by Ashley Ellis
You may have heard of dancers referring to their body as their instrument. It is so true, and we must constantly take care of our instrument so that we are able to ‘play our music’ to the best of our ability.
With this said, for a ballerina there is a whole other very important factor that comes into play. Pointe Shoes. Keeping with the same analogy, I’d say that pointe shoes are like the bow to our violin. They go together to create the ‘music’ of a ballet dancer. How she feels in her shoes can greatly affect her dancing experience.
There are a number of pointe shoe brands out there, and a dancer will usually try many different makes and models before settling on one. My very first pair of pointe shoes were Contempora by Capezio (they were pink and very small, hehe). After that I spent a few years in pointe shoes made by Sansha before settling on FREED Studios Professional, which is what I wear to this day.
I will admit though, that I am currently testing out the waters with a new pointe shoe, FREED Classic. They aren’t far from what I am using now but as any ballerina can tell you, once you find your shoe it can be a real challenge to switch brands. The reason for this is that after spending so much time in your chosen pointe shoes they become a part of your foot so to speak; you learn how to articulate and “use” your feet in these shoes.
The biggest difference between what I have been wearing, the ‘studios’, and the new (to me) ‘classics’ is that the studios are what we call a stock shoe and the classics are handmade. The truth is that I could go on and on about the differences between the two, but well, for your sake I won’t bore you with ALL of the details!
Because the FREED classics are handmade they can be custom ordered for the personal needs of individual dancers. This means that they will not only fit better by shaping them around a dancer’s foot, but can also accentuate strengths and give more support or pliability where it’s needed. In fact, the alterations that can be made to these shoes are seemingly endless–it’s really quite remarkable.
Despite all of the wonderful aspects of having a shoe made just for you, it takes time to get it just right, and when it comes down to it you must feel at home in them. As for me, I am still at home in my stock shoes.
It seems that the general thought that comes to mind when thinking of pointe shoes is, “ouch!”. I don’t know how many people have asked me if the box is made of wood (no, not wood, just many layers of fabric and glue). It’s funny because once you reach a certain point in your professional career you wear them so many hours throughout each day that it really isn’t all that painful. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t walking on clouds, but your feet become strong, and do toughen up over time.
That said, most dancers will still create some sort of little barrier between the toes and the actual box of the shoe for protection, some of which include: various kinds of sports tape, masking tape, duct tape, toe pads made of foam, wool, rubber—even gel-filled ones. I wear a simple toe pad made from a thin layer of lamb’s wool. I actually didn’t wear anything in my shoes until about two years ago. My teacher didn’t let us when I started out on pointe so that we would really have to feel the floor and articulate our feet better.
One of the most important things to know is learning how to break-in your pointe shoes. They are not the kind of shoes that you can just slide on your foot and wear. If you do—well—they will feel like wood and cause much more pain than they should. This ritual is yet another aspect of wearing pointe shoes that is individual to each dancer.
How I prepare my shoes:
- Cut the shank.
- Add glue to the middle of the shank where I need the most support.
- Sew the insole back down so it doesn’t roll up under my arch.
- Step on the box, then work it a bit to soften the upper box area.
- Wear them a bit to break them a little more and form them more to my feet.
- Bang them really hard on cement so they are quiet as well as easier to move in.
- Glue the inside upper portion of the box.
- Sew on elastic and ribbons.
Even though there are those days when I get to that 6th hour of rehearsal and my feet are simply swollen and ready to be soaked in a big bucket of ICE, I do truly love dancing on pointe; with the movement qualities that it allows, and illusions that it can create.
Boston Ballet presents Lady of the Camellias, running from February 26th through March 8th. Tickets are available here. See Ashley perform the lead role of Marguerite at the Saturday matinee.
Contributing writer Ashley Ellis is a principal dancer at Boston Ballet. Ellis hails from Torrance, California and she received her dance training at the South Bay Ballet under the direction of Diane Lauridsen. Other instruction included Alicia Head, Mario Nugara, Charles Maple, and Kimberly Olmos.
