June 22nd, 2007

Getting to the pointe

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.

23 Responses to “Getting to the pointe”

  1. Ozyripus Says:

    Now I understand why Neoneocon’s blog is my “en pointe” blog. Complete attention, regardless of the pain — for ballet dancers real pain, for writers something different but possibly even worse as their lives play out.

    Nevertheless, and not withstanding, I am relived the toe-photo has a different provenance!

  2. Ymarsakar Says:

    I like to watch figure skating.

    And before I read Neo’s post here, I wrote my own post concerning the subject and the professional dedication required.

    Jamie and David

    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)

    You can see a performance by David and Jamie at the Ice Figure link included in my post, which sort of reminds me that you don’t need to be on soil to do dance, Neo.

    The amount of stress put on a skater’s achilles tendo and various other parts of the foot and ankle may in fact be even greater than ballet, given the physics of how fast a skater can go on ice. But of course, the stress isn’t all placed on one point so to speak.

    A ballet dancer has to jump up in the air and land via gravity, and hold her own weight up. But on ice, the gravity pull is rather lateral or more directions than down. I like it for the grace shown. And also of course, as you will see, I like it because it shows true partnership in action. They function as one system and one will, almost. Some dancing does require certain lifts of course, but the danger aspect on ice increases a bit, especially with some of the more radical maneuvers skaters use in competition. (Such as twirling his partner around in a circle, with her forehead like a foot off the ice)

  3. Tom Says:

    En pointe is why I have always been apalled by the ballet. I do not agree with Neo’s claim as to the other arts and sports putting bodies, or parts thereof, through unnatural movements. The prolonged squatting of the baseball catcher is still (natural) squatting, for example. Give us some other examples, Neo.

  4. Ymarsakar Says:

    I think Neo means that the foot is not designed to support the weight of a human body leaping and cavorting by itself, especially when the foot has to be on its toes.

    In any professional sport, of course, most of their skillsets weren’t designed by nature in the first place. Nature didn’t envision that the human body had to be able to take jump shots or do any other number of things humans do. But because evolution is flexible and the organic system is versatile, humans are able to accomplish a lot of things that weren’t hardcoded in them or their bodies. But even with that, unnatural strain such as on the knees, is a problem in sports. The human body, like any engineering project, has specs and limits it can tolerate, which beyond that it starts to fail. It can do it, but it is way past the redline there.

    Almost the entire history of humanity is full of unnatural events, accomplishments, and actions, Tom. For natural to have a meaning, there has to be some fundamental blueprint, otherwise we can say anything and everything is natural if done by a human being.

    Humans have an ability to transcend their own physical or mental limitations at times. A trait that animals do not have apparently, at least not without the help of humans.

  5. An alternative to waterboarding…. at Amused Cynic Says:

    [...] men in tutus.  Blogger extraordinaire  and former ballet dancer Neo-neocon comes up with an aesthetically pleasing and culturally enlightened method for getting information [...]

  6. Tom Says:

    The human foot is of marvellous design and function, for traction, balance, jumping, and absorbing shock. Athletic acts that utilize those functions are not ipso facto unnatural, Of course there are redline limits.
    But if you have a dog, look at its feet from standpoint of comparative anatomy-only toes touch the ground! Dogs’ heels never do. Cavorting on our toetips is unnatural; that’s anatomically incontrovertible and that’s all I meant.

  7. Tatyana Says:

    A few years ago, when I still subscribed to New Yorker, they had a rare [not-politicized] article about ballet pointe shoes. The history, the craft, the physical labor involved into dancing, the pain and the rewards.

    Tom, you asked for other examples: have you ever noticed how bow-legged professional bycicle maraphoners are? Or how jockeys look like some malnourished and deformed 12 yo, in twice that age – and older? Or picture in your mind sumo wrestlers. Or just the regular weightlifters: overdeveloped ipper body, coupled with matches-thin legs.

