I’m so pleased to introduce this month’s guest contributor, Dr. 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.
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.
4dancers wanted to share this interview with Katelyn Lohr, well…because we like her product. And, because we think it’s pretty cool that she founded a business based on an idea she had.
Read more about her story in this interview…
What Inspired Freetoes?
When I was eight, I wanted to wear my flip flops outside when it was cold out. My mom said I had to wear socks and shoes. So, I came to her with scissors and socks. It was my way of following the rules but still getting what I wanted!
How can Freetoes be helpful to dancers?
Dancers have been pulling their leg warmers down around their heels forever. Freetoes are great with leg warmers because they keep the leg warmers from sliding too far down, and they offer a little extra support. I also think they would be great for costumes during performances.
Freetoes give dancers the slip they need to move freely across the floor, but, because the toes are free, they also have that grip that is so important. Freetoes keep feet warm, keep heels from drying out on the wood floors, and can help make tights last a little longer.
How can Freetoes be a fun part of your wardrobe in general?
Freetoes are so much fun! They come in so many funky colours and designs. They work with such a variety of footwear too. Everything from flip flops, riding boots, crocs, peekaboo toe boots, sandals, and Vibram barefoot sports shoes. They are fun and extremely practical.
How many different patterns/colors of Freetoes do you offer?
We currently have 12 different colours and patterns in stock…we call them flavors! Variety is the spice of Freetoes. Something we learned early on in developing this product was that people wanted to buy more than one pair because we had such a wide variety of colours and designs. We like to carry some staple colors like Solid Black and Pink, but we get wild with patterns like Electric Zebra and Teal Blue Leopard!
Do you have a favorite pattern/color?
It’s really hard to pick a fav because we are always getting new ones in. Right now, I would say Black and White Stripes, but I do wear the Solid Black and Pink ones most often.
The third edition of The Pointe Book, published in 2012 (previous editions were released in 1998 and 2004), covers aspects of pointe shoes and pointe dancing past, present, and future. This edition has been extensively revised and includes one entirely new chapter of sample pointe classes.
Barringer and Schlesinger have compiled a quantity of hard data related to pointe work and pointe shoes. Included are lists of manufacturers of pointe shoes and accessories, shoe size charts, and diagrams of the foot and pointe shoe with accompanying anatomical and functional information. The authors also offer thoughtful discussion on such subjective matters as pointe readiness, training methods, and the relevance of pointe dancing today and in the future. Considerable space is also given to the issue of pointe-related injuries, their causes, and different treatments and therapies.
There is a wealth of valuable insight in these pages. The authors have consulted teachers, professional dancers, and medical professionals with extremely diverse backgrounds, and do a thorough job of presenting the many (sometimes conflicting) viewpoints of their interview subjects. Barringer and Schlesinger do justice to pointe dancing as both art and craft.
The value of The Pointe Book for today’s teachers and students is perhaps best summarized by a passage from the authors’ interview with Kirk Peterson, from the final chapter of the book, “Will Pointe Work Be Relevant in the Twenty-first Century?” Peterson states:
“A healthy respect for ballet’s time-honored traditions, an educated understanding of twentieth-century concerns for artistic relevance, and a respect for the public’s very real love affair with ballet as a theatrical art form, will point a contemporary ballet choreographer in the direction that will guide him or her in a way that embraces ballet’s traditions, yet stretches its potential and still uses pointe work as a valid tool for creativity and artistic expression.”
In The Pointe Book: Shoes Training, Technique, Janice Barringer and Sarah Schlesinger write with evident respect for the traditions and history of classical dance, and carefully provide the most current information on the state of our art and craft. This compendium also raises provocative questions regarding training methods, injury, and general attitudes of teachers, artists, and audience toward pointe dancing. The authors have given a useful resource to teachers, dancers, and parents for the development of the kind of artists Peterson describes above.
Disclosure: Janice Barringer is a contributing writer at 4dancers.org0
by Emily Kate Long
Currently I’m in rehearsals for Cinderella, so the next few installments of Finding Balance will explore a range of topics relevant to that story. For this post, I’ll begin at the bottom with pointe shoes. They are a dancer’s glass slippers, and this is my own personal fairy tale: the search for my most appropriate shoe.
I’ve worn pointe shoes for twelve of my fifteen dancing years. In middle and high school I tried what seemed like almost every shoe out there, then performed surgeries major and minor on the shoes I chose to try to engineer the perfect pair. Darning of toes, slicing of vamps and shanks, re-threading of drawstrings, stitching of sides—so much fuss over footwear! It shouldn’t be that complicated, right?
Towards the end of January I found myself at my first pointe shoe fitting in nearly ten years. After flip-flopping between Freed and Chacott for all that time, I decided to try once again to explore some other options. I had one rule: I wanted to be able to put them on and dance. No fuss, no alterations. After trying on half a dozen or so different styles and brands, I decided to go right back to Chacott Veronese, the very first type of shoe I wore when I started pointe at age 12.
