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The development of the ballet shoe

Considering what is perhaps the most iconic example of dance footwear.

by Stuart Morgan

Image © Petar Milošević

The article 'A growing demand for dance shoes?' investigated the popularity of a number of dance styles, including ballroom, street, tap and jazz, and the specialist shoes often worn by participants. However, no review of dance shoes would be complete without mentioning ballet – a form of dance that historians say began in 1682, some 21 years after the French Royal Academy of Dance was founded at the command of King Louis XIV. At that time, women’s ballet shoes generally had heels, a tradition that changed when Marie Canargo (1710-1770) became the first to wear non-heeled footwear when dancing. This enabled her to perform leaps that would have been nearly impossible in the conventional shoes of the age. Today, ballet is truly an international art form, with famous companies operating around the world.

Non-professional participation in ballet is mainly by young girls who learn at the many schools that teach the dance. Along with other forms of dance, ballet is also said to be growing in popularity. As an example, more than 400,000 people were expected to take ballet lessons in Japan during a recent year.

A ballet shoe (sometimes called a ballet slipper) is a lightweight shoe that has been designed specifically for ballet dancing. The upper may be made from soft leather, which can be reasonably long lasting, canvas (less expensive than leather but which wears out faster), and satin, that is often used for performances, but can wear out very quickly. Very importantly, the shoe has a flexible, thin sole and offers a very close fit, both for the dancer’s safety and to retain maximum flexibility.

While ballet shoes generally have a leather sole which does not reach all the way to the edges of the shoe, a modern development is the split sole (beneath heel and toe), which provides greater flexibility and emphasises the shape of the foot when it is pointed.

Shoes are normally secured by a drawstring and elastic tapes (usually a single band across the top of the foot, or two bands that cross in an 'X' shape). The locations where the band and ribbons attach to a shoe are important to avoid a poorly fitting shoe. The ideal place for attachment depends to a great degree on the shape of the dancer's foot, so the elastic bands are often not attached during footwear production. A dancer must find the best location for the bands and then have them sewn onto the shoes.

Pointe shoes

More advanced female dancers may wear ‘pointe’ shoes during performances. These were conceived to enable dancers to dance on the tips of their toes ('en pointe') for extended periods of time. Because 19th century ballet shoes offered no support, dancers padded their toes for comfort and relied on the strength of their feet and ankles when standing en pointe.

Image © Kansas City Ballet

Kansas City Ballet dancers wearing pointe shoes

With this style of style of ballet gaining popularity, it was essential for the shoe to help the dancer. Soon, footwear with a flat platform at the front became the shoe of choice. These also included a box made of layers of fabric for containing the toes, and a stiffer, stronger sole than had been previously used.

The design of the modern pointe shoe is often attributed to the early 20th century Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. Ms Pavlova had particularly high, arched insteps, which meant she risked injury when dancing en pointe. In addition, she also had slender and tapered feet, which caused pressure on her big toes. In order to overcome these problems, she inserted toughened leather soles into her shoes to provide extra support, and formed a box by both hardening and flattening the toe area.

In conventional modern pointe shoes, the box is often made from tightly packed layers of paper and fabric glued together and shaped. Alternatively, the box may be made from plastic (for rigidity) and rubber.

The sole of a pointe shoe is normally made from a piece of leather that is attached to the shoe with adhesive, after which it is stitched along its edges. The sole then overlaps and secures the unfinished edges of the exterior fabric. Pointe shoes may have either scraped soles for superior traction, or buffed soles, which have a smoother surface to offer a lower level of grip.

The shank in a pointe shoe is typically of card, leather, plastic or layers of burlap that have been hardened with glue. The flexibility of a shank is determined by its thickness. This may be consistent throughout its length or may vary to give different strengths at set locations. Standard pointe shoes generally have a shank running the full length of the sole, or a ‘fractional’ shank, around half or three-quarters of the full shank’s length.

Image © Lambtron

Elastic and ribbon attachments

A pointe shoe is secured to the foot by two fabric ribbons and an elastic band. The ribbons wrap around the ankle in opposite directions to form a cross at the front. The ends are then knotted together, and are then tucked under the ribbon on the inside of the ankle. As with ballet shoes, the fastenings for pointe shoes are often left for the wearer to secure to ensure optimum fit.

A demi-pointe shoe, which is also called a 'break-down', 'pre-pointe', or 'soft-block shoe', is very similar to the pointe shoe described above. The demi-pointe also has a toe box, although this is softer and the sides of the box (known as 'wings') are often more shallow than those found on pointe shoes. Demi-pointe shoes are secured to the feet with ribbons and elastic in the same way as pointe shoes. One major difference, however, is that demi-pointe shoes have no shank, so do not provide the support necessary for proper pointe work.

Demi-pointe shoes are most often used to train dancers who are learning pointe technique. They help dancers to gain the sensation of wearing pointe shoes, and strengthen their ankles and feet in preparation for dancing in pointe shoes.

Traditional pointe shoes are usually made by the turnshoe method, with each shoe assembled inside out on a last before being turned right side out and finished. A common last is used for both shoes, resulting in identical left and right footwear. However, some ballerinas have lasts custom-made for each foot, and these are supplied to the manufacturer to make custom shoes.

Lifetime of the pointe shoe

Image © Lambtron

Typical wear to the sole and box of a pointe shoe

There are three typical types of wear on a pointe shoe that will determine its useful lifetime. Perhaps the most important of these is to the shank. Due to repetitive flexing, the shank weakens and eventually loses its ability to provide support. Once the shank breaks or it becomes too soft to provide support, a pointe shoe is no longer fit for purpose.

Other areas of wear are the softening of the box – particularly the platform on which the dancer balances – and degradation of the exterior fabric. In pointe work, the material covering the bottom edge and front face of the toe box are subjected to friction against the floor. This wears through the fabric covering, exposing the toe box and creating frayed fabric edges. While damaged outer fabric does not affect the shoe’s performance, the resulting appearance will probably render the shoe unfit to wear other than in practice or rehearsal sessions.

A typical pair of pointe shoes may last for 20 hours of dancing – or for as little as two hours. A professional ballerina can wear out up to 120 pointe shoes in a single dancing year. Some pointe shoes will only last a single performance when worn by a dancer in a physically demanding role.

How can we help?

Please email SATRA's footwear testing team ( for assistance with the assessment of all forms of footwear and materials.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 42 of the February 2017 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

Other articles from this issue »