The Secret Lives of Pointe Shoes

The Secret Lives of Pointe shoes, or rather, the answers to many commonly asked questions and some unknown tips that keep me happily on my toes.

Pointe shoes are the main form of footwear for any classical female dancer. On average, during rehearsals I would go through one to two pairs of shoes per week. This number varies dramatically depending on the performance season we are in. For example, in an incredibly pointe shoe orientated ballet such as Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake I would commonly go through one or two pairs of shoes in just one show alone. In a more contemporary season however, I would sometimes only use 2 pairs of pointe shoes for the entire season. With a single pair of shoes costing between $60-$120 it’s easy to see that this becomes a pricey business. Luckily, the RNZB provide the dancers with shoes so this is not an expense that the dancers need to worry about.

Gone are the days when I shoved my little 9 year old feet into plastic cups stuffed with tissue and tried to imagine them as beautiful, shiny, satin pointe shoes. Back then, to own a pair would be like finding pure gold. Nowadays a little of that notion has changed but not greatly. There is still nothing quite like holding a fresh pair of shoes for the first time, the smell of the new fabric and the knowledge that your next class is going to feel fantastic!

Image by Tonia Looker

So how and why do a beautiful looking pair of shoes like the ones above end up looking like the ones pictured below?

Image by Tonia Looker

All feet come in different shapes and sizes. Therefore, even when two people may fit the same size shoe it will look and feel completely different. A pointe shoe needs to hug a dancers foot perfectly to allow them to utilize their technique to their best ability. For this reason each dancer has their own unique way of ‘breaking in’ their pointe shoes. It is dependent on where their foot naturally bends, how hard they like their shoes and where they may have sore spots such as bunions etc. My left foot is much noticeably longer than my right foot which means that I have a slightly different process preparing a shoe for my right foot than my left. You can see this difference in the picture below.

Image by Tonia Looker

So, what happens to these unmarked, shining beauties? I go through the process of shaping the shoes to my feet. Firstly I sew ribbons and elastics to my shoes. The elastics give me extra support and hold the shoe tightly to my heels so I can comfortably rise on and off my toes without the shoe slipping off. I sew ribbon, aligning it with my arch so that the shoe pulls tight at a natural bend point. I have been asked if the rumours are true. Do dancers use dental floss to sew their ribbons? In my case and that of many others in the company- yes! I learnt to use dental floss due to its strength and ease through the fabric of the shoe. I feel safe in the knowledge that my ribbons aren’t unravelling or falling off thanks to the floss strength. I must admit to being very obsessive with my ribbons. Never has a ribbon come unstuck or untucked and fingers crossed it never does.

After 45 minutes of sewing comes the fun part! Shaping my shoes. I tear 1/3 of the upper sole out of my shoe to allow it to bend comfortably with my arch. Sometimes, depending on the variants in shoe this may involve using pliers to remove a nail or two that holds the soles in place.

Stop! Hammer time. I have custom altered my pointe shoes to better fit my feet. Like the majority of females in the company I wear Bloch shoes in Heritage. Made an inch higher in the vamp (top front of the shoe) to properly support my arches. This causes a slight problem when it comes to bunions though. Yes, nasty bunions that get squished inside a shoe. That’s where my trusty hammer comes to the rescue. I bash the top of my shoe (as pictured below) until it’s nice and mushy and can mould around my foot with ease. This also stops any nasty bunion pain! I always have to be careful not to get too carried away and ruin the shoe by hitting too close to the top. It’s vital that stays solid to balance on my toes.

Lastly, I bend my shoes lightly, allowing me to rely on the strength of my feet to roll through every part of my foot from flat standing to pointe and back again. Voila! That is my pointe shoe method.

I would love to answer any questions that anyone may have! There is so much to cover on the topic that I could end up boring everyone with a mini novel. However, anything I haven’t covered, please ask!

25 comments

    1. Hi!
      I use strapping tape that you can get from most pharmacies. I only put a little tape around the toes that tend to blister such as my fourth and little toes. I recently had bursitis on my fourth toe resulting in severe blood poisoning and removal of much of the inflamed tissue. This resulted in me now using toe pads that you can get from ballet stores. I use the bloch pro pads. This means I now don’t need to use tape as I rely on the cushioning from that. I sometimes put a little tape on the back of my heel also as my skin can get irritated there.

