I have a teenaged daughter who lives and breathes ballet, and as she improves I am constantly amazed not only by her growing artistry but her tremendous athleticism and bodily control. However, I’m not the first and I won’t be the last parent who worries about her daughter’s health and safety. No matter the artistic sensibility, athletic talent, prodigious strength training, and vigilant oversight, ballet dancing is a risky endeavor.
Ballet is incredibly demanding both physically and mentally, and long hours spent en pointe, the technique of dancing on the tips of the toes that ballet is now known for, can be not only painful but injurious. While the inordinate amount of time serious dancers spend in the studio is not likely to change, it should be possible, given the advances in materials science and athletic footwear research and development, to improve the pointe shoes they perform and train in.
Ballet dancers rely on pointe shoes to execute a wide array of movements with astounding fluidity and grace, creating the illusion of being weightless and ethereal. While there have been modest improvements since the first pointe shoes were made almost 200 years ago, in essence the technology and materials used to make them have remained the same. Pointe shoes are usually handmade, so no two are exactly alike, even if made by the same cobbler. The box, which cups the toes and provides the platform upon which the dancer goes en pointe, is a buildup of layers of burlap, cardboard, and paper glued together. The inner sole, or shank, is traditionally made of leather. The rest of the shoe consists of canvas, satin, and a tanned leather or suede outsole.
Pointe shoes must be strong and supportive yet supple, and fit as snuggly as possible so they feel like an extension of a dancer’s feet. Those currently available possess these qualities to some extent, but are often lacking in comfort, breathability, and durability. One problem with pointe shoes is they provide little to no padding to protect dancers’ feet. When new, the shoes are quite rigid, and dancers develop rituals—including stepping hard on them, bending them back and forth, taking them apart to trim the insoles, whacking them against the floor or wall, even crushing them in doors—to ready them for practice or performance. Dancers (or their parents) must hand-sew ribbons and elastics to attain a supportive and comfortable fit.
With all this customization, dancers should have pointe shoes that perfectly meet their needs. If only this were true. Managing blisters, bunions, and ingrown toenails are a part of dancers’ daily regimen. An impressive array of products—including paper towels, lambswool, moleskin, foam tape, gel squares, toe pads, corn cushions, and toe spacers—are used to help minimize wear and tear to the feet. Sadly, pretty much any lower limb injury you can think of—sprained ankles, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, and stress fractures—not to mention a few specific just to ballet dancers (!)—can threaten not only their health and safety but career aspirations.
Despite the craftsmanship of cobblers and the great lengths dancers go to obtain a custom fit, the lifespan of pointe shoes—at upwards of $100 for a good pair—is astonishingly short. The materials they are made of break down quickly when subjected to a dancer’s sweaty feet in a hot and humid ballet studio. How long the shoes last vary according to a dancer’s skill level and the amount of pressure she is exerting on her shoes. While a novice dancer may be able to get 20 hours of wear from a pair, a professional averages a pair every day or two and may go through multiple pairs during a single performance.
In recent years, pointe shoe manufacturers have attempted to address the health and safety concerns as well as the usage requirements dancers have regarding their shoes. For example, Gaynor Minden, an early proponent of using non-traditional materials, lines its shoes with a urethane memory foam cushioner and incorporates a thermoplastic polymer—known for its flexibility, strength, and resilience—in the toe box and shanks.
For its Elektra shoe, Só Dança has re-engineered the box and shoe opening to facilitate going up en pointe, replaced the side seams and drawstring with an elastic casing, and lined the inside of the shoe with a thin layer of foam. Most importantly, the Só Dança Elektra comes with interchangeable shanks, so a dancer can adjust the support and flexibility of the shoes.
Bloch has created a shoe line called the Stretch Pointe, so named for the satin fabric used that stretches, minimizing gapping and bagginess in the heels when a dancer is en pointe. Most of Bloch’s Stretch Pointes have a split outsole, which provides greater mobility to the fabric and enables the shoe to better hug a dancer’s foot. Some also feature an articulated shank, providing more flexion to support a dancer through relevé, the transition from the balls of the feet, known as demi-pointe, to en pointe. Once a dancer is en pointe, the shank locks into place to provide full support and stability.
Manufacturers are not the only ones rethinking the pointe shoe. Product design student Hadar Neeman turned to 3D scanning and printing and synthetic materials to engineer a better fitting and more durable shoe. She envisioned dancers using a mobile phone app to scan their feet and convey preferences regarding desired pointe shoe stiffness and shape. With this information, custom-fit shoes would be computer-modeled. A lattice weave plastic that is lightweight, ventilating, and shock-absorbing would be used to print the outer sole and toe area. A soft, silicone-like polymer and an elastic microfiber fabric would be used for the inner sole.
Guercy Eugene created a small sensation with his concept pointe shoe. Another product design student, Eugene drew inspiration from the materials science and technology that Nike has developed for its athletic footwear to conceive of a pointe shoe for use during training. His prototype would integrate a basket weave fabric to provide support and flexibility. Memory foam in the braided fabric and toe box would offer a custom fit and reduce impact. Satin ribbons infused with silicon pods would support the ankle and increase blood circulation.
High school student Lina Colucci became an Intel Science Talent Search semi-finalist for her proposed design. After observing and interviewing ballet dancers, she set about creating a shoe to address issues of ergonomics, aesthetics, and convenience. The platform would be made of Tyvek. The toe box would be lined with memory foam. A combination box and shank made of polyurethane, tempered steel, titanium, and/or carbon fiber would improve support at the toes and on the sides, but needed flexibility elsewhere. Elastic material rather than satin around the heel would eliminate the need for ribbons to keep the shoe on and avoid problems such as Achilles tendonitis.
While these students’ proposed solutions have not been manufactured and tested, they speak to the creative problem-solving that is both possible and necessary to make a more user-friendly and durable pointe shoe. It is encouraging that manufacturers have begun to see beyond the traditions that permeate ballet. In valuing their own health and wellbeing, dancers as well as ballet schools and companies need to advocate for improvements in pointe shoes, an innovation that is long overdue.