Strong but delicate assemblages of leather and satin, pointe shoes have fascinated purists and challenged dancers for centuries.
Before Ballet Slippers
When ballet first appeared at the start of the 17th century, men would dance wearing fabric shoes with heels and leather soles. When women first stepped onstage, in 1681, they sported similar footwear. Much later, Marie Anne de Camargo created a flap by creating simple slippers that increased the dancers’ freedom of movement tenfold and opened the door to greater aerial feats.
The ballet costume made a big leap forward during the French Revolution with the introduction of a satin shoe that was fitted with a short sole and a tip folded over onto the toes, allowing women dancers to stand fully on pointe and take graceful, elongated poses. With the Romantic era came the image of a woman as a slight and sensual being. Dancer Marie Taglioni embodied the new ideal admirably in La Sylphide in 1832, giving spectators the impression that she was weightless due to her remarkable pointe work.
40 Grams of Satin
This was the image with which ballet slippers were long associated. While the French focused on delicacy and refinement, padding slippers with cotton, horse hair or cardboard, Italians were concentrating on performance by creating slippers with more rigid forms of support.
The number of fouettés accomplished by dancer Pierina Legnani without her toe support leaving an area the size of a coin, during a performance of Swan Lake in the late 19th century. A number of Russian ballerinas attempted to match her record, leading to the creation of harder shoes with more rigid soles. For nearly 100 years, ballet shoes maintained the appearance given to them by Anna Pavlova: a firm arch support, a reinforced toe box and a wider tip to assist in balancing.
Classic or Modern?
Right from its birth, modern dance distinguished itself from classical dance. Many ballet purists liken modern dance to “ballet with bare feet,” while some supporters of modern dance describe the ballet slipper as an unnatural instrument of torture, pointing to the billions of foot blisters they have produced over the years as proof.
Wear and Tear
These days, technical fabrics allow for the production of nearly indestructible ballet slippers that are more flexible and more comfortable and stand up to use three times longer than their predecessors.