9 Crazy Moments in Pointe Shoe History
Ah, pointe shoes: We love those beautiful, glamorous torture devices! But pointework didn't always look or feel the way it does today. In fact, pointe shoes evolved over the course of several centuries—with many fascinating (and some straight-up bizarre) stops along the way. Here are a few highlights of pointe shoe history.
French dancer and choreographer Charles Didelot was the first to put ballerinas “on pointe"—but his dancers weren't wearing pointe shoes. Instead, Didelot used a flying machine, with hidden wires that held dancers on the tips of their toes before whizzing them up into the air. Similar machines are still used today in ballets like Peter Pan and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The first dancers to actually stand on their toes didn't have Didelot's fairylike effect in mind. Italian grotteschi dancers, who performed in opera houses throughout the 18th century, specialized in exaggerated pantomime and humorous acrobatic tricks—and in the 1820s, grotteschi dancer Amalia Brugnoli became one of the first people to hoist herself up on pointe.
Not to be outdone, French ballerina Marie Taglioni made it her mission to learn the art of “toe dancing" and to transform it into something graceful and beautiful. In 1832 she performed on pointe in La Sylphide—though she actually danced on a very high half-pointe, because her shoes were soft satin, with no box to stand on. She wore them a few sizes too small so that they squeezed her metatarsals, which provided a little extra support. (Ouch!)
A lithograph of Marie Taglioni (courtesy Dance Magazine Archives)
Taglioni's contemporary, Austrian ballerina Fanny Elssler, was wildly popular in America—President Martin van Buren was an especially big fan. During one of her visits to Washington, DC, legislators toasted Elssler with champagne at a formal banquet in the Capitol building. The glass? One of Elssler's pointe shoes.
Fans also went crazy for Taglioni, thanks in no small part to her pointework. In 1842, after she gave her final performance in Russia, a group of enthusiastic devotees purchased a pair of her shoes for 200 rubles, cooked them in a stew and ate them.
During World War II, Japanese pointe shoe manufacturers tried to use balsa wood for the stiff boxes of pointe shoes, rather than the traditional layers of paper, fabric and glue, as those materials were needed urgently for the war effort. Unfortunately, the experiment didn't go well—the wood ended up crumbling under the dancers' bodies.
The Red Shoes, one of the first blockbuster dance films, premiered to huge audiences in 1948. It tells the story of a young ballerina whose cursed red pointe shoes cause her to go mad and eventually commit suicide. And you thought your shoes were tormenting you.
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo ("the Trocks," for short) arrived on the scene in 1974, bringing pointe dancing to a whole new group of people: men! The all-male company, which is still around today, parodies classical ballets and their delicate female roles—pointe shoes and all.
Center Stage became everyone's favorite dance movie when it was released in 2000—despite the fact that it included one of the most suspicious moments in pointe shoe history. During the film's climactic final dance number, heroine Jody Sawyer's pointe shoes magically change color, from ballet pink to rocker-chick red, in a split second. Physically impossible? Definitely. Delightfully cheesy? Totally.
(From left) Ethan Stiefel, Amanda Schull and Sascha Radetsky in "Center Stage'"s grand finale. (Barry Wetcher, courtesy Columbia Tristar)
Misty Copeland. Her name is synonymous with exquisite artistry and outspoken advocacy. And her visibility has made a huge impact on the ballet world. Ballet's relationship with race has always been strained at best, hostile at worst. But Copeland's persistent message and star quality have finally forced the ballet industry to start talking about racial diversity, inclusivity, and representation. "The rarity of seeing ourselves represented is sad," Copeland says. "The more we see every hue and body shape represented on the stage, the more possibilities young dancers feel they have for themselves."
We love, love, LOVE figure skaters who completely embrace the dance aspect of the sport, putting real time and thought into their choreography and music choices (while also, you know, casually pulling off death-defying jumps). This Olympics, a lot of attention has (rightly) been focused on frontrunner Nathan Chen, whose ballet background lends him a beautiful grace and fluidity on the ice. But it was Chen's teammate Adam Rippon who stole our dance-loving hearts yesterday, making his Olympic debut with a routine choreographed by none other than "So You Think You Can Dance" alum Benji Schwimmer.
Friends: HE. SLAYED. And because Rippon is the first openly gay U.S. man to qualify for any Winter Olympics—ever—the performance marked a major milestone.
Contemporary phenom Christina Ricucci has super-flexible hips, which means she can stretch her legs to unbelievable heights. But when she noticed herself making contorted positions in class, Ricucci realized she was approaching her extensions all wrong. "I went back to the basics in class, squaring my hips and using my turnout," Ricucci says. "I learned to create proper positions, rather than whacked-out versions of them."
Some dancers are so wonky they have a hard time supporting their high legs, while others struggle with limited flexibility. But no matter your facility, you can find a balance of stretch and strength to achieve your fullest range of extension. It's not about how high (or not) your legs can go: It's the quality of the movement, and how you get those legs up, that counts.
Yesterday, the dance community was heartbroken to learn that Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran, both 14-year-old dancers, were among the 17 people killed on Valentine's Day in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
American Ballet Theatre principal Sarah Lane charms audiences with her bright energy and crisp technique. The San Francisco, CA, native first started dancing at age 4 at a local community center, and at age 7 started training in Memphis, TN, at the Classical Ballet Memphis. Her family later moved to Rochester, NY, where she continued studying at the Draper Center for Dance Education. In 2002, she was a YoungArts Foundation winner in dance, allowing her to become a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts. She joined American Ballet Theatre as an apprentice in 2003, was made a soloist in 2007, and was promoted to principal last fall. Recently, she originated the role of Princess Praline in Alexei Ratmansky's Whipped Cream. Catch her later this spring during ABT's Metropolitan Opera season. —Courtney Bowers
In our "Dear Katie" series, former NYCB soloist Kathryn Morgan answers your pressing dance questions. Have something you want to ask Katie? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to be featured!
I just moved up a level at my studio, and I'm really intimidated by the dancers in my new class. They're older than I am, and they're all so good. I feel like I don't belong, and that makes me even more likely to mess up. What can I do?
Though ballet has come a long way from its early days, New York City Ballet corps member, Olivia Boisson—one of the handful of black dancers in the industry—says there's still plenty more that can be done to promote diversity within the art form. Boisson got real about her experience in an article for Women's Health, which discusses everything from Boisson's early training to her work with NYCB.