Pointe Shoes: The Design that Keeps Ballerinas on their Toes

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word ballerina? The first thing that comes to mind for me, are girls dancing on their toes. Pointe shoes and ballerinas are synonymous with each other, you can’t think of one without the other. But have you ever wondered how pointe shoes are designed to allow a ballerina to put all of their weight on a platform, half the size of a matchbox, and dance?

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Pointe shoes are designed to look delicate, but in actuality are anything but. The box is the part of the pointe shoe that surrounds the toes, and is made up of layers upon layers of paper, glue and burlap. It needs to be stiff enough to keep a dancer’s foot from sinking when they are dancing on pointe, which could lead to painfully bruised toenails.

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The shank of a pointe shoe is mostly made up of cardboard, while the sole of the shoe varies between hard leather, rubber or suede. The shank, like the box, needs to be stiff enough for the arch to be supported. The softer material used in the sole allow dancers to have the mobility to work through their metatarsals, and pointe their feet.

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Hardened glue is what makes the shoes stiff and supportive, while sweat and moisture break the shoe down. There is no right or left designation when it comes to pointe shoes. A brand new pair of pointe shoes can be worn on either foot, however, after a dancer has worn them once the moisture from their feet softens the glue, and allows the shoe to mold to their feet.

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What makes the design of a pointe shoe so complex is the fact that the shoe needs to be stiff enough to support a dancer’s foot, but at the same time be malleable enough to allow a dancer to articulate, and work through, their feet. To accomplish this, all pointe shoes are handmade by different “makers” (a.k.a cobblers). No two pairs of pointe shoes turn out exactly the same, and can come in varying degrees of hardness, widths and vamp lengths.

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The design process of and the making of pointe shoes is very time consuming. In an 8 hour day, one cobbler can make about 9 pairs of pointe shoes. There is always a constant demand for new pointe shoe designs to accommodate a certain type of foot, or customizations to existing shoes to meet the needs of a specific dancer. At about $80 a pair, a professional ballerina can go through anywhere between 100 to 120 pairs of pointe shoes a year!

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