I was nervous! All those things I had been doing to my shoes to “enhance” them had become like security blankets or crutches. I felt like my feet were naked! The reality check was recognizing how much about my pointe work has changed over the past few years and trusting that I no longer need those crutches.
I spent much of my pre-professional training trying to compensate for what I believed were inadequate ballet feet. I wore “farches” (arch pads, like a padded bra for your feet). I stuck my feet under a dresser for twenty minutes each morning (a terrible idea, in case you were wondering). I wore my shoes really soft so I could push far over them and superficially achieve a more curved foot. Yikes!
Placing undue stress on the distal joints of the foot.
The result was that I never knew where my foot was going to be until it rammed into the floor. Slips and falls over the medial corners of my shoes were daily events. Bunions, bruised toenails, chronic ankle pain… I cringe to think of the gambles I took with the health of my feet, knees, and ankles. I believe that ballet is not inherently harmful to the human body. Distortions (even minor ones) cause injuries, and good equipment and good technique prevent them. I was due for an overhaul!
Re-learning pointe technique in my early twenties was confusing and frustrating at first, but patience and persistence have paid off. The changes have made it possible for my feet to be in control of and in harmony with my shoes instead of at their mercy! I learned how keep my toes vertical and allow the arch and instep to do the bending.
Examples of vertical toes with articulated arch
The ankle is designed to do this job because it is a weight-bearing joint. The metatarsals, phalanges, and the dorsal metatarsal and medial collateral ligaments are not. (Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy, 4th ed., plates 527-8)
Working on pointe in a more anatomically correct way has also had a positive effect on the overall muscular shape of my legs and the structure of my feet. Where I used to feel it necessary to fake a good arch, I now feel confident that the shape and articulation of my feet complement my overall line.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter: the importance of finding a shoe that a) fits and functions well and b) aesthetically matches one’s foot/body/leg line. Our style is partly dictated by our function, our function is partly dictated by our structure, and our shoes should complement both of those things.
To illustrate, here’s a bit about some of the shoes I’ve tried:
Chacott Veronese: My very first style of shoe. I loved them always and let myself be talked out of them time and time again. It feels good to be home! I can sew them and go, and their minimal shape complements my slight feet. They are made with a bouncy kind of glue instead of paste, and need some extra glue before wear because of the softness of the box relative to the shank.
Freed Classic and Classic Pro: I chose these partly for aesthetic, partly for the Pro’s 3/4 shank. I loved the minimal-ness of Classic and the U shape vamp but the paste consistently gave out after less than thirty minutes of rehearsal! Eating through pair after pair of shoes was not a good use of my time or my company’s money. They were loud because of the amount of extra glue it took to make them worth it, which was awfully distracting. My preferred makers were also not always available. Pro lasted much longer, but felt like too much stuff on my foot.
Ushi Nagar: These were professional hand me downs. I liked that they had the same bounciness as Chacott, and it felt glamorous to wear somebody else’s special order shoes. They were a shoe of convenience, suitable but not ideal.
For me, this Cinderella story is also has a moral: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! I was born with feet that go with my body—not the “ideal” ballet foot by any stretch, but aesthetically adequate and sufficiently functional. Optimizing their work has refined their appearance. I’ve learned to love and appreciate them for what they are and what they do for me. As good workers, they deserve equipment that helps them out and shows them off!
Assistant Editor Emily Kate Long began her dance education in South Bend, Indiana, with Kimmary Williams and Jacob Rice, and graduated in 2007 from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School’s Schenley Program. She has spent summers studying at Ballet Chicago, Pittsburgh Youth Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, Miami City Ballet, and Saratoga Summer Dance Intensive/Vail Valley Dance Intensive, where she served as Program Assistant. Ms Long attended Milwaukee Ballet School’s Summer Intensive on scholarship before being invited to join Milwaukee Ballet II in 2007.
Ms Long has been a member of Ballet Quad Cities since 2009. She has danced featured roles in Deanna Carter’s Ash to Glass and Dracula, participated in the company’s 2010 tour to New York City, and most recently performed principal roles in Courtney Lyon’s Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Cinderella. She is also on the faculty of Ballet Quad Cities School of Dance, where she teaches ballet, pointe, and repertoire classes.4
In honor of the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day holiday (and because one of our themes this quarter is dance shoes) today we’re taking a closer look at shoes for Irish dance. We asked the well-known Chicago-area Irish dance instructor, Sheila Tully Driscoll to share some information about these shoes with us – and she was kind enough to oblige…
What are the main types of shoes are used in Irish step dance?
Irish dancers wear two types of soft shoes called Ghillies & Reel Shoes. Ghillies fit more like ballet slippers and are made of black leather, with a leather sole and a very flexible body. They lace from toe to ankle and do not make sounds against the dance surface. They are worn by female dancers for the light jig, the reel, the single jig, the slip jig, and group dances with two or more people.
