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If the shoe fits....

Your pointe shoes may be beautiful. Strong. Light. Expensive. Imported. But do they fit properly? Correctly chosen, pointe shoes can be a joy to wear. Ill-fitting, they can be a detriment and a costly mistake.. With more styles available than ever before, choosing a pointe shoe may require expert advice.

Joe Kaplan, vice-president of sales and marketing for La Mendola, manufacturers of dance and gymnastic footwear, has been lecturing on the correct fitting of dance shoes for more than twenty years. Here are some of his suggestions to help you choose a comfortable and suitable pointe shoe that will keep your feet healthy and happy.


Although research material is available for almost anything you buy for the first time, little is available for the first purchase of pointe shoes. The buyer has to rely on the salesperson, who may have had little experience in fitting pointe shoes, or the advice of a teacher, who is not present at the time of the purchase.

According to Kaplan, "Fitting the first shoe requires that the salesperson know from experience how to evaluate the feet nature has given the student; be able to determine if the student is in a growth pattern; and be able to see, almost at a glance, how much training the student has had for pointe work." A tall order.

A knowledgeable salesperson's biggest obstacle in finding a good fit is the parent who insists that the shoe be a little wider to accommodate the child's quick growth. "It's dangerous," says Kaplan, "to wear a shoe so wide that it moves when the child tries the shoe on the floor. Never, never, never permit a child to wear a shoe with more width than necessary. In ballet shoes, the toes may wiggle a bit, but not in pointe shoes. If the toes look bumpy, however, the shoes are too tight. As for length, no more than 1/4 inch should be allowed for the growing foot."

When the shoe fits properly, it gives gentle support but does not prop up the foot; nor does it hang off the heel. Whatever the shape of the leg from knee to toes - straight or curved - those two points must be in a straight line when standing on pointe. The toes should neither be pressed too far forward nor too far back. Standing correctly on pointe is the objective of pointe work. It's not a question of finding a shoe that will make corrections or hide faults.

Kaplan makes no allowances for padding stuffed into the shoe - lamb's wool, toe pads, linen, heel grips, or socks. "You're not fitting the shoe," he says. "You're fitting whatever you stuffed into it. Feet will toughen up. If you pad to avoid friction, the shoe has not been properly fitted and the foot cannot work through the pleats." Moleskin padding between the toes, however, does not interfere with the expansion of the pleats on the bottom of the shoe or constrict the foot as the dancer rises through demi-pointe to pointe. The child should not only stand on pointe during the fitting, but also in Fifth Position, and should do some releves to discover gaps or movement in the vamp. The final choice should be a lightweight and flexible shoe to continue the strengthening of the feet as only pointe work can do. The student should feel the complete stretch of the entire foot and leg as the weight of the body is lifted upwards and away from the hips and legs over the toes. Clenching the toes to hold the foot stable is the result of an inflexible shoe and should be avoided by everyone. A softer and narrower box is required.

Don't sew the ribbons on the shoes until the teacher approves of the shoe. And be sure that the salesperson writes on the sales slip that the shoe was slightly larger than necessary, if that was the case, to provide a useful record for the next fitting.


Time and circumstances make changes in the feet. Let us assume that you were perfectly happy with your pointe shoes in the past but now find them uncomfortable. Inspect your old shoes. Have the pleats unfolded, pulled out from the shank, or split anywhere on the shoe? Some manufacturers cut the satin so short there is insufficient seam inside the shoe. Satin of poor quality will stretch and split. Just plain wear will show at the big toe, on the pleats, and heel.

The Box: the hardened section covering the toes.

Did you need to beat that box to a pulp when the shoe was new? Did you soak it in alcohol? Squash it in a doorway?

"There are shoes sold today," says Kaplan, "that would not have passed over the counter years ago." The best shoes still have handmade boxes that are softer or harder to order. Some manufacturers, however, use preformed plastic boxes that do not permit the dancer to rise through 1/4, 1/2, or 3/4 pointe until the final spring to the tip because of the rigidity of the box. The satin outside and buckram or burlap inside of the box, cut to size, with the drawstring in its machine-stitched casing that circles the top of the shoe, should be glued together with a rye-flour-and-water formula. After the marking, measuring, cutting and stitching have been done by others, the shoemaker matches the upper to a form and the shank, and then pleats. He pushes and pulls with various instruments as he remolds the still-soft block of glue and burlap into its square, long, flat, oval, or curved shape. The box is then oven-dried overnight to preserve the shape. In some cases inferior materials and glue are used, so that the shoe does not wear well. There are manufacturers who insert pads into the box, as in sneakers; it comforts the foot but spoils the fit.

The Vamp: the front portion of the shoe that covers the toes.

The box you choose - from the shoe-stacks at the store or have custom-made - should not permit you to put a finger between the vamp and your foot. The solution is a narrower width or a flatter box. The vamp should cover your metatarsal bones on top but not be so high that it interferes with a full demi-plie position. The box should be firm on top but have considerable and slightly flexible pleating on the back; be flat or curved depending upon the configuration of your toes; fit snugly, but not tightly; be rounded or pointed at the tip; and be the color you desire.

