The History of Pointe Shoes: The Landmark Moments That Made Ballet's Signature Shoe What It Is Today
Pointe shoes, with their ability to elevate a dancer both literally and metaphorically to a superhuman realm, are the ultimate symbol of a ballerina's ethereality and hard work. For students, receiving a first pair of pointe shoes is a rite of passage. The shoes carry an almost mystical allure: They're an endless source of lore and ritual, with tips, tricks and stories passed down over generations.
The history of pointe shoes reveals how a delicately darned slipper introduced in the 1820s has transformed into a technical tool that offers dancers the utmost freedom onstage today.
1730s: Marie Camargo Invents the Ballet Slipper<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ2Mzk4My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1Mjk1OTU2Mn0.G7eLAbULt_FBmi7FzkKPw5pz6VnFC9gys4eWXIVyw2U/img.jpg?width=980" id="f34dc" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fa4b62ed07a2cc13e6cf90f47c18c38" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="A lithograph of Camargo in a floral gown and heeled shoes with one leg lifted" />
Courtesy Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library<p> During ballet's creation in the courts of Europe, dancers wore heeled shoes in line with the era's aesthetic. In the 1730s, Paris Opéra Ballet dancer Marie Camargo was the first to remove her shoes' heels, forging the way for the soft slipper we know today. "Camargo is the transitional point between a heeled shoe and pointe shoe. She is the ballet slipper," says Linda Murray, curator of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The slipper allowed Camargo to perform leaps and fast allégros that were not possible in heeled shoes, expanding movement vocabulary for ballerinas.</p>
1790s: Charles Didelot’s Flying Machine<p> In the late 18th century, Charles Didelot, a Paris Opéra Ballet dancer-turned-choreographer, invented a wire rigging that allowed dancers to "fly" onstage. The apparatus lifted dancers up onto their toes before they flew. "His ballet <em>Flore et Zéphire</em> introduced the idea of weightlessness," says Murray. "From a choreographic perspective, this is the first notion of what it means to dance on pointe."</p>
1820s–1830s: Marie Taglioni and the Romantic Ballerinas<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ2Mzk4Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0ODM2NzE5NH0.2G-hZAyokyYc6kIIZtGsQJXoE30JuP-Kd4EmXdLrO-U/img.jpg?width=980" id="ea5be" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="24111ce41d54148c63396678bf6e71ee" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Lithograph of Taglioni in a dress covered in flowers and pearl jewelry and wings, standing on pointe in a low arabesque" />
Marie Taglioni in La Sylphide
Courtesy Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library<p> In 1823, the Italian dancer Amalia Brugnoli introduced pointework to ballet audiences, rising up to the tips of her toes in Armand Vestris' <em>La Fée et le Chevalier</em>. Brugnoli wore lightly stitched square-toed satin slippers, and had to use her arms and a visible amount of effort to get up on her toes. Nevertheless, she inspired the other dancers of the day, including <a href="https://www.pointemagazine.com/tag/marie-taglioni" target="_blank">Marie Taglioni</a>, to practice the technique. In 1832, Taglioni became the first to dance a full-length ballet on pointe when she premiered <em>La Sylphide</em>, choreographed by her father, Filippo Taglioni. "Marie Taglioni gets the credit and the blame for introducing pointework," says <a href="https://www.pointemagazine.com/tag/eliza-gaynor-minden" target="_blank">Eliza Gaynor Minden</a>, the head of design behind pointe shoe company Gaynor Minden. For Taglioni, rising up on pointe was more than just a stunt; she used her shoes—tight-fitting, darned, leather-soled satin slippers tied with ribbons—to convey character and emotion. Other Romantic-era ballerinas, particularly <a href="https://www.pointemagazine.com/tag/fanny-elssler" target="_blank">Fanny Elssler</a>, who excelled at fast footwork, pushed pointework even further in the years that followed. </p>
1870s–1890s: Italian Shoes Set the Imperial Standard<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ2Mzk4OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDI0NDUyM30.2hSKiN_DzC6aYqKzkpLkBMY3968RXwKguYxKA3humDU/img.jpg?width=980" id="d6fb2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="78b0e1a68e71026ecb4eb27d9b219551" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Sarah Lane in pink Aurora costume in a pass\u00e9 with one arm in the air onstage" />
American Ballet Theatre's Sarah Lane in Alexei Ratmansky's reconstruction of The Sleeping Beauty
Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy American Ballet Theatre<p> Later in the 19th century, Italian shoemakers developed reinforced pointe shoes with stiff boxes made from newspaper, flour paste and pasteboard. The shoes' cardboard insoles were reinforced with leather. "The Italian ballerinas were able to do more bravura steps on pointe, including sustained balances and multiple pirouettes," says Minden. Italian dancers traveled to Russia, where ballet was extremely popular in the imperial courts, and ultimately influenced Marius Petipa to incorporate pointework into his ballets. He used it to help define his characters, such as Princess Aurora in <em>The Sleeping Beauty</em>, whose long balances demonstrate her poise.</p>
