Super-hard shanks can make new pointe shoes feel like bricks on your feet. That's why dancers have come up with tons of clever ways to bend, cut, score and tape their shanks—adjustments that can significantly improve a shoe's performance. It's a highly personalized process, and often a complete game-changer.
Here are a few of the most common techniques advanced dancers use to customize their shanks. With your teacher's guidance, you can experiment with your shanks to make them look, feel and function better.
To Customize or Not to Customize?
Some people think you shouldn't do anything to your shanks, because the resistance of a hard shank can strengthen the foot. But according to Natasha Brooksher, co-owner and director of Brooksher Ballet in Arizona, the opposite is often true. “If the shoe doesn't fit properly, it can hinder your development on pointe," she says. “A shank that's too hard will keep you from getting over your box. You'll be standing on the back edge of the platform, which limits your ankle's range of motion."
That said, those with extremely high arches and flexible insteps need the support of a hard shank, and might find that bending, scoring or cutting makes their shoes die too quickly. Not sure whether you should be customizing your shanks? Talk to your teacher.
(Lauren Pajer)Lia Cirio demonstrating her techniques.
Bending and Folding
If you like a hard shank but want it to move with your foot, try bending the heel portion so it echoes the line of your arch. Some dancers fold their shoes around barres or even close them in doors. Margarita Armas, a 15-year-old pre-professional student at Miami City Ballet School, likes to bend her shanks gently in the middle. “I have flat but very flexible feet," she says, “so I tend to sink down in my shoes. Keeping the full shank and just bending it slightly gives me the support I need, but makes it easier to roll down off pointe."
Scoring and Scraping
Some find that bending the shank doesn't give them quite enough flexibility. If that's true for you, try flipping your shoes over and customizing the outer soles. With adult supervision, use a box cutter or knife to cut a small sliver out of each sole, right under the arch. That'll give the shoes a little extra bend. You can also score (scratch up) the whole surface of the sole for extra traction, and/or shave down its edges so you can stand on flat without feeling unstable.
When bending and scoring just aren't cutting it, try…cutting it. A lot of dancers swear by three-quartering their shanks. “My toes are basically the only part of my feet that point, and that's not a pretty shape," Boston Ballet principal Lia Cirio says. “I used to three-quarter my shanks, and now I cut almost half of the shank out, so my shoes break in a really nice way. It lifts me up and makes each pair last longer."
To three-quarter your shoes, start by ripping out the insoles. Use strong scissors to pop the shank off the heel end of the sole, and take out the nail(s) connecting the various layers. (That process can get messy and even dangerous, so if you're a three-quartering newbie, work with an adult.) Trim a few inches from the board, so the shank stops under the apex of your arch. Some dancers, like Cirio, prefer to cut even lower. But start by trimming just a little at a time, Brooksher advises: “You can always take more off, but you can't get it back on!"
Taping and Cushioning
Three-quartered shoes may make your feet look beautiful, but leaving cut shanks exposed can also lead to blisters on the soles of your feet (ouch!). To prevent this, Cirio uses duct tape to line the entire length of the shank. Armas also duct-tapes, but for a different reason: “The tape provides a little grip, which keeps the shoe molded to my foot, especially when I don't have tights on," she says. “It also prevents the nails from poking into my heel."
Another way to make a cut shank more comfortable is to use moleskin padding, which you can buy at any drugstore. Brooksher recommends applying it as a cushion in the heel area of a three-quartered shoe. “That creates a faux back for the shank, so it doesn't give you a blister under your arch," she says.
The Pros and Cons of Three-Quartering
Weigh them carefully before cutting (and don't forget to consult your teacher).
• makes it easier to get over the platforms of your shoes
• creates a shape that supports your arches
• can make your shoes last longer
• can give you blisters under your heel
• might not offer enough support for dancers with flexible feet and ankles
• can ruin shoes if done incorrectly