Photo Lynette Wills
Although dancing en pointe has come to epitomise the art of the ballerina, the technique was not developed until the beginning of the 19th century. No one knows when women first danced on the tips of their toes, but it is believed to have begun in the early 1800s.
When the French Revolution brought an end to court ballet, it also caused the heavy unwieldy costumes that had been used at court to lose favour. Dancers began to wear lighter costumes and to appear in 'Maillots', tights named after a costumier at the Paris Opéra. Flat ballet slippers tied with ribbons became standard footwear. These new soft shoes without a heel allowed the dancers to jump and turn with greater ease and encouraged them to present a more fully extended pointed foot.
Dancers soon discovered that by rising higher and higher on half pointe, they were able to balance on the ends of their fully stretched toes. Geneviève Gosselin, who died at the peak of her career in 1818, is thought to have danced en pointe in a production of Charles-Louis Didelot's Flore et Zéphire in 1815 and prints dated 1821 show Fanny Bias in the role of Flore also appearing to be en pointe. However, the earliest attempts to dance en pointe probably involved little more than briefly posing on the tips of the toes to give the illusion of weightlessness.
It was Marie Taglioni's performances in La Sylphide in 1832 that not only ushered in the age of the Romantic ballet, but also the use of pointe work as an essential choreographic element. Using pointe work to bring a new poetic quality to ballet, she became famous for her gracefulness, her lightness and her ability to seemingly float above the floor.
The shoes worn by Taglioni were not like today's pointe shoe. There was no stiffened box to support her toes. Instead she darned her shoes along the sides and around the toe to keep the slipper in shape and to give her extra support.
As technique expanded, particularly in the school of the Italian Carlo Blasis, ballerinas began to perform much more demanding virtuoso steps. For example, Pierina Legnani introduced 32 turning fouettés into Marius Petipa's Cinderella in 1893. To enable the ballerina to do such difficult feats, the pointe shoe had to be considerably strengthened. Dancing en pointe became a means of expressing fire and strength as well as fantasy.
Miwako Kubota in Coppelia. Photo Branco Gaica
Today's pointe shoe
Today's pointe shoe is made of shiny satin and is still shaped liked a tightly fitting slipper. The area covering the toes is made of layers of fabric glued together in the shape of a 'box'. It is this hardened glue that makes the shoe stiff. It supports the toes and gives them a small platform on which to perch. These blocks come in varying degrees of hardness, widths and vamp lengths. The sole of the shoe is hard leather which prevents it from bending too freely, and also helps to support the feet as they rise on and off the top of the pointe. To keep the shoe on securely, the dancers sew satin ribbons to the sides and tie them tightly around the ankles.
When dancing, a dancer's body heat tends to soften the glue that forms the box of the shoe and eventually the shoe will fail to support the dancer's foot. This is the reason why some dancers use more than one pair of shoes in the course of a performance.
The Australian Ballet issues each female dancer with pointe shoes: corps de ballet and coryphée members receive two pairs per week, soloists and senior artists receive three pairs, and principal ballerinas receive six pairs. All of these shoes are hand-made to each dancer's individual specifications. Over 5000 pairs of pointe shoes are used at a cost of more than $250,000 per year – a huge expense for the company but a necessary one, for without them today's classical dancer would not be able to dazzle the audience with displays of exciting turns, intricate footwork and spectacular balances.