The Size: the length of the shoe from heel to toe.

Alas, there is no government standardization for shoe sizes. A 4C in a ballet slipper is not a 4C in a pointe, jazz, or tap shoe. In some cases, downsizing is a half-size; in others, two full sizes smaller than a street shoe is the measurement.

Width, on the other hand, increases from street-shoe size. Don't expect the drawstring to make up for a shoe that is too wide. "If the shoe fits," Kaplan says, "there is no need for the drawstring." When buying from a catalog, make an outline of your foot to send along with your order.

The Shank: the leather piece that extends from the pleats almost to the heel.

Pavlova is reported to have inserted a steel shank into her right pointe shoe because her foot was so flexible. That's an exception, although a reverse shank can be inserted into a custom-made shoe; and some dancers choose a shoe that makes them look impaled onstage and dragged about by the instep. "The shank is not a prop, a crutch, a pogo stick, or a bent object that will give you the appearance of a high instep," says Kaplan, with the teasing smile he uses when lightly scolding fitter or dancer. He tells the story of a grandmother taken from an audience and fitted in a pointe shoe with a superstrong shank. "She stood on pointe instantly. A ballerina! I had to help her down off pointe. But it demonstrated the unsuitability of trying to dance in a shank that's too strong."

Here again, manufacturers have been known to use inferior leather materials such as pressed shavings. Why? Because there is hardly any profit in making a handmade shoe, a task that requires extreme skill and much time. Profit is made on other products.

Shoes that look the same but have a different price should tip you off to the possibility of inferior materials being used in them: leatherboard, oilcloth, cardboard, vinyl, and plastic that looks like patent leather but does not breathe - "that's like putting a Baggie on your foot," says Kaplan. Fiber has now replaced leather for the shank, with good results. Makers once used brown leather that was aged, very flexible, and expensive.

Look for scoring - crisscross marking on the upper part of the shank - that provides traction, flexibility, and, used with rosin, helps to grip the floor. Somewhere, inside or outside the shoe, the individual maker will apply his initials and the name of the dancer on the outside shank. It is a mark of pride in a handmade object.

Professional dancers are aware that a shoe made by the same maker may not be always the same. Weather is a factor in the drying of the shoe.

Accept the fact that the new pointe shoe, whether for student or professional, should be broken in for ten minutes at the barre for two or three days.

The Heel: the back portion covered with satin and also the small end of the shank.

This is another place for a snug fit. The heel when the dancer is on pointe should not protrude, look wrinkled, sharp (because the shank is too long), loose, or require elastic loops or wraparounds to stay on. A solution to the fear that the heel will come off during movement is dipping the heel in water - although some stage managers will not permit water marks onstage and some teachers feel it damages the skin - to keep the heel firmly fixed. Another solution is the drop or two of liquid adhesive inside the shoe at the heel to stick the shoe to the foot. The adhesive washes out of the tights. The unsightly look of a sharp, protruding heel in a pointe shoe is a current trend. To avoid this, have the manufacturer cut down the satin upper part of the shoe at the heel at least 1/4-inch to make a snug fit.

Now that you've chosen your shoe, hold it in your hand to test its balance. It should be light and not topple in your hand.

Ribbons: the binding material that ties the shoe to the ankle.

Manufacturers gave up supplying ribbons and elastic because dancers had so many different preferences. Some liked wide ribbon and lined it with binding tape; some dancers preferred wide elastic over the instep, around the ankle, or as a loop for the ribbons at the back of the shoe. It is still best to bend the back of the shoe to the center and sew the ribbons with dental floss at a slight slant forward or backward as suits your foot. Darning the toe with cotton thread is a better choice than using sticky tape. Darning takes only about fifteen minutes and adds longer life to the satin tip.


However you hammer, smash, drown, and otherwise assault your shoes as a rite of passage or as a superstition (everyone has some ritual for confidence), be sure to remove the dirt from the shoes with cleaning fluid after each wearing, scrape off rosin, fold the heel portion over to the center of the shoe, fold over the wings at the side, and wind the ribbons - washed and dried - around the shoe. Let the shoes dry; don't put them in the oven, on a radiator, or into a plastic bag; a cloth one will do nicely.

And when those perfect shoes no longer look presentable onstage, line the inside of the box with shellac or Fabulon, a hardening liquid made by Pratt & Lambert and available in any hardware store. Cut the loose threads on the tip of the shoe and darn it again. Use powder or creamstick on the outside of the box to restore color. If there are nails in the shank, remove them and slip out the shank, replace the lining, and wear the shoes to rehearsals. Every now and again, rise up on pointe in a shoe that can still make your feet stronger.

No matter what your choice in pointe wear becomes, remember the romance of the foot on pointe is to make it appear dainty, small, light, and an extension of your beautifully arched and articulated foot.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Dance Magazine, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:ballet shoes
Author:Horosko, Marian
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Jun 1, 1995
Previous Article:Philadanco: silver anniversary for 'danco.' (Philadelphia Dance Company)
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