1910s–1930s: Anna Pavlova and Capezio<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ2Mzk5Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMDEwODQ0OH0.6y0ErJf_fM4uzL3Eol6SJYfSBdaEsFnWzrhvRT0LbEU/img.jpg?width=980" id="e3a16" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3a6e43688dd882e516422f890393c3ae" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Black and white photograph of Anna Pavlova in a white swan tutu standing in fifth position on pointe with her arms crossed at her heart" />
Anna Pavlova in 1905
Herman Mishkin, Courtesy the Museum at FIT<p> Early-20th-century prima <a href="https://www.pointemagazine.com/tag/anna-pavlova" target="_blank">Anna Pavlova</a> had very high, unstable arches, so she put leather soles inside her pointe shoes and hardened the box for more support. When she made her first trip to the U.S. in 1910, Pavlova had her company outfitted in shoes made by the Metropolitan Opera shoemaker Salvatore Capezio, thereby launching the first international pointe shoe brand. While Pavlova helped bring pointe shoes into the modern era, her shoes still had a very rounded toe and narrow vamp, making them much less stable than those worn today. "Footage of Pavlova even shows that she's sort of rocking on her toes the entire time she's on pointe," says Murray.</p>
Anna Pavlova's heavily darned shoe
Courtesy The Museum at FIT
1920s–1980s: The Shoe Adapts to Abstraction<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ2Mzk5Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMjk4NTgyM30.CVbDN5Yk6NpnFW5ZZoBHyr5pllJvmqzvTvKG813usdM/img.jpg?width=980" id="3d6c9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c0320889ee8156fef69234a3bafe96d7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Reichlen, in pink tights and a black leotard with a black belt, stands in a wide fourth position with her arms in the air." />
New York City Ballet's Teresa Reichlen dancing Balanchine's 1946 The Four Temperaments
Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB<p> Throughout the 19th century, the main purpose of the pointe shoe was to serve a ballet's narrative, distinguishing the mortals from supernatural fairies and sylphs. "But in the 20th century, particularly with the emergence of the Ballets Russes and then George Balanchine, you start to see an interest in pushing the vocabulary of ballet instead," says Murray. Over the next several decades, innovators from Bronislava Nijinska to <a href="https://www.pointemagazine.com/tag/william-forsythe" target="_blank">William Forsythe</a> expanded the physical limitations of ballet technique, leading to a demand for a stronger, more supportive shoe. Designs like the flat, platform box we are familiar with today were developed to give dancers more control.</p>
1990s–Today: New Materials and Methods<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ2Mzk5Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxOTMwNzQ0MH0.Kw3IPtXxk9KFn-6n1WrqZt9G8DNJBRKR4qA_kXmnXUY/img.jpg?width=980" id="8fa5a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0db2a3ff0c3a12391b3d32892399a2ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Full page ad of two photos of Gillian Murphy with a quote below, and pink Gaynor Minden logo" />
Gillian Murphy in an early Gaynor Minden ad
Courtesy Gaynor Minden<p> In recent years, scientific approaches to pointe shoe construction and training have helped the shoe adapt to contemporary choreographic demands. In 1993, Gaynor Minden launched a shoe inspired by the shock-absorption found in athletic footwear, opening the door for other designers to experiment with modern materials to improve shoes' durability and fit. Emerging research in dance medicine has also made pointework safer. Dr. Sue Mayes, director of The Australian Ballet's pioneering Artistic Health program, collects data on all musculoskeletal complaints in the company, and she advises that proper fit for shoes is paramount to injury risk reduction. "The foot needs room to expand and contract to allow the shoe to act as a spring," she says, "We encourage dancers to be reassessed every year, even as adults." Mayes also stresses that proper preparation, gradual reintroduction of pointework after a break from dancing, and full leg strengthening can allow a dancer to perform on pointe without fear. "The last thing we want is for a dancer to feel cautious onstage."</p>
Dr. Sue Mayes working with dancers at The Australian Ballet
Kate Longley, Courtesy The Australian Ballet
Beyond “European Pink”<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ2NDAwMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwMjIwMDU5NH0.2h0RNQqPYwIYy6yFIsq2QnaTuYFH1T8ZgRqxndNy8IE/img.jpg?width=980" id="27d71" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1024bdcc1902af1612ed9101072b02ee" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Two Black dancers in silver tutus put on satin pointe shoes" />
Ballet Black dancers Cira Robinson and Marie Astrid Mence model Freed's line.
