This is a pair of my old pointe shoes.
They are from about twenty years ago, the last time I took a ballet class. I threw out the innumerable other ones, myriad shapes and sizes and makes purchased in my longstanding but unfulfilled quest for the perfect pointe shoe.
Dancing on point (or, in the French terminology of ballet, “en pointe”) is one of the elements that distinguishes ballet from other forms of dance in most people’s minds. And yet most ballet training occurs in soft shoes, and men ordinarily never go on pointe. But it’s the thing that most little girls who start ballet lessons dream about, as well as probably being the most misunderstood, painful, and transformative aspect of ballet.
Pointe shoes help a bit in enabling the dancer to perform the strange feat of rising to the very tips of her toes. But it’s actually the foot itself that must be trained and shaped in such a way as to be strong enough to support the entire body on that tiny pedestal. And not just support that body, but support it as it moves through space in an extraordinary way, twists and pivots and turns and balances and even throws itself purposely off-balance at times. And, although dancers are thin, they still have enough bulk and bone and sinew and muscle that their poor feet—and especially the toes—become sorely battered in the attempt.
Nevertheless, the little girl who studies ballet looks forward to the day she will get her first pointe shoes. For me it happened around the age of nine, after several years of training. We waited patiently in a line while the ballet teacher traced in pencil the bare feet of each of us on a special paper she’d laid on the floor, signing each outline with the name of the girl whose foot it represented. The handmade shoes (usually by Italian artisans) arrived a month or two later, shiny and pastel pink satin, and as yet untouched and unmarred. That would not last long, nor would the pristine state of our feet.
Pointe shoes, as you can see from the above photo of mine, are not really foot-shaped. Like the Chinese custom of foot-binding, the idea is to alter nature rather than bow to it. The toes are stuffed into the tapering box and conform to its sleek shape. A typical result is here (not my feet, by the way, I’m happy to report):
Although the effect of dancing on pointe is esthetically pleasing, you can see that the naked unadorned ballet dancer’s foot tends to be anything but. It’s a demonstration of a dirty little secret: like many aspects of ballet, going on pointe hurts. For some aspirants, this is the point (pun intended) at which they leave the study of ballet, perhaps to make a lateral move to modern dance (ordinarily barefoot), perhaps to the pursuit of sports or even couch-potatohood. Others master the discipline of dancing on the tips of their toes and come to ignore the pain for the incredible sensation of having a body that has mastered something both difficult and transcendent.
Is this masochism? It can be, but for most dancers it’s not. Not just ballet, but all sports and many arts (such as, for example, playing a musical instrument) are inherently physical, and they nearly always put the body through movements that are unnatural and stressful for the sake of achievement, or beauty, or both. Human beings seem to be constructed to strive for that sort of thing.