Pointe Shoe History

May 20, 2008
By Madeleine Harris, Marietta, GA

Pointe Shoes

Pointe shoes, also called toe shoes, have been around for centuries. Mainly female dancers wear them. Males can, too, but usually only for special roles, like the two stepsisters in “Cinderella.”

In 1681, female dancers first appeared on the stage of the Royal Academy of Dance, which had been founded by King Louis XIV in 1661. The standard womens’ ballet shoe was heeled, and so it wasn’t all that great for complicated dancing. Marie Camargo was the first dancer to dance on a heelless shoe, and this allowed her to do more complex dance moves. After the French Revolution, no-heeled ballet shoes became the standard.

Pointe shoes became suddenly popular around 1794 with the help of Charles Didelot and his “flying machine.” This machine lifted the dancers off the ground, allowing them to stand on pointe for a second before the leaving the stage completely. This created the illusion of lightness, and the audience liked this effect. Choreographers began to look for ways to add pointework into their pieces.

Pointe shoes became more and more popular. Skill and technique went to higher levels, and dancers began to seek ways to dance on pointe without the help of wires.

By 1832, Marie Taglioni was the first dancer to dance on pointe without the “flying machine.” From then on, dancers danced on pointe without wires.

Different versions of pointe shoes were made around the world. Italy was the first to make a pointe shoe with a wooden box, surrounded with many layers of canvas, burlap, and paper. This type of shoe had a strong sole, but was flexible to the dancer’s foot. The Italian style was imported to Russia, where nails were added to the shank.

In the 1930’s, Broadway dancers like Harriet Hoctor wore steel-soled pointe shoes. They sounded like tap shoes! This version of the pointe shoe was really popular until supplies ran short of steel in World War II.

The box and shank in the Italian version of the pointe shoe was the most popular and is the way pointe shoes are made today. Dancers’ feet, ankles, and toes got a lot stronger.

Hundreds of companies invented many kinds of pointe shoes, each different in some way from the rest. Because of this, hundreds of different styles of pointe shoes are available. Companies such as Freed, Bloch, Chacott, Gamba, Grishko, Russian Pointe, and Sansha manufacture some of the more popular ones.

You might think dancing on a block of wood would be really painful. Well it is at first! But after a couple of years you get used to it. Besides, the pleasure it brings to the audience and the dancer is worth it.

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