Tyrone Singleton, Courtesy Ballet Black<p> In the early 1970s, Dance Theatre of Harlem began customizing the company dancers' tights, pointe shoes and ribbons in shades of brown to match their skin tones. The effect was revolutionary for classical ballet. But it isn't until recently that pointe shoe manufacturers have started releasing shades that reflect the diverse skin tones of the ballerinas wearing them. Gaynor Minden released a collection of inclusive satin shades in 2017. The following year, Freed of London followed suit, in collaboration with the London-based dance company Ballet Black. And in the midst of June 2020's nationwide protests demanding racial justice, brands Bloch, Russian Pointe, Capezio, Nikolay, Grishko and Suffolk jumped on board, <a href="https://www.pointemagazine.com/bloch-pointe-shoes-diverse-shades-2646166285.html" target="_blank">promising expanded lines</a> released within the year. These options have helped free dancers from pancaking their shoes to match their skin tones, which can be costly and time-consuming. Most importantly, redefining what a pointe shoe looks like breaks down a long-outdated construct and makes ballet more accessible and welcoming to all.</p>
Gaynor Minden's inclusive shades.
Courtesy Gaynor Minden
Danseurs On Pointe<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ2NDAwMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0ODc0NzkxN30.BITaSiMMTdKYtbGNCveClZZSn5aaDzMb9sDFQWzFfoI/img.jpg?width=980" id="9a128" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="31e24a930175a6ab5ad569300bd41fc8" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Hayes in a short colored wrap skirt and pointe shoes in a pass\u00e9 with his arm extended to the side" />
Complexions Contemporary Ballet dancer Maxfield Haynes frequently performs on pointe.
Nath Martin, Courtesy Complexions Contemporary Ballet<p>The history of men performing on pointe, in works ranging from Bronislava Nijinska's 1924 <em>Les Fâcheux</em> to those by <a href="https://www.pointemagazine.com/tag/frederick-ashton" target="_blank">Sir Frederick Ashton</a>, <a href="https://www.pointemagazine.com/tag/alexei-ratmansky" target="_blank">Alexei Ratmansky</a> and <a href="https://www.pointemagazine.com/tag/mark-morris" target="_blank">Mark Morris</a>, has been to a largely comedic effect. Though the drag company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo has brought real innovation and artistry to men's pointe technique, it's still been used to portray women. However, society's recent reexamination of gender norms has made pointework more accessible to dancers of all gender identities, with choreographers like <a href="https://www.pointemagazine.com/tag/michelle-dorrance" target="_blank">Michelle Dorrance</a>, <a href="https://www.pointemagazine.com/tag/james-whiteside" target="_blank">James Whiteside</a> and <a href="https://www.pointemagazine.com/tag/dwight-rhoden" target="_blank">Dwight Rhoden</a> weaving it into new works. In 2019, Russian pointe shoe company <a href="https://www.pointemagazine.com/male-pointe-shoes-2628773639.html" target="_blank">Siberian Swan</a> released the Rudolf, a model designed specifically for men. Pointework can also be an important strengthening tool for all dancers. "Occasionally we'll put men into pointe shoes as part of their rehabilitation," says Dr. Sue Mayes, director of The Australian Ballet's Artistic Health program.</p>
I was 4 years old when I took my first ballet lesson. My mom had dressed me in a pink leotard with matching tights, skirt and slippers. She drove me on a Saturday morning to a ballet academy in downtown Caguas, the town in Puerto Rico where I grew up. I don't remember much from the first lesson, but I do recall the reverence. My teacher Mónica asked the class if someone wanted to volunteer to lead. She was surprised I—the new girl—was the one to raise my hand.