  8. LabRat Says:

    Or just the regular weightlifters: overdeveloped ipper body, coupled with matches-thin legs.

    Not professional “weightlifters”, which in the world of strength sports usually means Olympic lifters. They are usually well-proportioned, frequently with an upper body less noticeably bulky than the lower- most of the power for most Oly lifts starts in the legs.

    Powerlifters need their legs for deadlifts and squats… generally no matchstick legs for them either. Even bodybuilders, who shoot for straight aesthetics, are judged on the proportionality of their physiques.

    It’s pretty much just dumb gym rats who think the be all and end all of male attractiveness is in the biceps and chest that have the bulky upper bodies and skinny lower. They’re also usually juicing to boot- it’s very difficult to get your body to grow prodigiously in one area but not in others without them even if you focus all your lifting on the upper body. (Generally the end result of that is “not much”, masswise.)

  9. Tom Says:

    Tatyana: No, I haven’t had a chance to look at marathon bicyclists’ legs, but jockeys are jockeys precisely because they are short and light-they are not made to be that way. Their build will be the same if they’ve never sat a horse. Jockeys are normally proportioned; they’re just smaller than most of us, without being midget-class.

  10. Ymarsakar Says:

    Athletic acts that utilize those functions are not ipso facto unnatural, Of course there are redline limits.

    The way you are going Tom, your argument runs down to “whatever the human body can do, is natural”. But that also makes ballet and pointe techniques natural.

    Cavorting on our toetips is unnatural

    So your logic is that it is unnatural because nature designed some other animal with a leg structure based upon the paw stance? That’s not good logic.

    Athletic acts that utilize those functions are not ipso facto unnatural, Of course there are redline limits.

    Either atheltics acts utilizing the functions that the human foot is capable of is natural or it isn’t, Tom. If it is natural, then that includes ballet. You got to get the consistency down.

  11. Tom Says:

    Uhh, Ymar, the human foot isn’t capable of it. See the shoes. And my logic of comparative anatomy?
    I’m OK with my consistency. Over and out.

  12. Tatyana Says:

    Tom, you chose to ignore my other examples – too inconvenient for you?- but OK, let’s talk about jockeys.
    From what I heard, their growth is stifled artificially. To serve their profession. In addition, they have to struggle all their life to limit their weight, often by drastic measures.

    Here’s another one for you: professional models. You’ll tell me they are selected among naturally tall, slim and gracious women. Of course – but taking coke or cigarettes to stay incredibly thin is not natural. To eat 2 leaves of lettuce for dinner is not natural. To have size D breasts on a body with all your anatomy protruding thru skin is not natural. Those hills are 100% artificial. Look at those models who quit – how come they magically begin to look like normal women, albeit tall normal women?

  13. Tom Says:

    Tatyana: You’re wandering off Neo’s path, and I’m not going to follow. I earlier addressed jockeys. You are listening to daffy people. “Stifling growth” is impossible unless the pituitary is ablated. It’s the source of Growth Hormone and many other hormones that regulate, inter alia, the gonads, adrenals, thyroid, body water content. Pituitary ablation would require neurosurgery and lifelong intense management of the medical consequences. Are you prepared to assert there exists a centuries-long criminal medical growth-stunting conspiracy merely to produce jockeys?

    In listening to daffy people, you are not alone. You have a great deal of company. Reset your intellectual screens. Keep blogging!

    Finally, walking down a runway is not an athletic act except for committed couch potats.

  14. Ymarsakar Says:

    Uhh, Ymar, the human foot isn’t capable of it.

    So you define capability as what nature gives you. Yet nature didn’t give any athlete the ability to do what they did on birth. They sort of had to work for them.

    If the human foot isn’t capable of it, then how do you explain ballet dancers, Tom? A feat of levitation and anti-grav?

    Your definitions are skewed, and the only way you can make sense of them is to create special considerations for ballet that you don’t apply to anything else. Yet this is not so much an objective standard or method of surveying, as an arbitrary one.

