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On Pointe

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Spectators of ballet know that the graceful and effortless moves dancers perform are the result of hours upon hours of hard work. Truly skilled dancers appear to almost float through the air, suspended by nothing. This illusion of flying can be credited to the pointe shoe, the footwear that all advanced ballet dancers depend upon for the execution of the brilliant and complicated moves known as ballet.The evolution of footwear for dancers from heeled dancing shoes to pointe shoes can be thanked for this illusion.

Ballet dancers originally wore heeled dancing shoes, but in order to perform the high leaps the shoe evolved into a flat design. In 1795, George Didelot invented a device that literally lifted dancers up onto their toes and held them there, suspended by wires. Audiences were enthralled, and choreographers began designing pieces to take advantage of the "flying machine."

Dancers increasingly danced on their toes, and even with the support of wires began padding the toe box with leather to help cushion the weight of their bodies on their toes.The toe box began to be not only padded, but it now appeared to be flattened on the end, resulting in a squared off shape. The shoes became quieter as well, being made without nails so as not to distract from the music.

By the 1830s, dancers like Maria Taglioni were dancing without the help of wires, depending on the extra padding to give them the appearance of lightness of feet.The great ballet dancer Anna Pavlova is largely credited with the design of the modern pointe shoe. Due to her unusually slender feet, she toughened and stiffened her shoes with several layers of leather to provide more support. Modern pointe shoes have layers of leather, cardboard, glue and fabric hardened into a supportive box at the toe.

Only advanced dancers with years of training dance "en pointe" due to the stress placed on the feet. Young dancers between the ages of 11–13 may begin training on pointe at their teacher's discretion. Beginning too soon could cause serious injury for young dancers; the ballet teacher will evaluate each dancer on experience and skill to determine when to begin.

Pointe shoes are custom fitted to the individual wearer's foot and the ribbons are attached by hand, usually by the dancers themselves. A dancer in training will go through a pair of pointe shoes in three or four weeks, at about $88 a pair. That, however, is nothing compared to a professional dancer who may go through a pair of point shoes at every performance.

Pointe shoes have a wonderful history and the support they provide allow dancers to continue to charm us with the illusion of weightlessness and grace. For more information about ballet dance apparel, talk to a professional.