She began her professional career with American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company and later joined American Ballet Theatre as a company dancer. In 1999, Ellis won the first prize at the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Award, and went on to become the recipient of the Coca Cola scholarship award in 2000 and 2001. She has performed in Spain with Angel Corella’s touring group and joined Corella Ballet in 2008 as a soloist. In 2011, Ellis joined Boston Ballet as a second soloist. She was promoted to soloist in 2012 and principal dancer in 2013.
Her repertoire includes Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty; Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker; Natalia Makarova’s La Bayadère; Marius Petipa’s Swan Lake; Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse, VIII and Polyphonia; Harald Lander’s Études; Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides; Rudolf Nureyev’s Don Quixote; Christopher Bruce’s Rooster; George Balanchine’s Serenade, Coppélia, Symphony in Three Movements, Symphony in C, and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux; Clark Tippet’s Bruch Violin Concerto; Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room; Stanton Welch’s Clear; Angel Corella’s String Sextet; Wayne McGregor’s Chroma; Jorma Elo’s Awake Only; Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free; Jiří Kylián’s Wings of Wax, Symphony of Psalms, and Petite Mort.
Alabama Ballet company member Nadine Barton on pointe shoes and foot care.
1. What brand and model of pointe shoe do you wear?
2. How long have you worn this model?
For about five years.
3. Why does this model work best for your feet?
I like the way the model shapes to my feet as well as provides support in the right ways. I never liked having space from the floor when I am up on pointe, and, with these, I can always feel the floor.
4. Does anything about the structure of your feet create challenges for pointe work?
by Cara Marie Gary
I began taking pointe classes when I was eight years old. I still have my first pair of Leo’s pointe shoes. They’re so small and narrow I don’t think I could fit my first toe and bunion inside them now! One of my ballet instructors, Anita Pacylowski-Justo, helped me transition to the shoe she wore as a dancer. Every since trying on her Bloch Serenade, my foot “fell in love” with this shoe.
I’ve tried to experiment with other brands like Chacott, Russian Pointe, Gaynor Minden, Sansha, Freed, and Capezio, but I always keep coming back to Bloch Serenade (Style: SO131L Width:D Size:2). I like this shoe because it has a wide, square platform which is good for my peasant foot (meaning that my toes are similar in length). I also like that the shank is strong enough to prevent my foot from going too far over pointe.5
He looks over at me with that twinkle in his eyes, and I see the mischievous 7-year-old boy gleam through my husband’s 32-year-old self.
“Come on babe… just do it. Just show them your feet… please?” and turning toward his friends – okay more like acquaintances… practical strangers to me – he proudly says, “You guys have gotta see these things…”
I shoot a half glance-half glare back at him and he knows exactly my train of thought. But how can I be mad at him when he’s looking at me like that? When he’s so proud of them for me? How can I really be that embarrassed by my “worker tools,” as he puts it? After all, that is what they are, callouses and all… And it could be worse… He could ask me to put my leg over my head, or have them guess my weight.
I meekly slip off my loafers and hesitantly raise my gaze to meet their slightly horrified faces.
“Um…. Wow. Aghh… Yeah. So do they hurt? Because they look like they hurt.”
That’s the typical reaction I get whenever pedestrians (non-dancers, that is) see my very ugly ballerina feet – and they are very ugly. Our physical therapist, Boyd Bender, actually keeps a photo of them on his iPhone to show any of his clients who might feel self-conscious about their own toes…
And ever since Center Stage and that scene where Jody Sawyer takes off her pointe shoes to show a very bloody blister (you know the one…), it has been a point of fascination – pun slightly intended.
The funny thing, I find, is what we consider “pretty feet” in the dance world has nothing to do with how pristine they look in flip-flops… That’s relatively easy to accomplish: buff down those callouses and shellac a bit of red nail polish and voila! You’re good to go… ish.
There’s only so much you can do for those bunions…
The hard part is getting those feet to look pretty in pointe shoes… harder still to get the pointe shoe to cooperate with you. To conjure the effect of weightless, effortless floating; balancing or turning on a dime – these are hallmarks of ballet and yet not easy feats by any means. I can’t always blame every problem I have on the shoes, but sometimes they really do have a mind of their own!
