For many dancers, the quest for the perfect pointe shoe is a long one, littered with years' worth of rejected makes and models. With countless options out there, how should you navigate the many brands and trends to find your ideal pair? We spoke with Nadia Randall, general manager and fitting specialist at The Shoe Room—the official store of Canada's National Ballet School—about everything from online ordering to DIY customization.
What are some of the top mistakes dancers make in finding the right shoe?
Prioritizing the aesthetic of the pointe shoe over the functionality. The shoe's support should be foremost. Dancers may disagree, especially when they have been told by teachers that the shoes should look a certain way. But an ill-fitting shoe will look worse on a dancer's foot as she breaks it in incorrectly. It's about making your feet look the best that they can based on their shape. You can't change anatomy.
So how can dancers reconcile their needs with a teacher's preferences?
We love it if teachers can be here for the fitting, as they're usually satisfied once they've seen the process. Otherwise, it's coming up with a compromise. If the student has a square foot, but her teacher wants a long, tapered line, maybe there's a shoe in a slightly tapered version that will work. We do get teachers who say no to a certain brand without understanding the breadth of options. Within a brand there are many, many models, and each one is very different.
What do you typically discuss at a fitting?
We talk pointe shoe anatomy and terminology; the dancer has to understand the shoe itself, as well as her body and feet. And we always recommend that dancers bring previously worn shoes, especially if they've been having trouble. Often a dancer says she doesn't like a shoe but can't articulate why. Is it that they're not allowing you to work your feet correctly? And what's not allowing you to do that? Is it the box hardness? The shank strength? Could it be the length of the vamp that's hindering you?
At fittings, Randall educates dancers about pointe shoe anatomy and terminology. Photo by Sonja Seiler, Courtesy Nadia Randall.
Does pain inform how well the shoe fits?
Yes! The most correct shoe will give you the least amount of pain. But if you're not lifting out of your shoes during pointework, or if your toes are curling and not articulating properly, you will have extra pain. It's because the foot isn't placed correctly, not necessarily because of an ill-fitting shoe.
What about buying shoes online?
It's important to be fitted professionally in person for the initial purchase and as you're still growing. Once a dancer's feet stabilize and she's happy with her shoes, reordering online is a nonissue. You can get a great deal.
In an ideal world, everyone would have custom shoes. What if dancers don't have that option?
Prioritize the fit of the box and metatarsal, and the rest of the shoe can be fit through tweaking. It could be something as simple as ribbon placement or trying elastics with different tension. DIY stitching can lower the fabric on the sides of a shoe and take away some of the heel, and shanks can be cut.
How do you get the most out of a pair of shoes?
The best thing to do is air them out for at least 24 hours between wears. We say the life expectancy of a pointe shoe ranges from 10 to 20 hours, but hardening adhesives can extend that. Jet Glue or other superglues work well on the platform—just pour a little bit inside and let it dry for at least 12 hours. Shellac works well as a moisture barrier up the sides of the shoe. It's not quite as thick and won't dry as hard as superglue.
Breaking-In Dos and Don'ts
- Do break in the box by pushing the shoe in, the way your toes would flex in demi-pointe. If you bend it the other way, you will end up with a big bubble under your metatarsal.
- Do soften the wing blocks if they're feeling stiff and sore around the bunion area. Dabbing a wet Q-tip inside the shoe can soften up pressure points that are rubbing or causing abrasion.
- Don't cut the shank too low. Most people will need support right up to the heel or even under it.
- Do horizontally score the leather underneath the metatarsal with a box cutter if you need more mobility in the demi-pointe.