Alison Miller (front) in Stanton Welch's "The Ladies" (Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet)
Few things ruin the magic of a performance faster than the sound of loud pointe shoes. "When an audience watches someone dancing, they don't want to hear tap-tap-tap," says Houston Ballet first soloist Allison Miller. Pointe shoe sounds can be distracting to you, too, breaking your concentration and keeping you from getting lost in the moment. So, how can you step more softly? Doing so takes thought and practice, and maybe some changes to your shoes themselves. But it can also help you stand out—quietly.
Work Your Shoes
Certain brands of shoes are noisier than others, depending on how they're made. Dance Theatre of Harlem's Daphne Lee likes Gaynor Minden shoes because they're built with extra padding in the tips for shock absorption. "They help me stay quiet, especially when I'm on tour and stages are harder," she says.
Daphne Lee (Eduardo Patino, courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem)
Dancers who wear more traditional pointe shoes, which are made with fabric, cardboard, and paste, sometimes bang them against walls, darn the tips, or add alcohol or water to soften the boxes, making them less noisy. But softer boxes also provide less support. Accordingly, some dancers add glue after their banging/darning/wetting, to shore up their shoes in specific spots. Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Elle Macy, for example, glues just the front of her box, so the back half isn't loud when she's jumping or running.
Use Your Technique
Solid technique will give you better noise control. "Working hard at barre to get your legs strong will help cushion your landing from jumps," says Miller. To eliminate the dreaded clunker landing, "you have to finesse your musculature and find the coordination it takes to control the roll-down," she says. Macy remembers her first teacher (her mom!) always telling her to roll through her feet: toe, ball, heel. "Her voice pops into my brain when I land too loudly," she says. "You have to pretend that the ground underneath is precious."
Elle Macy in Ronald Hynd's "The Sleeping Beauty" (Angela Sterling, courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet)
Miami City Ballet principal soloist Emily Bromberg sometimes puts her pointe shoes on halfway through barre and does exercises after class to strengthen the intrinsic muscles of her feet. "When it comes to dancing quietly, rolling through your feet is huge," says Bromberg. "If you land with a flat foot, you're going to be loud." She suggests strengthening big muscle groups, like your stomach and glutes, as well as those tiny foot muscles—knowing how to use them all together will give your feet a better base of support. And don't neglect your transition steps, especially in petit allégro sequences. They're often the source of those tap-tap-taps. "For fast footwork, you have to really hold yourself and lift up," Bromberg says.
Consider the Choreography
For some pieces—like variations that include hops on pointe, or pas de deux that feature long promenades—you might be forced to wear a harder, louder pair of shoes. For other pieces—like those that are full of fast-moving footwork—almost-dead, super-quiet shoes are the answer. It's all about finding a balance that works for the choreography at hand. "We recently did Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering, and the accompaniment was just piano, so you could hear everything," says Bromberg. "But the ballet is over 60 minutes long, so you can't have a pair that's too soft, because they might not make it to the end!" The perfect pair for Bromberg? Darned at the tips and broken-in, but not dead.
Professional dancers often have the luxury of unlimited pairs of custom-made shoes that they can bang, cut, and scrape to perfection. If you're a student who has just a pair or two at a time, you can still test out different strategies with guidance from your teacher. "Try out new tactics and learn what works for you," Macy says.
A version of this story appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "Soften the Sound."