    Which is fine if arbitration is what you seek, but it’s not the same subject as the natural world vs the modified world.

    I’m OK with my consistency. Over and out.

    Your consistency consists of arbitrarily setting aside ballet as a practice that unnaturally shapes the human body. This might have been okay had you forwarded the proposition that all other unnatural shaping of the human body beyond the designed limitations of normal operation were unnatural, but you didn’t. A guy could hold his breath underwater for 7 minutes and you would call that natural, because that is not ballet and because the human body is capable of holding its breath. You talk about jockeys and athletes and say that their bodies are capable of it, therefore it is natural, but you only do so by ignoring the human design work that is part of the equation. Yet the same principle by which athletes and coaches function under, which is to train the human body to perform a certain function that nature had no evolutionary tendency to produce (such as ice figure skating and throwing a basketball into a hoop), is somehow different for you concerning ballet.

    That’s your non-existent consistency, Tom.

    Logic has some flex to it, concerning what ultimate end results you get. But you shouldn’t try to bend it that far.

    You have no objective nor reproducible definition of nature that applies consistently according to what you say it is. Natural is not normal or a result of evolutionary timelines, as it is to me, natural to you is what looks natural to you, Tom, and that is entirely subjective.

    1. existing in or formed by nature (opposed to artificial): a natural bridge.
    2. based on the state of things in nature; constituted by nature: Growth is a natural process.
    3. of or pertaining to nature or the universe: natural beauty.
    4. of, pertaining to, or occupied with the study of natural science: conducting natural experiments.
    5. in a state of nature; uncultivated, as land.
    6. growing spontaneously, without being planted or tended by human hand, as vegetation.
    7. having undergone little or no processing and containing no chemical additives: natural food; natural ingredients. Compare organic (def. 11).
    8. having a real or physical existence, as opposed to one that is spiritual, intellectual, fictitious, etc.
    9. of, pertaining to, or proper to the nature or essential constitution: natural ability.
    10. proper to the circumstances of the case: a natural result of his greed.
    11. free from affectation or constraint: a natural manner.
    12. arising easily or spontaneously: a natural courtesy to strangers.
    13. consonant with the nature or character of.
    14. in accordance with the nature of things: It was natural that he should hit back.
    15. based upon the innate moral feeling of humankind: natural justice.
    16. in conformity with the ordinary course of nature; not unusual or exceptional.
    17. happening in the ordinary or usual course of things, without the intervention of accident, violence, etc.
    18. related only by birth; of no legal relationship; illegitimate: a natural son.
    19. related by blood rather than by adoption.
    20. based on what is learned from nature rather than on revelation.
    21. true to or closely imitating nature: a natural representation.
    22. unenlightened or unregenerate: the natural man.
    23. being such by nature; born such: a natural fool.
    24. Music.

    38. a natural substance or a product made with such a substance: an ointment containing mink oil and other naturals.

    It is a useless function to have “natural” mean whatever you feel like it is, Tom, because it is a word that really needs clarification if it is to be used in true communication concerning issues and events.

    I’ll give you a quick run down of the logic you used. It takes training and physical modification of a human foot to launch the entire body weight into the air. This is due to the human foot being incapable of lifting the whole body weight into the air high up and land with grace. Because normally, one human foot can only launch the whole body weight a few inches off the ground and land clumsily. This means that it is unnatural compared to baseball umpires that squatt for long periods of time because they were already capable of squating in the first place. And this unnatural ballet is compared to the natural act of jockeying, which a person was already capable of, he just required years of experience to do right. And ballet is still unnatural compared to figure skating and chess, which take 10 to 20 years to master, but that’s okay, because humans were capable of figure skating and chess to begin with.

    Arbitrarily deciding that ballet requires something of the human foot that the human foot isn’t capable of, yet ignoring all the other human endeavours in our history that has required similar high level functions of a human body through necessary modification and training, is consistency to you, Tom.

