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Pointe Shoe 911: Six Sure Signs You're Wearing the Wrong Shoe

Despite the seemingly endless pointe shoe brands and styles to choose from, many dancers find themselves plagued by common, and often painful, problems. Stubbornly twisting shanks, baggy heels, incessant corns or a sickled look can be signs you need a different size, width or shape. Pointe spoke with pointe shoe specialists for their advice on common misfits and ways to solve them.


Twisting Shanks

Shanks that twist on pointe are a sign that you need more width, says Linnette Roe, shoe supervisor for New York City Ballet. Wearing an overly narrow size or a too-tapered box, she explains, will prevent your foot from sitting squarely in the shoe, causing the shank to twist. Try a wider size, says Roe, who uses a Brannock device (the kind used in shoe stores) to precisely fit incoming company apprentices. "I had a dancer go from 6X to 5.5 XXX, which beautifully resolved the problem," she says.

Carpenter stands stands in front of a barre in a gray sweater, holding a pointe shoe.

Pointe shoe specialist Mary Carpenter

Courtesy Carpenter

Heels Slipping Off

If your shoe constantly slips off (or feels like it's about to), you probably have the incorrect length—either too long or too short. Excess material at the heel prevents the shoe from staying snug on pointe. But master pointe shoe fitter Mary Carpenter, whose YouTube channel, Dancewithmary NYC, offers tutorials on a variety of pointe-shoe related topics, says she sees dancers overcorrect for baggy heels by buying shoes that are too short. A telltale sign this is the case? "The shoe hugs the foot on pointe, but when the dancer is on flat—especially in demi-plié—the heel pops off," says Carpenter.

Sickling on Pointe

Your foot shapes beautifully in ballet slippers, but on pointe, it looks strangely sickled. Again, width is often a culprit. "Bubbling on the outside of the foot usually means the shoe is too narrow or too tapered," says Carpenter. But width means more than side-to-side measurements. The top-to-bottom measurement (called the "crown" or "profile") makes a big difference too. "A high crown has a lot of space from top to bottom inside the shoe and is good for wider feet, a high arch or instep, or just a foot with more volume," Carpenter explains. "But a low crown is great for keeping narrower feet from sliding into the box on pointe. If a high-profile foot goes into a low-crown shoe, they usually sickle or their skin bubbles over the top."

She adds that some brands have higher crowns in general. Be open to trying different brands if your foot doesn't match a particular shoe's profile.

Roe stands with her arms crossed in front of a wall crowded with pairs of pointe shoes in labeled cubbies.

Linnette Roe in the shoe room at New York City Ballet

Erin Baiano, Courtesy New York City Ballet

Trouble Getting Over the Platform

Rising fully onto pointe is an especially common challenge for younger students whose feet still need strengthening. Long vamps or excessively stiff shanks can make this problem worse. Charmaine Hunter, director of community enrichment at Orlando Ballet School, says adjusting the vamp based on the length of your toes can help, but she cautions against soft or three-quarter shanks for younger students. "Fighting to get on top of the box strengthens the foot, and a full shank is good for that," she says. "When a student is older and stronger, and understands how their body works, they can start tailoring the shoe with a three-quarter or even half shank."

If you're really struggling, a more flexible shank combined with a supportive box will provide stability and mobility. Another area to check is the pleats on the bottom of the shoe. Short pleats (meaning the outer sole is placed very high, near the toe) make rolling from demi-pointe to full pointe more difficult. "You should really only be working against satin and burlap, not the hard leather sole," explains Roe, adding that this issue mostly pertains to handmade shoes more than factory-made since the placement of the outer sole is decided by the individual maker.

Knuckling

Knuckling is not only unattractive, it's dangerous and can potentially lead to stress reactions or fractures. Usually knuckling means that you need a longer vamp and/or harder wing blocks for more support. The additional resistance may make you feel like you can't get over the tip, says Roe, so experiment to find a balance between a supportive box and softer shank. "Students especially need that to keep from sinking, pushing the knuckles out and causing injury."

Excessive Toe Pain

Constant hard or soft corns are a sign your shoes are too narrow (and squishing your toes too tightly), or too low in the profile (causing excess friction on your knuckles). On the flip side, bruised toenails often mean the shoes are too wide, have too high a profile or are too short in length. "The shoe has to support the foot on the sides, but also top to bottom in the crown," says Carpenter. Otherwise the foot sinks into the shoe, putting excess pressure on toenails.

While bunions are largely a hereditary problem, Roe and Carpenter stress that tapered shoes can aggravate them. Adjusting both the size and shape of the box might be necessary. "Going up a width and wearing a toe spacer gives the big toe an opportunity to straighten out," says Roe, "but I'd recommend that someone with a wide foot who's also developing bunions go to a wider, squarer box shape, as well."

Finding the style and shape that's best for you is important not only for comfort and aesthetics, but also for your technique. "If you don't have your equipment correct, there's no way to get to the next level," says Carpenter. "Too tight is just as bad as too large—both will keep you from dancing correctly."

Are Your Toe Pads Part of the Problem?

Excessively large toe pads can interfere with finding a truly accurate fit by masking a size issue—or creating one. "Dancers often wear shoes that are too big and too wide, and fill out the extra space with a bulky pad," says Mary Carpenter, a master pointe shoe fitter. Using a thinner pad in a smaller-sized shoe often looks cleaner on pointe, she adds.

Charmaine Hunter, director of community enrichment at Orlando Ballet School, agrees. She suggests trimming down your existing pads if necessary so that they cover just the tips of your toes. "The shoe should be an extension of the foot. Buying a shoe that's bigger just to fit your pads is doing yourself a great disservice."

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Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

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For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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