A small miracle took place when Italian ballerina Marie Taglioni first rose en pointe. She elevated a simple shoe into a tool for conveying sublime artistry. While it takes a ballerina long years and endless hours of training to be able to perform such miracles let us not forget that her shoes will have also followed a very laborious regime. The unsung heroes who manufacture them pour long hours of highly skilled work, preserving a long standing balletic tradition and a 150 year-old craft.
For any person as obsessed with watching ballet as we are, or for those who dance, dissecting this key component of classical dance gives a greater insight into the art itself. As we start a series of posts focused on dancer’s tools, we look here into the anatomy of a pointe shoe and its manufacturing process.
Parts of a pointe shoe
Irrespective of brand, pointe shoes are typically composed of the same parts. We have illustrated this section with pictures of Capezio Pavlowas:
- Most shoes have a stiff box – or block – made with layers of fabric, paper and glue (very much like papier-mâché), whose stiffness will vary depending on the shoe’s model, width and length.
- As the box extends over the toes, it encases them and gives them a supporting platform upon which the dancer stands.
- Halfway into the foot, the box’s upper layer of satin, leather and/or canvas forms the upper which is joined to the outer sole by a series of pleats.
- The area covering the toes is known as the vamp. The edge of the shoe can be lined with a drawstring to help adjust the foot.
- The inner shoe is lined with canvas.
- Underneath the shoe, a small thin leather sole allows for flexibility. Most models have a full sole, but some have split soles or soles combining leather and fibre to increase shoe pliability and improve foot articulation.
- Between the outer and the inner soles a hard spine made of leather or a more resilient synthetic material – the shank – forms the shoe’s core. A full shank runs the length of the sole. Ideally it should be hard yet supple and conform to the dancer’s arch.
Note that Gaynor Minden shoes are particularly distinctive. They neither have boxes made of a paper/fabric/glue combo, nor a separate leather shank. Instead they are built from a single box/shank combo made of long-lasting elastomeric (a synthetic material) to ensure the shoes do not soften too soon. With the shank and box forming one single piece there are no pleats underneath.
Traditional pointe shoes follow a process referred to as turnshoe. They are put together inside out on top of a last (a foot-shaped mold made of wood or plastic). They are not separated into right or left although some ballerinas have custom made lasts to replicate the shape of their own feet. Parts of this process have been automated but most of the shaping work is still done by hand.
The parts forming the upper (vamp, wings and lining) are cut from fixed patterns using hydraulic presses, with special orders hand-cut from individual patterns. Seamstresses join the upper with the backs and sew in the satin and cotton lining. A back strap is also sewn in and, if the model calls for it, a drawstring is added.
The upper is placed inside out over the last and the shoemaker assembles the block over the lining with several layers of fabric, paper and special glue, which need to be worked on for a long time. The shoemaker pulls the upper and handles it with various instruments molding it into a pointe shape (squared, tapered, etc).
Soles (inner sole and outer sole) and shank are cut out of large pieces of leather using mechanical presses or by hand. They are shaven – to even out the surface – and buffed. They are placed inside the shoe and fastened with glue and nails.
Shaping & Stitching
The shoemaker works the shoe in the last, shaping it from the outside with a small hammer and getting rid of any bumps in the toe area. The final part of the process – pushing the handmade pleats into position – is one of the most critical, as it will determine the fitting and flexibility of the shoe. The pleats are stitched and the excess fabric is removed. The upper is also stitched to the sole and the shoe is turned right side out. Finally the shoe is placed on a rack (or a hot-air oven) to dry all the glue.
See a video of a pointe shoe being manufactured
For those of you interested in the specifics of manufacturing Gaynor Mindens, see this video featuring the company’s Head of Design, Eliza Gaynor Minden
If you are interested in pointe shoes or other ballet tools generally, look no further than our Tools of the Trade playlist in our YouTube channel.
Sources and Further Information
- The Pointe Book by Janice Barringer and Sarah Schlesinger. Princeton Book Company, 2nd Edition, 2004. ISBN-10: 087127261X [link]
- Russian Pointe Shoe Fitting Guide [link]
- Gaynor Minden’s official website [link]
- The Pointe Shoe Information Exchange – All about brands and makes – [link]