Pointes to Ponder: Tips from the Pros

July 15, 2007

Dancing on pointe is difficult, but preparing your pointe shoes doesn’t need to be. When you have questions. just ask the pros. They know the tricks for preventing slips, sewing elastic, and even ways to extend a shoe’s life. Here seven dancers share their pointe shoe secrets, tips, and annoyances. Use their hard-earned knowledge and prepping your pointes will be a pleasure.

What are some tips for sewing elastic?

I criss-cross two pieces 1”-wide. One end is at my heel, the other at my arch. You can get tendonitis if your ribbon is too tight so I sew a good solid inch of elastic into the body of each ribbon to make it give. I can plié better and have more flexibility in my ankle. —Crystal Brothers, Ballet Memphis

Any tricks for preparing your ribbons?

I use crochet thread to sew on my ribbons with three big stitches. Before I go onstage I sew a couple of stitches in the knot of the ribbon to tack the ends. I do a big “X.” I have to make sure it’s perfect because I’m in it for the show. It’s always the very last thing I do. —Megan Fairchild, principal, New York City Ballet

What kind padding do you use for your toes?

I’ve tried everything: pads with jelly, lambswool, even a brown paper bag. What works best for me are paper towels, but I don’t like the way they shred once I sweat. That can aggravate my feet. I cut off the top of a sweat sock and put it over my toes. It gives my foot a cushion and it’s protection from the shredded paper towel. That’s a quick fix and then I don’t have to wrap each toe. —Aesha Ash, Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet

I wear loose lambswool because I can form-fit it around my toes. You can’t change the structure of a toepad. I like to put cushioning on certain areas. It gives me more options to shape the padding where I need it. —Carrie Jensen, corps de ballet, American Ballet Theatre

I find that a toe pad is more convenient then working with lambswool or paper towels. I use one made of light foam. It’s easier because you don’t have to arrange it like you do lambswool. —Heather Ogden, principal, National Ballet of Canada

How do you get the most out of your drawstring?

I always tie it in demi-pointe because that is when there’s the biggest gap and where there’s the most bagginess on the side. —Megan Fairchild

I prefer an elastic drawstring. Once the shoe gets a little worn in, I’ve noticed that the fabric ones get a little too big. —Aesha Ash

What are your special requests when ordering shoes?

I get the sides cut down so that more of my arch shows. I have the inside popsicle stick that’s underneath the cardboard part cut at the arch so the shoe bends easier. I have the nail popped out so the shank can bend more easily. —Chalnessa Eames, soloist, Pacific Northwest Ballet

I get my box banged out flat with no taper so I’ll have a good platform. I have the sides cut down. I also get a 3/4 shank because it makes the shoe cling to my foot. Extra glue in the toe makes it last longer. —Heather Ogden

What modifications do you make to the shank?

I don’t have extremely flexible feet so I cut out a little more than 1/2 of the shank. Boys are heavier than girls but our feet are stronger. The shank isn’t as important because our tendons are stronger and we can hold ourselves up more. It’s important for me to have a strong box and platform. —Chase Johnsey, Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo

I cut the shank down about halfway, more than most dancers. I prefer to do it myself rather than have the maker do it because I know the exact place that is perfect for my arch. —Carrie Jensen

How do you break in your shoes?

I bend the shoe the opposite way it normally does to keep upright support on the foot but to have a supple roll through. I make sure that it doesn’t break in sickeled. I put just the box on my toes with the heel not on my foot then put the shoe in proper alignment. Then without going fully on pointe, I apply pressure like in a forced arch stretch. —Chase Johnsey

I wear a brand new shoe for each performance. To break them in I just walk around in demi-pointe. I bend the shank and step on the box but that’s it. Even if I’m jumping I still wear a new shoe because my nerves make me sweat so much before the curtain goes up. – Megan Fairchild

I step on the box to flatten it. I bend the heel part of the shoe over and then bend it in a door hinge. It’s just to make that part very soft and it helps mold the shoe to my foot. —Heather Ogden

How do you keep your shoes quiet without breaking them in too much?

I bang them on something hard like tile. Because I put jet glue inside the tip of my shoe it takes a lot to soften up the box but banging them dulls that sharp sound you hear when it hits the floor. It won’t break down the box because I’ve reinforced it with the glue. If they are still really loud I’ll save them for rehearsal. —Carrie Jensen

Why glue?

It makes the shoes last for at least a couple of more shows. It’s fantastic. I use glue to reinforce the shank inside and out. I add a little bit to the shank just under the arch. I can vary how strong I want it. If I have a ballet where I want a softer shoe I don’t use any. A little bit of superglue just underneath the ball of the foot helps me from going over. —Aesha Ash

Are there any benefits to darning?

If I’m dancing a piece that is classical I’ll take what’s left after I’ve tied and cut the drawstring to darn the tip of the shoe. It gives me a flatter, more solid platform and helps the shoe hold its shape. You’ve got to get to the canvas, not just the fabric. It’s time consuming but if you do it right the finished product is well worth it. —Crystal Brothers

Stepping in rosin helps prevent slipping. What are some other rosin tips?

I cut the hole out of the heel of my tights and then I rosin my heel before putting on my pointe shoes. Do that and you’re in there! —Chalnessa Eames

I scrape the bottom of my shoe with an x-acto knife. I follow the criss-cross pattern on the sole of the shoe, making the lines deeper. Little bits of rosin get in there and I get a better grip. I put rosin in the heel of the shoe and sometimes I put it on the knot of my ribbons. —Heather Ogden

Why rotate?

Rotating your shoes is key to making them last longer. Glue only does so much. If you’re wearing them all day, you’re asking for them to go caput. I change shoes at least every hour. You have to let them air out. You can’t expect them to stay hard if you keep sweating in them. —Crystal Brothers

What bothers you about a shoe?

I really don’t like it when the shoes bubble at all on the box or when they are uneven. It’s like dancing with two left feet. I’ll rehearse in them but I’ll never perform in them. —Heather Ogden

I hate it when the tip is uneven. It causes my foot to wobble on pointe. I use a hammer to flatten down a bump. If you’re not solid it can be dangerous. —Carrie Jensen

Not being able to roll through demi-pointe drives me crazy. I hate the feeling of once you’re up, you’re up and once you’re down, you’re down. Even walking in the shoes I want to be able to really roll through. —Aesha Ash

More tiny tips!

-Singe the ends of your ribbons with a match and they won’t fray. You can also use clear nail polish.

-A flesh colored band-aid around the knot of your ribbon holds it in place and blends in with tightless skin. Make sure the padded part is on the inside of the knot. Scotch tapes also works. Loop it around the knot, making sure the tape sticks to itself, not the satin.

-Keep an old ribbon and elastic to use for length samples. You’ll save time when you prepare a new pair.

-Keep a magnet with pre-threaded needles backstage for quick fixes.

-Turn old shoes into keepsakes. After a performance, write the date and role you danced on the shoe. Megan Fairchild has her shoes from her first NYCB performance.