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The Science of Being on Pointe

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A few days ago, Blogcritics published my review for The Sugarless Plum written by Zippora Karz. The story in this book is a good read for many reasons. Chief among these is that it reads like exciting fiction, even though it is Ms. Karz’s first person story of her harrowing, life-threatening collision with diabetes.

At age twenty-one Karz had become a soloist already dancing three years with the New York City Ballet—a prized position reached by few ballerinas in her profession. Peter Martins, the ballet-master-in-chief had created dance routines specifically to demonstrate her poise and skill with difficult maneuvers particularly on pointe.
Another reason The Sugarless Plum fascinated me is this: How is it possible for a person to dance on the tips of their toes? As a scientific thinker, even though my own daughter, Cathy, danced for many years here in the Pittsburgh area, I never really understood how dancing on pointe was possible. In reality, I imagined a ballerina’s toes were somehow twisted or secretly bent inside those tiny, thin slippers to make it look like she was toe-tip dancing.

Curious now, I travelled the Internet in search of evidence to show how the magic trick was done. What I found shocked me. Picture A is an x-ray photograph of a ballerina’s foot inside her satin shoe. Incredibly, the foot is on pointe. There is no trick. The foot is straight out. Even the last tiny bone in the big toe is clearly visible.

Since the x-ray didn’t show the ballerina’s slipper yet I could see what looked like tiny nails behind the arched foot, I asked my daughter Cathy to explain those. “Yes, they are nails which keep the sole or shank of the slipper extremely stiff.” She peeled back the slipper along one side to reveal a very thick sole or shank (3/8" to 1/2"). The nails, along with rawhide and glue, keep this shank together. With some difficulty, dancers bend this shank to fit the arch of their foot before using.

After I brightened the x-ray, Cathy drew around the bones in the foot to show the perimeter of the ballet shoe. I traced her drawing to make it more visible in picture B. She explained that the space in the tip of the shoe above and below the toes is filled with material that is thick and unbending. This area is called the box.

"When a ballerina is on pointe, her toes are jammed between the padding in this box," much like they would be if a plaster cast surrounded them. If there is still too much space, a dancer will wrap her toes with gauze so they fit snugly down into the box. "The toe box, which encases the toes, is often made from layers of burlap and paper soaked in glue. This part of the shoe must be exceptionally strong, as it needs to support the dancer's entire weight" ("The Hidden Tribulations Behind Ballet Shoes," MIT's The Tech).

At a young age, would-be ballerinas begin dance training wearing soft slippers while they learn the many formal steps and moves of ballet along with their French names. At the right age and only after teachers give the OK are dancers permitted to progress to pointe dancing. “Without proper technique, an attempt at toe-dancing can cause injury” ("How a Pointe Shoe Works," Dancer.com).

Thus, my mystery is solved. Dancing on toe-tips is indeed possible. Having watched several ballets, I can begin to appreciate what young women in this artistic profession must suffer. My daughter explained that regardless of how long one dances on pointe, it would not be possible without the build up of calluses and corns in, on, and around the toes. Normally, "there are blisters which break during performances and bleed to the inside box of the ballerina’s shoe." One does not think of this when an artful dancer goes flying across the stage like a bird, wearing what looks like soft, pink, extremely delicate feminine shoes.

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About Regis Schilken

  • jessica

    wow i always have wondered this. thanks for clarifying! :) I think ballet is a very beautiful art/dance form

  • Regis Schilken

    Hello Jessica!
    My daughter suffered many blisters until she got used to dancing on pointe. I think it must be torture to a girl’s foot.