Pointe shoes: no they are not made of wood. [Part 2 of 2]
by Ms Vivien Koh, Dance Physiotherapist, Moving Space Pte Ltd
Why do pointe shoes need to be fitted?
There are over 20 brands of pointe shoes, each with various models differing in shape of the toe box, vamp length, profile height, and shank strength. Combined with the length and width of the shoe, there are a few hundred options to choose from. Pointe shoe fitting requires a trained fitter, who is able to assess the foot and look for a shoe mostly closely fitted to the characteristics of the dancer’s foot. This is especially so for the novice who is just starting pointe and is not sure how pointe shoes should feel. Even professional dancers are encouraged to get re-fitted every few years as their feet may change.
- Firstly, the length of the shoe should be fitted to the longest toe. This should be assessed with the dancer in 2nd position in demi-pile as this is when the foot is the most spread out and the longest. The longest toe should be just touching the tip of the box, without the toes curling or pain from the pressure at the tip of the toe.
- Secondly, the toe box needs to be fitted to the shape/width of the dancer’s toes/forefoot. The toe box should be wide enough such that the foot can be flattened out fully when standing on flat, yet snug enough to provide support at the metatarsal heads when up on pointe. A toe box that is too wide has too much “negative space”, allowing twisting and crumbling of the foot in the toe box when bearing the full body weight, and the foot to slide in and out each time they go up on pointe,. This leads to excessive weight being taken through the metatarsals and toes which can lead to stress fractures, and excessive friction causing the formation of blisters and calluses. Conversely, a shoe that is too tight can cause compression of the nerves between the metatarsals, also known as metatarsalgia.
- Thirdly, the vamp length needs to be fitted to the length of the dancer’s toes. A vamp that is too long does not allow the toes to extend, preventing the articulation of the foot through demi-pointe to full pointe, which discourages the use of the intrinsic foot muscles. On the other hand, a vamp that is too short will not support the metatarsal heads, causing the metatarsal heads to “pop” out of the shoe with a collapse of the transverse metatarsal arch, and excessive weight to be taken on the toes.
- Lastly, the stiffness of the shank needs to be fitted according to the ankle/arch flexibility and strength. Generally, a more flexible ankle/foot requires a harder shank for support, while a less flexible ankle/foot requires a softer shank to allow the dancer to articulate the feet in the shoe. A weaker ankle/foot may require a stronger shank to provide support, yet a softer shank may allow more strength training of the intrinsic muscles of the foot. A strong ankle/foot may be able to deal with a softer shank. Considerations also include the age and expertise of the dancer, and the current requirements for the shoe.
What is the best brand of pointe shoe?
It is not so much about the brand of the shoe, but whether the shoe fits the shape, strength and flexibility of the ankle and foot, as discussed above. Even within the same brand, most likely there will only be one model that fits each foot the best. Just because a prima ballerina is wearing a certain brand doesn’t mean that it will be good for you. If that was the case, wearing Puma shoes would make us all run like Usain Bolt.
How long do pointe shoes last?
A pair of pointe shoe typically last through about 15-20hours of wear. For the recreational dancer doing class twice a week, with only 15-30min on pointe each time, this works out to about 9 months of wear. The full time dance student doing a few hours of pointe almost every day may only get 3 months out of a pair of shoe. For professional dancers it can be as little as 1 day or even 1 performance.
The part of the shoe that wears out first is typically the shank, or the platform and toe box. As the shank of the shoe is repeatedly bent and straightened, it gradually loses its ability to provide support to the foot. With repeated wear, sweat and moisture, the platform and toe box gradually loses its shape and is thus unable to provide support to the toes/metatarsals. This causes the dancer to sink into the shoe, a collapse of the transverse arch, leading to excessive friction and pressure. Pain where there previously wasn’t is sometimes a sign that the shoe needs to be changed.
Ways to increase the lifespan of the shoe includes keeping them with silica gel, storing them in mesh bags and taking them out to air after every wear, and shoe rotation if they are dancing more than 3 times a week to allow the shoe to dry fully between wear.
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- Kadel N, Boenisch M, Teitz C, Trepman E. Stability of Lisfranc joints in ballet pointe position. Foot Ankle Int 2005;26(5):394-400.
- Russell JA, Shave RM, Kruse DW, Koutedakis Y, Wyon MA. Ankle and foot contributions to extreme plantar and dorsiflexion in female ballet dancers. Foot Ankle Int 2011: 32(2): 183-188
- Richardson M, Liederbach M, Sandow E. Functional criteria for assessing pointe readiness. J Dance Med and Sci 2010: 14(3): 82-88
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