    1. Hi Connie! Good question! It’s elasticated ribbon that is sold at most ballet stores. The elastic sits around the back of my ankles(at my Achilles) this means that when I bend my legs etc I have some give in the ribbon. Normal ribbon doesn’t have the required stretch and pulls so tight that I get terrible tendon problems in my feet. The elastic bends and moves with me. It’s a complete savior! Gillian Murphy taught me to use it and I’ve never gone back! Tonia 🙂

  1. Hi Tonia
    I have a tendency to accidentally go over the block of my pointe shoe,(I wear grishkos as they’re the only shoe that I can find that is comfortable and strong enough for my feet) my teacher recommended that I tape my foot where the vamp of the shoe sits. So I’ve been taping my feet and it works for exercises like rises, but when we get into pirouettes I always go over the block!!! Please can you give me some advice Tonia, I would really appreciate it.
    Ps I can’t wait to see team alpha in tutus on tour on Saturday!!! 🙂
    pps I absolutely love this blog you have created 🙂

    1. Hi Ruby! Thanks for the comment and I hope you enjoy the show on Saturday! Ah the eternal problem!! It can be frustrating can’t it! Your teacher is right. Tape can really help some dancers. Also you could try sewing elastic exactly where you are trying the tape! This was my exact problem and the reason I have my shoes custom altered. Basically the shoes vamp is too low for your arch. Also check if the shoe is not too narrow for your foot. This can also cause them to bend too far. You could try the cutting of the sole at the point shown in my pics also instead of bending them yourself. Hope this helps!!! Tonia 🙂

  2. Hi Tonia
    This isn’t to do with pointe shoes but more my own feet. I don’t have very strong feet as i don’t do pointe much in class but i have a problem where on pointe, my left foot is much weaker than my right. When i stand just on my left, i can’t put much pressure on it and it quickly hurts 😦 Any advice on how to strengthen that foot so it has a nicer arch and can handle more pressure? Also, i have a theroband so could you link me anything that helps to strengthen my feet in general? By the way you’re such an amazing dancer xx

    1. Hello:) ouch, not nice to hear you are in pain on that left foot! If it’s really sore a physiotherapist may be able to assess if there is a problematic injury there! As for strengthening, yes, theraband exercises are fantastic! I would also recommend calf rises to strengthen the ankle joint overall. This involves standing facing the barre in parallel, you then bend the left leg up to a parallel coup de pied so it’s off the ground and you are standing only on your right leg. Slowly rise to half pointe and down again. You can start with 16 of them and work your way up to doing 32 and repeat this process on the other leg! Working on toe strength with a theraband is the best way forward there!

  3. Oh and also, what would you recommend as cushioning because i just use ouch pouches but find they are so thin they barely do anything. What is something i can use?
    And also, i was just wondering what you use? Not that i would need something of your cushioning but i’m just curious 🙂

    1. I used to just use a little strapping tape on my toes as protection but since a nasty dose of bursitis in one toe that lead to much foot trouble I have become a toe pad convert. If toe pads aren’t for you, lambs wool can also be quite good. Just a little wrapped around the toes. Also you can buy things called gel toes from most pharmacies- these are quite temperamental in pointe shoes though and probably more of a last resort. I would say that toe pads work best for me- I use Bloch pro pads as the gel lining is only on the top half of the pad allowing my feet to sit flat on the floor:)

  4. Hi Tonia, I was wondering if you do anything or have any tricks to make your pointe shoes last longer? I go through about 3 pairs of shoes a fortnight and have tried wood hardner and super glue but I’m still trying to find a better way!

    1. Hi! Yes, glue is great! I unfortunately don’t have any secret tricks I harden my shoes. Once they are soft there’s not much that fixes them. I like to wear very soft shoes in class to strengthen my feet. I have found that over time this has helped. Also, checking that the vamp of your shoe is high enough for your foot can also be an absolute savior! Tonia 🙂

  5. It’s so interesting to read about what you do that is specific to your own feet. I’m a bit surprised it takes 45 minutes to do the sewing – you must do an exceptionally thorough job! In the photos it looks like you’ve cut the satin off the tips – I didn’t do very much pointe work in my student days, but my old pointe shoes have glued-on crochet ‘toe caps’ that my nana made for me. How do you stop the ends of the ribbons from coming untucked? I’m loving all the beautiful sunshiney shots you’re sharing on Instagram. 😊