The second kind of soft shoe is worn by male dancers – these are called “reel shoes” and are similar to jazz shoes in black leather, with fiberglass heels that can be clicked together while dancing. Some male dancers do not wear fiberglass heels. The men’s steps may be choreographed in a different style to girls’ in order to take advantage of the heels and to avoid feminine movements in steps.
Irish dancers also wear a pair of hard shoes, which are much bulkier and typically have fiberglass tips for a louder sound. dancers often refer to them as “Heavies” or Jig shoes. Both are traditionally made of black leather.
Do the shoes require breaking in, and if so, how is that typically done?
Hard shoes need breaking in by wearing them in as much as possible! Doesn’t matter if you’re walking, running, dancing, skipping – the shoes need to be worn in. Repeatedly bending the shoe also helps soften the leather. Some of the dancers use leather softener like Hot Glove cream.
Additionally, make sure the shoes fit CORRECTLY. Nothing is worse than an ill-fitting shoe! The shoes should have a snug fit at the start, allowing for possible stretching of the leather.
On average, how much do the shoes cost?
Soft shoes are around $90 and hard shoes around $180.
Can you share any interesting information about Irish step dance shoes in terms of their history?
The first hard shoes had wooden taps with metal nails. It was common practice in the 17th and 18th century to hammer nails into the soles of a shoe in order to increase the life of the shoe. Dancers used the sounds created by the nails to create the rhythms that characterize hard shoe dancing.
How important are the shoes to overall performance?
Since Irish dance is focused on rhythm and foot placement, it’s ALL about the shoes.
How young can an Irish Dancer start?
We start dancers around 5 years old although we have had a few younger dancers if they are ready.
What is some advice you would give to new dancers?
Anything new is hard. A lot of practice trains your mind, body and feet to move correctly and helps you practice timing as you learn to step to the beats. Also, you may be sore once you start dancing. Buy Sportscreme (or Flexall, or Icyhot, etc.) – its proven to be a lifesaver for many dancers! A little dab of Sportscreme after you dance takes all the pain away.
About Sheila Tully: As Founder and President of the Tully Academy of Irish Dance, Sheila Tully Driscoll has been teaching Irish Dance lessons for over 45 years. A champion Irish dancer herself, she began teaching Irish Dance in her mother’s basement while she was in college. Sheila received her T.C.R.G. designation (official Irish Dancing Teacher certification) in 1972 and her A.D.C.R.G. designation (official Irish Dancing Adjudication certification) in 1976. Today, she is the longest tenured Irish dancing teacher in the Chicago area and is highly regarded nationally and worldwide. She is a member of An Coimisian Le Rinci Gaelacha, the international governing body of Irish Dancing and adjudication as well as a member of the Irish Dance Teachers Association of North America and the Irish Dance Teachers Association of Mid-America. Taught by Pat Roche, one of the pioneers of Irish Dancing in Chicago, Sheila continues her hands on teaching in the classroom as well as participating as a judge at Irish dancing events.
Sheila’s Irish Dancing Academy, which opened its beautiful new studio in Glenview in 2003, is highly regarded in the Irish Dance community as her programs have produced many champion dancers and winning teams. Tully Dancers have successfully competed in many regional and national competitions as well as the World Irish Dance competition in Ireland. Her dancers have also performed all over North America entertaining a wide variety of audiences.
Visit our Website: www.tullyirishdancers.com1
Interesting! I had never before heard of vegan ballet slippers, but I’ve tried them myself and they are terrific! Better still, they are cruelty-free–not made with any animal products! We caught up with Cynthia King who sells these unique shoes and asked a few questions about how all this got started…
1. How did Cynthia King Vegan Ballet Slippers begin?
Knowing animals suffered for ballet shoes takes away from the uplifting and unifying spirit of dance. As a teacher, dancers were asking me for shoe recommendations and there were none I could recommend in good conscience (since they all contained animal products). So I decided to create my own.
2. What exactly does it mean to have vegan slippers?
Cynthia King Vegan Ballet Slippers are vegan because, unlike other ballet slippers, they are not made using leather. When dancers wear them, they are not dancing on the skins of dead animals.
3. Was it difficult to get this endeavor up and running?
To start the ballet slipper line, I did a great deal of research in the areas of textiles and manufacturing; I went door-to-door where synthetic textiles were being sold and talked to everyone I could. After a lengthy development process, the first shoes were ready in 2003. Today they come in three colors, sized for children and adults.
4. How have the slippers been received in the dance community?
The reception has been fantastic across the board because so many dancers love animals. The slippers were selected as the required shoe by world-renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for two of the organization’s innovative camps, in 2011 and 2012. We receive orders from dancers and dance studios around the world. The shoes have been embraced by non-vegans and vegans alike. Dancers love our shoes!
5. What has been the high point in all of this for you thus far?
The high point is each time we sell a pair of slippers, knowing another dancer is taking a kind step for the animals.
If you are interested in ordering a pair of these shoes, visit their site today.
Disclosure: 4dancers has been compensated for the ad and post on 4dancers.0