What is a ballerina standing on?
January 31, 2010 5:25 PM   Subscribe

What is a ballerina doing when she's "on point"?

I've always wondered about this. Is she folding her toes underneath? In other words, if I saw a ballerina doing this without slippers on, would it look like she was standing on her toenails?
posted by Chocolate Pickle to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The tip of the shoe is built up. She wouldn't be doing this at all without pointe shoes.

(One of my kids used to take ballet.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:26 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Spelled en pointe
posted by dfriedman at 5:27 PM on January 31, 2010

Pointe shoes make dancing en pointe possible -- you couldn't do it without the shoes, because they have a toe box in them that is made of canvas or even wood. You use your entire body to balance -- feet, back, abdomen, legs -- not just your feet -- and your feet must be fully developed to dance en pointe. If you are dancing en pointe, you are expected to cut your toenails very, very regularly.
posted by k8lin at 5:31 PM on January 31, 2010

Pointe shoes are different than regular ballet slippers. They are reinforced with wood in the front which forms a flat square-ish base for standing on the point. In these shoes, the lady's toes are indeed curled under.

Amro is right that before pointe was a big part of ballet, dancers inwent up on the points of their feet, i.e., the tippiest of tippy-toe, but this was only done for moments, not an entire routine (liked you'd see in the Nutcracker).
posted by zpousman at 5:33 PM on January 31, 2010

A long time ago I saw a performance by "Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo", which was/is ballet done by men in drag.

It was wonderful. And while there were a lot of parts of it that were satirical and quite funny, there were also segments where they were playing straight -- and were really good. But it always seemed to me that if being "en pointe" (I didn't know the spelling) was hard for a 95 pound ballerina, it had to be a lot worse for a muscular man who weighed twice that. Some of those men were really big.

(I'm a bit surprised that the Wikipedia article doesn't mention that "Trockadero" is a subway stop in Paris.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:37 PM on January 31, 2010

I am a former ballet dancer, and trained for about 6 years en pointe. As mentioned above, you are quite literally dancing on the tops of your toes with the help of the pointe shoe, which has a very stiff and hard box surrounding the toes. And it is hell on your feet. Just putting on the shoes was a process for me, beginning with taping certain toes with thick medical tape. I then had a home-made toe pad made of a cut-off toe of a sock lined lightly with lambs wool which I slipped over my toes before putting the shoes on. I always used red socks to make my toe pad, because it showed blood less. After a particularly grueling rehearsal, most, if not all of my toes would be blistered and bleeding. And if I had to dance the next day, my blisters would form blisters and so on the next day, until I thought my toes would just erode away. The tips of my toes were also heavily calloused and pretty much numb to any touch sensation. I haven't danced in about 10 years, and my toes are just now starting to look normal.
posted by tryniti at 6:01 PM on January 31, 2010 [17 favorites]

(I'm a bit surprised that the Wikipedia article doesn't mention that "Trockadero" is a subway stop in Paris.)
It's because the Parisian Métro stop and neighborhood are spelled Trocadéro.

posted by rtha at 6:03 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

All of the dancers I know wear them like the x-ray in purpleclover's link... They point their feet (NOT curl them or fold their toes under) inside the pointe shoes. Sometimes the angle of the shoe and the angle of their foot in relation to the ground brings them forward, more onto the tip of the toenail rather than the tip of the toe, which I think is what Wikipedia is talking about, rather than curling inside the shoe. If you look closely at pictures of pointe dancers, you can see the angle of foot/shoe to ground.

The toe box helps with balance, the shank supports some of the dancer's weight underneath the dancer's heel. At about 2 minutes in, this video shows how a broken-in shank supports a dancer's heel.
posted by anaelith at 7:20 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just to freak you out a little, while the answers above are correct for all ballerinas that you would see in performance, some people are able to stand on the tips of their bare toes without assistance. I could do this easily when I weighed less than 100 pounds.

I also have a cousin who could fold her toes over and walk on top of them, sort of the way you imagine a gorilla "walking" on folded over knuckles. That was freaky.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 8:13 PM on January 31, 2010

some people are able to stand on the tips of their bare toes without assistance.

Yep. I have a friend who can do this. I tried it once, and just about busted my foot in half.
posted by niles at 8:34 PM on January 31, 2010

Amro is correct that you can do this for comparatively brief amounts of time without pointe shoes. In Irish dancing, it's done for longer amounts of time in hardshoe (where the fiberglass tips and shaped shoe play a role similar to the stiff box of pointe shoes) but it also shows up in softshoe (where the shoe is nothing but soft leather.) This is pretty challenging, of course, and is a move within a larger piece rather than the way the whole piece is danced. By the time it starts showing up in steps, the average dancer is probably about as old/skilled as a ballet student learning to go en pointe. (And yes, an X-ray of a properly pointed toe in Irish dancing would look much like the X-ray linked above.)
posted by ubersturm at 9:47 PM on January 31, 2010

they have a toe box in them that is made of canvas or even wood

I always thought the box was made of some kind of plaster. I can't imagine wood conforming to the foot as well as my pointe shoes did.

I wore a pair similar to these about 20 years ago (my feet are better but still have remnants of those blisters on blisters). The pdf in the link refers to the box being made of some kind of "paste". The pdf also gives softening instructions -- we used to jam them into door hinges and open and close the door on them until they softened (or broke).

For a while after I stopped ballet I could stand on my toes sans pointe shoes. Wouldn't dare try it now!
posted by prettypretty at 2:46 AM on February 1, 2010

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