The Perils and Pleasures of Pointe Shoes
In one of my former lives, I worked in a little suburban dance boutique. One of the things we specialized in was fitting pointe shoes, and after learning the process, it became one of my favorite things to do. I especially enjoyed fitting the young girls that came in for their first pair of shoes, with their proud mothers in tow. These girls were always so excited to go on pointe, and their anticipation as they answered my questions about their feet and their training was almost palpable—after all, pointe shoes are the hallmark of the classical ballerina. When I started taking those beautiful, shiny satin shoes out of their boxes and gave them to the girls to try, they stood on pointe for the first time totally absorbed in the newness of the experience, and the pleasure and pride of reaching this important level. They loved being on pointe, but while I was watching them, I often thought of how quickly this feeling might fade, and instead become one of frustration born of the pain and difficulty of dancing en pointe.
To me, and to many other long-time dancers I’ve spoken to, pointe shoes are no longer representative of our quality or ability as dancers, but rather, a roadblock to the true and thorough enjoyment of practicing ballet. As we become stronger and more accomplished on pointe, the steps and choreography we are asked to do becomes proportionally more difficult. Advanced pointework can feel extremely prohibitive in its complexity, which can be very discouraging. It takes a long time and a lot of patience to build the strength and technique required for the famously tricky variations of the flagship classical variations of ballets such as Don Quixote and Swan Lake. In addition, a lot of contemporary choreography asks us to depart from the classical form we’re comfortable in, and turn, jump, and partner on pointe in ways that can be frightening if you’re not totally confident in the strength of your pointework. All this hardship, in addition to the often extreme physical discomfort of being on pointe, can result in a lot of fear and negative anticipation of putting on our shoes (or “boots” as I sometimes call them), and more often than not, many of us find ourselves wearing them less and less. It is a lot easier and much more fun not to put them on, as we then don’t have to worry about simply being able to stand on one leg without falling over. And although a dancer might have been on pointe for a long time, being three to four inches taller than you usually are, and having to not only stand, but dance on the tips of your toes on a slippery surface composed of only a few square inches is scary.
It’s hard to shake that fear and enjoy the instantly longer line that being on pointe creates, as well as the feeling of airy weightlessness that comes when you hit your balance. And as someone who has had substantial difficulty with pointework, from finding the right shoe to gaining strength and confidence on pointe, I can sympathize with those of you who have come to see your shoes as symbols of pain and disappointment. However, I urge you to look past that and remember how you felt when you first went on pointe, and how proud of yourself you were. And this was only for doing some pliés and rélevés twice or three times a week! Be diligent about working on your pointe technique and enjoy the look and feel of your new line, and don’t be afraid of falling or of sore toes. Conquering that fear of pain and disappointing yourself, in addition to faithfully putting on your shoes and dancing on pointe when it’s safe for you to do so, will get you much farther than you think. Remember too that you’re part of an elite; you’ve accomplished something so few people on this earth can do. So go ahead and tap into your beginner self, and love being up there, on your toes, in your beautiful satin shoes.