Well after 19 years of wearing these mini instruments of torture I’ve learned a few tricks to making them work for me, instead of the other way around…9
I’m so pleased to introduce this month’s guest contributor, Selina Shah, MD, a dance and sports medicine physician based in San Francisco, where she is Director of Dance Medicine at the Center for Sports Medicine. A dancer herself, Dr. Shah is the company physician for the San Francisco Ballet School, Liss Fain Dance Company, and Diablo Ballet, among others. Her article discusses the different factors that determine when a student dancer should begin pointe work.
We are grateful to her for sharing her expertise on this topic —pass it on!
- Jan Dunn MS, Editor, Dance Wellness
by Selina Shah, MD, FACP
If you are anything like me, you are captivated by ballet. You love its grace and its gravity-defying, gentle power. You dream of performing as a prima ballerina. In the years of work it will require to get there, perhaps the single most important milestone you will face is when to go en pointe.
Dancing en pointe is an advanced stage of ballet that requires unique skills. The challenge is to place almost all of your weight on the extreme tips of your toes, yet appear as light as a feather. In fact, no matter how long all of your toes are, research has shown that most of your body weight is carried on the tip of your big toe. It may sound very hard, but in truth, it’s even harder!
How Will I Know When I Can Get Pointe Shoes?
Most likely, your teacher will decide when you are ready to go en pointe. Many factors are involved in this decision. One common myth is that there is a mandatory age requirement of 11 or 12. In actuality, having adequate training rather than age is what matters. Usually, this means at least several years of consistent, high-quality training. Often girls are around age 11 or 12 before this happens, but some girls may be ready sooner, some later, and some not at all. Keep in mind the quality of work is more important than quantity.
You need enough flexibility in your foot to rise fully to pointe. One way to test this is to point your foot while sitting down with your legs extended in front of you. Next, place a pencil on top of the ankle and it should be able to lay flat from the tibia to the foot across the ankle joint.
You need physical and technical skills, such as strength, balance, alignment and control. For example, you should be able to hold passé on each leg with arms in high fifth for at least a few seconds. You should also be able to perform a clean pirouette with a smooth landing.
You also need to be able to continuously accept and apply teacher feedback.
Last but not least, you must consistently maintain your discipline and focus to keep your skills sharp and reduce the likelihood of injury.
Barre is where you form the crucial foundational skills on which pointe, and all other ballet movements are built. Listen to your teachers when they give you corrections and apply them until they become second nature. For instance, “working the floor with your feet” in tendus helps build your foot strength, which is essential for pointe. Working diligently on your turnout (and not cheating!) results in proper alignment. Use your core strength (ask your teacher how to do this correctly) to help you with balance and control. Apply these skills in the center and across the floor.
Various Foot Types
Knowing your foot type is important when you look for pointe shoes. Most people fall into one of three categories.
- The “Giselle” or peasant foot shape is one where the first three toes are of equal length, making this ideal for pointe because the big toe gets assistance from the other two toes in carrying the weight.
- The “Morton’s” or “Grecian” foot, in which the second toe is the longest, is more prone to developing callouses, pain, and stiffness in the big toe. Most of the body weight is still carried by the big toe in the Morton’s foot.
- A narrow “Egyptian” foot, in which the toes taper in length from the big toe which is the longest, usually requires a cap on the second toe so that it can assist the big toe with weight bearing.
Finding The Right Pointe Shoe
Pointe shoe fitting is complicated because of the variability in shape, size, strength, and flexibility of each dancer’s feet. Most dance stores will have specialized pointe shoe fitters on staff. Your first visit to the store will take some time as you try on a number of shoes until you find the one that feels good and fits properly. As you gain experience in pointe, you will likely change shoes.
With hard work and dedication, one day you may be fortunate enough to hear the words “You are ready for pointe!”