    1. Hi Nadine! Thanks for your lovely comment:-) Yes, it takes me a long time to sew shoes as I sew not just ribbon but elastics on the heel also (cue sheepish grin) – and I get chatting usually;). I only really cut the satin off the toes when it begins to fray from wear to neaten it up a bit. As for keeping my ribbons tucked in I still believe in good old hairspray. I put resin on the underneath of my feet and heels before I put on my pointe shoes for a show and then I hairspray my ribbon knot and spray it again when I tuck it in. If I am not planning on changing my shoes I then lightly sew the knot in with a few stitches to be extra sure it won’t come out. I am a bit of a ribbon fanatic:-) hope you are well!! 🙂 Tonia x

  6. Hi, I only did pointe for a bit in my teens but now have a dancing daughter who is just ten. She’s dying to get on pointe but I think she should be in no hurry. In fact I have let her try my old ones on so she knows what they feel like and that it’s not as easy as it looks. I read that only doing pointe at the barre for ages/months is the best way to prepare younger dancers. Do you agree? Should I let her play around in mine while holding on to support (they are 2 sizes too big so not for anything serious), or tell her to wait for her teacher to tell us when/what to do? (I might get her doing those calf rises you described above too). thanks!

    1. Hi Corinna! Yes, the danger with starting pointe too early is that damage can be done to young feet when they have not finished developing yet. I started in pointe shoes around the age of 12-13 and I would recommend that your daughter waits a year or two until she is in that age bracket to begin:) wearing the wrong size shoes even for fun can also be quite dangerous for the feet. Her teacher will be able to recommend the best thing to do:-) yes starting at the barre very slowly is the best way to begin pointe training! Getting stability and strength in the toes and ankles needs to be a priority when starting pointe work. I hope this helps! Thanks for yor questions! Tonia 🙂

  7. Wow, that was fast! Thank you so much. I took her to Tutus on Tour in Wellington, to show her there’s more to ballet than tutus. And we went to the Young Friends meet-the-dancer, so we did speak to you. So exciting for her. Thank you for all the work you put in here (as well as into dancing) 😀

  8. Hi Tonia,
    I’m recovering from a stress fracture in my foot from ballet and want to know how to have really strong feet for when I get back into dancing? I’m doing exercises with the theroband from my physio currently but when I get back onto pointe how can I ensure I pick up from where I left off?

    Thanks heaps!

    1. The exercises with the theraband will be one of the best things for you! There is not really a quick fix to pick up where you left off. Be kind to yourself and know that it may take a little time to feel comfortable and strong on pointe again. When you are able to start pointe work start by taking it slowly at the barre. You will get back to where you left off in time and the theraband exercises will make you stronger for it! If you have Pilates equipment available to you I would also recommend ankle stability exercises on a wobble board and a reformer can do wonders! Keep up your core strength(abdominals) 🙂 this will help you stay strong on your toes! I wish you all the best with your recovery!! Rest up 🙂

  9. Also I get really bad cramp in the arch of my foot even when I do the simplest things such as pointe my feet. Do you know of anything I can do to stop that from happening?

    Thanks!

    1. Hmmm..that’s a tricky one. Not sure about that. Sometimes when I don’t drink enough water I get muscle cramps. Also when I am losing electrolytes when dancing and I don’t replace them with an electrolyte enhanced water based fluid. Aside from that I am not sure.

  10. Hi Tonia,
    Im just wondering if you know any super tricks that help with flexibility? I’d really like to improve my splits all three ways and also increase my back flexibility and even the arch in my foot!
    Thanks

    1. Hi Georgia! The best advice I can give is to stretch only after your body is warmed up- meaning after a ballet class or a run etc. hold a stretch for one minute on each side. This allows the muscles enough time to stretch without over stretching and tearing. So if you hold a stretch for one minute on each side everyday for two weeks you should already notice a change:) feet need stretching too:) but not by pointing them- instead try stretching your Demi pointe by standing with both legs parallel- riding onto Demi pointe and bending the knees and pushing over the toes. I hope that makes sense. When it comes to side splits I actually used to sit in side splits and read a book for a little while…I don’t know if this is advisable or the safest thing to do but there you go:)

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