), the shape of the toe box and the tip, the cut of the vamp, even the material of the drawstring.

Because we're so picky and specific in our orders (and not just "we", but every female ballet dancer in the world is this way), the shoes are made by hand by craftsmen with natural materials and fibers that will "breathe" and mold to our feet. There is nothing in the shoes that is synthetic (except maybe the glue): they are made of leather, cardboard, burlap, satin, cotton, and a water-soluble glue. No wood, no metal. The glue is what makes them so hard when they're new, and also what makes them so soft after they're worn (it breaks down with use and sweat, being water-soluble).

The downsides to the handmade shoe are the variations in quality and consistency, and the length of time it takes to produce them. We are picky, picky, picky, but so would you be if you could experience how a pointe shoe can affect your dancing. A shoe can literally allow or prevent a dancer from being able to do certain things, like balance or turn, and a shoe that's wrong in even one small way can cause real physical problems-- not just corns or blisters, but actual injuries. Therefore, we ladies spend endless time discussing our shoes, poring over them, strategizing on how to tweak an order to make them better, agonzing with each other over a bad batch, consoling when a shipment is delayed and rejoicing when they finally come in. It is truly a never-ending subject of interest for us.

Please give me feedback on what else you want to know so I can direct my next post accordingly!


  1. I am a ballet student, and I have been dancing on pointe for almost six years. I use Grisko Mayas, because everyone at our academy must wear griskos. The problem that I have with this shoe is that it does not accentuate my arch when I opinte my feet, but looks beautiful when I get up on pointe. Is there any way I can tweak the shoe to make it form better to my foot? I have a high arch at the top of my foot. Also, do you use thick or thin elastics? Thank you for posting on this blog, even though I live in a different state, I read it every day. I wish you the best, and that you get to dancing again soon!
    -ballet student

  2. Gavin,
    I love reading your blogs. Never stop blogging. Wishing you a speeding recovery.

  3. I absolutely love the photos you post in your blogs!! So often, all people know about ballet is what they see on stage in a performance. Thank you for taking us behind the scenes of OBT! Is it possible to post videos of class/rehearsals??

  4. I absolutely love reading this blog. I have been a fan of OBT for many years now, and have watched many ballet companies in the US. You guys actually got me into being serious about ballet, now I am or was (taking a break because i am pregnant =) ) But now I am doing performances and am in a preforming ballet company. Thus far no one comes close to the talent there at OBT. I remember buying my first signed pair at my first OBT show. Now I have made it a tradition to pick up a pair of signed shoes with each preformance i attend. You guys should start selling OBT things online like an OBT boutique. (and sell us some of those shoes!) I unfortunetly live out of state now and the first thing I do when I visit is make sure I don't miss a performance. You guys have pure technique that is so beautiful. Keep up the good work =)
    --Fellow ballerina...

  5. I agree with fortheloveofballet in that videos would be wonderful to see. I unfortunately seem only able to get off work about once a season to see the brown bags. Would be great to see more. I also agree with Lili Ballerini - you should start selling things from the boutique online - especially things like the pointe shoes or shirts. :)

    As for questions, you mentioned that men don't wear pointe shoes. What are the shoes called that men wear? Do they too have the flat looking stiff toe like the women's? If not, how are they able to get up on their toes like you do?

    How long does a pair of shoes last? I know that it's likely to be different for each ballerina, but is there an average? 100 pairs sounds like so many!

    keep blogging - it's great to learn more about OBT and I hope your walking/clogging is going well. :)

  6. To respond to "Dragon Ballet Student":
    I don't know much about Grishkos, never having worn them myself. What I do know is that one of the difficulties with any pointe shoe is finding the right kind of shank so that it will form to your arch as you point your foot, but not be too soft to support you on pointe. I've found that with Freed's, keeping the part of the shank that's low on your arch (under the ball of your foot and just above that) really hard, but bending the middle part a lot, is a good happy medium, but your foot is obviously different from mine.
    As for elastics, I like to use thick ones because the thin kind don't give me enough support. But I only use one across the midfoot, not a cross-over like a lot of people do.
    Hope this helps, and good luck to you!

  7. Thanks to everyone for your encouragement and support! I'm so glad you're enjoying the blog, because I'm enjoying writing it.
    I will get more studio photos and also some video clips of rehearsals and things.
    Keep the feedback coming!