I made up most of the steps, mimicking the ballerinas I had seen on TV and videos. At one point, Mónica stepped in and asked me to lead the class in a bow. I followed her directions and curtseyed in front of the mirror with one leg behind me and a gentle nod. I looked up to find myself in awe of what I had just done.
This was the same feeling I had when, after years away from dance, I finished my first YouTube ballet class at home in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Frances Solá-Santiago taking class at home in her bedroom
Courtesy Solá-Santiago<p>Enter <a href="https://www.pointemagazine.com/search/?q=kathryn+morgan" target="_blank">Kathryn Morgan</a>, a former soloist at Miami City Ballet and New York City Ballet. I discovered <a href="https://www.youtube.com/user/Tutugirlkem/videos" target="_blank">Morgan's YouTube channel </a>through a random search for a basic ballet class. I needed to ease back into ballet technique and found that Morgan had just released a beginners class meant to be done at home. I had no ballet slippers, leotard or warmers, so I relied on what I did have: a lot of time, black winter tights and a yoga mat.</p><p>As soon as she began the first combination, I transported back to those first few lessons I took as a 4-year-old and the 12 years of intense training, recitals, injuries and friendships that followed. But, after more than four years out of the game, my dancing didn't look the same.</p><p>The first combination of pliés made my legs tremble so hard that my bedroom dresser started shaking as if an earthquake had just hit Brooklyn. My feet could barely point to hold a tendu and I found myself having to reshape my arms in the middle of the combination. Yet the sense of accomplishment made me understand that when faced with the excruciating fear of the unknown— both personally and physically—ballet would always be my home.</p><p>After a few weeks, I found myself itching to dance almost every day. I started taking an <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IXip5hM06U" target="_blank">intermediate class</a> instead of basic and would do Morgan's strength workouts on Saturday mornings. I was getting in better shape with each plié.</p>
The author as a ballet student in 2011.
Nicole Colon, Courtesy Frances Solá-Santiago<p>Using dance as a form of therapy is certainly not a new concept. Dance therapy is a practice that has been widely used to "support the intellectual, emotional and motor functions of the body," according to <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hope-eating-disorder-recovery/201704/what-is-dance-movement-therapy" target="_blank">Psychology Today</a>. The concept stems from the idea that mind, body and spirit are interconnected, according to the American Association of Dance Therapy. While I'm not a professional therapist, I quickly understood that immersing myself in a form of movement as we all shifted our busy lives indoors was the best way to keep myself sane.</p><p>Yet, this was not a feeling I was used to. I left ballet at 17 because—after 12 years of dancing—I felt confined within its rules and demands. I no longer felt the joy I remembered from that first ballet class as a 4-year-old and dreaded attending class. I didn't bother working on my technique and even became anxious about putting on pointe shoes. At home, there was no one watching if I missed a step or didn't lift my legs past 90 degrees. I felt free to make up my own rules at the barre.</p><p>By mid-May, as daily new coronavirus cases in New York started dropping, I was already taking advanced barre. I began thinking about life beyond quarantine, when we'd all start coping with the grief and distance the coronavirus pandemic imposed on us. I opened a suitcase I hadn't looked at since I moved to New York in 2016 to find my ballet leotard, slippers, skirts and warmers inside. As I took them out, it felt as if they were visiting from a former life to validate that ballet—not just the technique but its art and feeling—would never leave me.</p>
Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet, founded in 2015 by writer and activist Theresa Ruth Howard to preserve and promote the stories of Black ballet dancers, is offering three weekends of interactive education and conversation this month through its 2020 Virtual Symposium. The conference, titled "Education, Communication, Restoration," encourages participants to engage in candid discussions concerning racial inequality and social justice in ballet. While it is a space that centers on Blackness, all are welcome. Held August 14, 15, 21, 22 and 28, MoBBallet's second annual symposium will allow dancers to receive mentorship and openly speak about their personal experiences in a safe and empowering environment.
The first event, For Us By Us (FUBU) Town Hall, is a free community discussion on August 14 from 3:30–4:30 pm EDT via Zoom, followed by a forum for ballet leadership. The town hall format encourages active engagement (participants can raise their hands and respond in real time), but the registration invoice also contains a form for submitting questions in advance. The following discussions, forums and presentations include topics like company life as a Black dancer, developing personal activism, issues of equity and colorism in ballet companies, and more. Tickets range from free to $12 for each 60- to 80-minute event.