    But it isn’t to me.

    Finally, walking down a runway is not an athletic act except for committed couch potats.

    But an umpire squatting is…

    The prolonged squatting of the baseball catcher is still (natural) squatting, for example.

    I think in the end, you call things natural not because of any principle you operate on, but just because it looks natural to you. What looks natural, is natural to you. Which is fine if all you’re doing is handling your own internal world of ideas.

    Cavorting on our toetips is unnatural; that’s anatomically incontrovertible and that’s all I meant.

    Look your meaning is not something I’m confused about. But I demand something higher on the consistency charts than simple meaning, meaning what has meaning to you personally. Something higher like an actual principle or objective definition, that at least tries to apply its standards fairly and accurately.

  15. Tatyana Says:

    No, I don’t think I’m straying from Neo’s path, as you call it (prey, tell why would I stand on someone’s path?)

    She said (italics are mine) “all sports and many arts…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.

    You can throw any number of scientifically-sounding terms to me, Tom, and your guess is as good as mine – but I’m positive a grown man can not look like a 12 yo boy without some artificial help, unless he is suffering some hormonal dysfunction or birth defect.

    And out of personal experience – all those professional gymnasts are not keeping their prepubescent bodies way into their 30′s naturally. Beside the stringent diet and excruciating exercise.
    Speaking of exercise: ever seen contortionists in the circus? Will you tell me their bodies perform naturally, when they go into the “bridge” and then proceed sticking their head between their feet and support their body on the shoulders?
    I won’t tell you who you’re listening to nor will I give you an unwanted advice – you seem to be quite self-satisfied and unperturbed in your theories, even in the face of real-life examples; I wouldn’t waste my breath.

  16. Tom Says:

    Gosh, you both are vehement in the extreme, verbose too.
    I write as an M.D., with perhaps a bit more structural and functional understanding of the human body. I have not knowingly asserted a conflict between ‘natural’ and achievement. It should not require a comment that some of us achieve more with our bodies. But I stick to my original point of ugh, en pointe.

    BTW, some contortionists- the most contorting- have a genetic disease called PXE for short, that enables their extreme poses.

    I do love how you both lecture me! When you know about PXE and can explain it, we can perhaps dialogue again. Do you know any jockeys? I do.

  17. Tom Grey - Liberty Dad Says:

    Sorry Tom, I like your name but not your “logic”.
    You say:
    “En pointe is why I have always been apalled by the ballet. I do not agree with Neo’s claim as to the other arts and sports putting bodies, or parts thereof, through unnatural movements.” …
    “Cavorting on our toetips is unnatural; that’s anatomically incontrovertible and that’s all I meant.”

    I have kids, they love to cavort on their toetips — and fall on the bed while they’re thus cavorting. In order to cavort w/o falling requires training.

    You say:
    “Uhh, Ymar, the human foot isn’t capable of it. See the shoes.”

    Consider rock-climbing:
    “Climbing with fingers and toetips is unnatural; and incontrovertably results in more deaths per attempt than any other mass sport. The human fingers and toes aren’t capable of it. See the death rates.”

    Yet thousands do, in fact, climb. Probably more than the thousands of 9-14 year girls who first train to go en pointe every year. And more girls go en pointe than boys break bricks with their bare hands, another feat requiring training.

    What would be unnatural would be if some metal point would be surgically inserted into the foot so that the point was metal, not human toe. In this respect, taking hormones for weightlifting is “unnatural”, as is, but to a lesser extent, blood doping.

    Sumo pigging out, seems not only fairly natural, but not even that abnormal. I’m truly mystified as to how you can assert the falsehood that “the human foot isn’t capable of it”, when the facts clearly show that, with training & true grit, acceptance of foot bloodying pain, the foot IS capable.

    The vehemence perhaps comes from what seems intellectual stubborness at refusing to accept as “natural” the limits of what some human bodies can, “naturally” do, with sufficient training & will power. It’s almost insulting to those of us who believe in and celebrate the heros and high achievers who DO follow thru in the difficult achievements. Like those often discussed here.