Selina Shah, MD, FACP is a board certified sports medicine and internal medicine physician and the Director of Dance Medicine at the Center for Sports Medicine in San Francisco, CA and Walnut Creek, CA. She has lectured nationally and internationally on various dance medicine topics and has published papers in medical journals and books including her original research on dance injuries in contemporary professional dancers. She is the dance company physician for the San Francisco Ballet School, Liss Fain Dance Company and Diablo Ballet. She is a physician for Berkeley Repertory Theater, Mill’s College, St. Mary’s College, and Northgate High School. She takes care of the performers for Cirque du Soleil and various Broadway productions when they come to the San Francisco Bay Area. She has taken care of several Broadway performers (i.e. American Idiot, South Pacific, Lion King, Book of Mormon, MoTown, and Billy Elliot). She is a team physician for USA Synchronized Swimming, USA Weightlifting, USA Figure Skating and travels with the athletes internationally and nationally. She is also a member of the USA Gymnastics Referral Network. As a former professional Bollywood and salsa dancer, Dr. Shah is passionate about caring for dancers. She continues taking ballet classes weekly and also enjoys running, yoga, Pilates, weightlifting, and plyometric exercise.3
Shashi socks are designed for pilates, yoga, and barre-style workouts. They sit low on the ankle and feature slip-resistant grippers on the bottom and mesh panels on top. Mine also had a sprinkling of sparkle sequins on the mesh – the STAR style.
I loved the streamlined feel of Shashi socks and enjoyed just wearing them around the house. But, more importantly, Shashi socks achieve their objective of keeping your feet cool while you do pilates, yoga, or barre-style exercises (not traditional ballet barre exercises of course, as the grippers would interfere.)
Shashi socks require a little care when washing. The Shashi website says, “Machine wash warm inside out. Gentle cycle. Line dry.” My pair are purple (sugar plum) so I decided to wash them on a cold, delicate cycle. I noticed that a couple of sparkles came off in the process, but, other than that, they held up well. I dried them overnight (about 6 hours) and they were ready to go for a morning workout.
Overall, I really like this product. It fills the need for exercise footwear that falls in between sock and dance slipper.0
Hau’oli Makahiki Hou! — That’s Happy New Year in Hawaiian! I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday — and
“Nutcracker” season — and are ready to start the New Year. This month’s post is a brief one to help you with your stretching. New research (on dancers) shows that the intensity of your stretching doesn’t have to be extreme in order to increase your flexibility.
The post is written by Matthew Wyon, PhD, who has written for our Dance Wellness column before — Matt is currently serving as the Vice President of IADMS (International Association for Dance Medicine and Science), and is also a professor / researcher at the University of Wolverhampton (UK), as well as being affiliated with England’s National Institute for Dance Medicine and Science.
So — enjoy the post, and have a good start to your New Year of dancing longer, stronger, and safer!
- Jan Dunn, MS, Dance Wellness Editor
by Matt Wyon, PhD
Dancers are renowned for their flexibility or range of movement, and devote a lot of time maintaining and enhancing this attribute. There has been much written on the different stretch techniques such as static, dynamic and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) and when they should be implemented — for example, dynamic stretching during warm-up and static during recovery. However, the intensity at which the stretch should be held has had little research until recently. We often feel that unless the stretch is just below the pain barrier, the point where the muscle starts to wobble, nothing will change; this often equates to “8 out of 10” intensity.
A series of recent studies has started to challenge this concept. The first showed that at 8/10 intensity there was a huge increase in inflammation blood markers, suggesting that the muscle being stretched was actually being traumatized — but at lower intensities (3-6/10) this effect wasn’t noticed.
But will this lower intensity help increase flexibility?
A six week experiment on dancers who were split into one group that stretched at their usual intensity (8/10), and another at the lower intensity (3-5/10), noted that the dancers in the lower intensity group increased their grande battement and developpé height. The second group (8/10 intensity) saw a very slight but not significant increase (5-degree) compared to 20-degree for the low-intensity group.
So it seems less is more when it comes to stretching intensity!
It must be emphasized that this intensity should be used at the end of the day as a recovery and improving range of movement technique, rather than during warm-up.
At Wolverhampton he is the course leader for the MSc in Dance Science and Director of Studies for a number of dance science and medicine doctoral candidates. He is a founding partner of the National Institute of Dance Medicine and Science, UK.
Prof. Wyon is Vice President of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science and a past chair of the Research Committee. He has worked with numerous dancers and companies within the UK and Europe as an applied physiologist and strength and conditioning coach.
He has published over 80 peer-reviewed articles in dance medicine and science.0