Above: Pointe shoes (Keitei)

Did you know? Pointe shoes were first documented in England and France between 1815 and 1830.

The flexibility and grace of ballet dancers can be a beautiful sight. These traits develop over years of training and muscle strengthening. Ballet dancers can also accomplish a remarkable feat: dancing on their tiptoes. Strength and skill allow the dancers to rise to their toes. But pointe shoes play an important role in allowing dancers to remain in such an unnatural position while staying relatively comfortable and injury-free.

Basic anatomy of a pointe shoe. Click to enlarge (Lambtron)

Just as hockey players need skates and soccer players need cleats, footwear plays an important role in ballet. The pink satin shoes often seen on ballet dancers’ feet are called pointe shoes. The newest versions integrate innovative materials like elastomers into new designs to help prevent injury.

Dancing en pointe—with all the dancer’s weight supported by a fully-extended foot—was first introduced to ballet as a way of making the dance appear ethereal and light. To help them balance, dancers would reinforce the toes of their slippers with repetitive stitching and fill them with cotton. As ballet technique evolved, so did the shoes. Top-level performers required a more structured shoe. Dance companies began constructing shoes out of leather, burlap, paper, glue and nails.

Did you know? Elastomers are the base material for natural rubber and are used in many products including tires, clothing, seals, hoses, balloons, and adhesives.

All the components of the pointe shoe play a role in allowing the dancer to perform en pointe. The box is an enclosure that encases and supports the toes. The stiffness of the box varies depending on the model of the shoe. The front end of the box is flat and forms the platform on which the dancer stands. The vamp is the area covering the toes, while the quarter covers the heel and the sides of the foot. The sole allows for flexibility, while the shank is the stiff insole that forms the spine of the shoe and supports the arch of the foot. A drawstring runs through the binding and the ribbon secures the shoe to the foot.

Still, it’s the dancer’s foot that makes the point, not the shoe. Her (men seldom dance en pointe) strength and skill alone allow her to rise to her tiptoes. For it’s part, the shoe allows the dancer to perform turns and jumps while protecting the delicate bones of the foot.

Did you know? Centre of mass refers to the point at which an object’s mass is evenly distributed.

Dancing en pointe may look effortless, but it can cause pain and injury as a result of abnormal loading forces on the feet. Normally, a force of four times a dancer’s weight is placed on her feet while performing ballet. This force increases to twelve times her weight when dancing en pointe. When dancing en pointe, a dancer must maintain her centre of mass directly over the toe, which requires a precise alignment of the body. Various medical problems have been attributed to dancing en pointe, including structural changes, bone fractures, joint disease, and osteoarthritis. To reduce the occurrence of these problems, shoe manufacturers have recently improved upon the classic pointe shoe.

In 1993, the Gaynor Minden Company introduced pointe shoes made using elastomers, which are polymers that display both viscous (resistance to flow) and elastic (stringiness) properties when undergoing deformation. These shoes use urethane foam as a shock absorber to reduce trauma and their design helps achieve proper alignment of the feet, legs, and body. Other companies have since followed suit by using elastomers in their pointe shoes, rather than the traditional paste and cardboard method. For example, Capulet World began making their pointe shoes using the elastomer D3O, which is often integrated into sports and work clothing for impact protection.

Did you know? A polymer is a large molecule composed of subunits known as monomers, which are bonded together in repeating chains.

Elastomers’ ability to return to their original shape after deformation is a result of three molecular properties:

The subunits composing the elastomer can rotate freely Forces between the chains of the polymers are weak, like in a liquid The chains of the elastomer are cross-linked, meaning one chain is bonded to another, to a common point in the elastomer

Thanks to new materials, ballet dancers now have the option of using a pointe shoe that lasts longer and offers their feet some protection against the wear and tear of dancing en pointe.

References

Websites

All About Pointe (Gaynor Minden) A Brief History of Pointe Shoes and Ballet (Sarah Bezek, Suite101) The Modern Twist on an Ancient Shoe (Brett Zarda, Popsci) Pointe shoes deconstructed (Ballet News)

Journal articles

Meck C, et al. 2004. Pre-pointe evaluation components used by dance schools. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science. 8:37-42.
Payton C. 2004. An Elastomeric Pointe Shoe. Ballettanz. 7:75.
Teitz CC, Harrington RM, Wiley H. 1985. Pressures on the Foot in Pointe Shoes. Foot Ankle. 5(5):216-221.
Tuckman AS, Werner FW, Bayley JC. 1991. Analysis of the Forefoot on Pointe in the Ballet Dancer. Foot Ankle. 12(3):144-148.
Whiteside PL. 1986. Characteristics of Various Ballet Pointe Shoes. Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association. 76(10):570-571.

Amy MacDonald

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Alberta Centre for Toxicology located in the University of Calgary's Faculty of Medicine. My Ph.D. is in analytical chemistry and I am really enjoying applying that knowledge to the field of toxicology. In my free time I enjoy doing science outreach, running (training for a 10K right now), playing softball, and reading.


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