    (I didn’t think I’d comment on this post, but the comment exchange vehemence is indeed interesting.)

  18. Ymarsakar Says:

    Do you know any jockeys? I do.

    Do you know the difference between deductive and inductive logic? I do.

    Russians are naturally vehement, against people they don’t respect. Tatyana may or may not be Russian, but if she is, then what did you expect when you tried to dismiss her arguments as fanciful thinking?

    As for me, I’ve already give you plenty of logical arguments that you have brushed aside Tom, and you’ve ignored other good arguments of Tatyana’s or just belittled her arguments as if they don’t matter.

    I am after all not proposing that Tom have a specific opinion, because it was Tom that said Neo was wrong. If Neo is wrong, then what makes Tom right? And in the course of this argument, I have come to realize that what makes Tom right is what Tom says makes him right. That is not good enough, Tom, not even for you.

    I write as an M.D., with perhaps a bit more structural and functional understanding of the human body. I have not knowingly asserted a conflict between ‘natural’ and achievement.

    After having confronted a number of excellent counter-arguments to your jihad against unnatural ballet dancing, the circle the wagons argument you fall back on is “I’m right because I’m who I say I am”. That’s nice, Tom.

    Don’t talk about not knowingly asserting a conflict between natural athletics and ballet achievement, Tom, you don’t know how to make an argument, regardless of your medical degree.

    When you know about PXE and can explain it, we can perhaps dialogue again.

    You somehow thought this was a dialogue, with you the teacher and us the students? Funny, but not a winning argument.

    PXE has nothing to do with your ridiculously argumentum ad nauseam method of defending your positions, Tom.

    Continue to ignore your grossly exaggerated and inaccurate statements about human capability all you wish. Arguments eventually brings out the true strength of each side’s position. You’ve shown some of your core values, and that’s enough.

    In summary, Tom says the human foot isn’t capable of doing what it is capable of. And that what he says is natural is natural because of his degrees. Nice conclusion to your argument, Tom, couldn’t have done it better myself.

  19. Richard Aubrey Says:

    I don’t agree that other sports, such as football, have the same issue of pain as ballet.
    With ballet, when the dancer goes on point–which is to say the point of the whole thing–it hurts.
    In football, a good hit, a hard, solid, right-on-the-sweet-spot hit (on somebody else) doesn’t hurt. For some reason, it feels GREAT. Hitting is the point and it doesn’t hurt. Catching a long pass, ditto.
    Pain comes when you do it wrong, or somebody puts the hit on you instead of the other way around.

    If you’re looking for deformed bodies, see people who’ve started gymnastics as kids and stuck with it seriously for years.

  20. Tom Says:

    Ymar seems unable to meaningfully attack the substance of my brief (compared to his) posts, and falls back on attacking the messenger. We should have let it lie with the 1st para. of your 1st post 12:04pm, Ymar, and all would be well between us.

  21. Sloan Says:

    Gosh, you guys. The human condition dictates that people strive for all sorts of things that the human body wasn’t meant to do. We fly, we deep sea dive, we run marathons, we do trapeze work, we climb mountains and tall buildings, and we aspire to visit other planets. The human body accomodates, sometimes painfully, all sorts of dedication and torture. That’s what makes us human. Dream on, mankind.

  22. Ymarsakar Says:

    When you get anti-grav and levitation working, Tom, come back and have a chat. Those will be useful inventions given what the human foot is incapable of doing.

  23. Tracey Mable Says:

    Nice factors…I might be aware that as somebody who really doesn’t remark to blogs much (actually, this can be my first put up), I don’t suppose the term “lurker” may be very flattering to a non-posting reader. It’s not your fault at all, but perhaps the blogosphere might come up with a better, non-creepy name for the 90% of us that take pleasure in studying the posts.

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