Do ballet shoes have wood in them? Have you ever watched a ballerina dancing on the very tips of her toes as if the shoes are made of wood? It is pretty mindboggling to think that these women put their weight onto the tips of their toes. Regardless of how little they weigh, it’s an incredible feat. Still, their feet (and feat) have some help from their pointe shoes.
Ballet shoes do not have wood in them. It may look like the tips of pointe shoes are made of solid wood, but they consist of tightly packed layers of fabric and paper that have been glued together and shaped into a box for the toes. As the glue dries, the shoes become stiff enough to support the dancer.
Different ballet shoes are used for specific stages of a dancer’s training. All students begin in soft ballet slippers and continue in them until they are ready to start training for pointe. After that, they will use demi-pointe and pointe shoes.
Do Ballet Shoes Have Wood In Them?
It is a myth that ballet shoes have wood in the tips. Some people have even questioned whether they are ceramic. The pointe shoe tip has layers of fabric and paper packed tightly and glued together. This enclosure for the toes becomes very hard, but it is still more pliable than wood or ceramic.
The Role Of The Pointe Shoe
The reinforced point at the tip of ballet shoes enables the dancer to dance, hop, balance, and spin on her toes, seemingly effortlessly. Before the first homemade pointe shoe made its debut in the early 1900s, dancers could not perform the turns and steps en pointe as today’s ballerinas do.
Every dancer’s feet vary in arch flexibility, strength, shape, and toe length. The manufacturers must make several different models for the various fits. Despite the differing designs, a pointe shoe will always have three features that enable ballerinas to dance on the tips of their toes:
- A box that supports and fits around the toes in the front of the shoe.
- The shank is a tough piece of material that stiffens the shoe’s sole to support the arch when the dancer is en pointe.
- The vamp is the fabric covering the top of the foot and supporting it by keeping it tightly against the shank.
Ballet shoes usually fit both feet when new and will take on the shape of the owner’s feet as they use them more often. The shoe is reinforced, hardened, and flattened to allow the ballerina to transfer her weight onto her toes. It supports her arches and toes.
Because of the materials these shoes are made of, the amount of pressure the dancers put on them, and the need to give dancers proper support, these shoes need to be replaced quite often. Professional ballerinas sometimes use 2 pairs per performance and 120 pairs per year.
The Ballerina And Her Ballet Shoes
The invention of the pointe shoe took ballet to new heights. But these shoes are not simply a tool to perform a different type of ballet. Dancers only reach the stage of going en pointe after years of training in soft ballet slippers.
The dancer’s combination of technique and strength enables her to move from a normal standing position, through to demi-pointe, to full-pointe position. It takes years of strengthening the ankles, feet, and legs and mastering the proper techniques before a ballerina is ready to start pointe work.
To begin pointe training, a dancer has to meet several criteria before her teacher gives her the nod. In addition to her commitment, discipline, maturity, and attitude, the ballet dancer must have consistently excellent technique.
Although the ballerina cannot dance en pointe without her pointe shoes, the years of hard work and maintaining her body and techniques enable her to do this.
When dancers are new to pointe training, they will sometimes use demi-pointe shoes to get used to how pointe shoes feel and strengthen the feet and ankles. These shoes are also known as soft-block, pre-pointe, or break-down shoes.
Demi-pointe shoes look identical to pointe shoes on the outside, but some differences exist. The toe box is softer, and the sides of the box, or wings, are not as deep as a pointe shoe. These shoes also have no shanks, so they can’t give the necessary support for fully-fledged pointe work.
Accessories For Ballet Shoes
Even after the ballerina has broken in her new shoes, dancing en pointe can be a painful exercise. To mitigate possible pain and discomfort, ballerinas use the following aids:
- Toe pads, made from gel sheets covered in fabric enclose and cushion the toes against the box and help to prevent blisters.
- Gel toe spacers are placed between the big toe and the second toe to alleviate discomfort at the bunion joint.
- Lambswool is taped around the toes to prevent chafing.
- Tape is also wrapped around the toes to help with chafing and blistering.
- Gel blister pads prevent blisters from forming through friction.
The History Of Ballet Shoes
The first ballerinas to dance on their tiptoes did so with the help of Charles Didelot’s “flying machine.” It had wires that lifted the dancers onto their toes before they rose into the air. The audiences loved this, inspiring choreographers to find ways to incorporate this ethereal lightness into their works.
As ballet continued into the 19th century, the focus on better technical skills increased, and dancers wanted to go en pointe without being held by wires. Marie Taglioni was the first dancer to modify her soft ballet slippers so that she could dance La Sylphide en pointe. She darned the toe and sides of the shoes to hold their shape and padded the toes to avoid discomfort.
From the late 19th century, shoemakers began to add the box to pointe shoes. They also now had a sturdy, hardened sole to support the dancer’s arches, with the flattened tip of the shoes to keep the ballerina straight while she dances on her toes.
Wood is nowhere to be found in a ballet shoe. The only hard parts are the tips made of fabric, paper, and flour paste and the rigid shank that supports the dancer’s arches as she goes en pointe. Pointe shoes may count for 10% of the dancer’s success en pointe, while 90% comes from her dedication, strength, and technique. It’s perseverance that will keep a dancer on her toes.