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The Dangers of Dancing on Dead Pointe Shoes—and 5 Ways to Prevent Injury

Photo courtesy of Meier

Pointe shoes are high-maintenance. New pairs are not only expensive, but time consuming. So it's no surprise that many dancers try to extend the lifespan of each shoe. But did you know that dancing on dead shoes can increase your risk for a variety of injuries?


What causes a shoe to break down?

Pointe shoes are traditionally made with layers of tightly packed paper or fabric for the box, and leather, plastic, cardstock or layers of glue-hardened burlap for the shank.

When new, these parts can feel stiff. Dancers often fit their shoes to their foot by breaking them in, i.e. bending the shank, crushing the box, wetting the glue, etc. These modifications can make the shoe fit more comfortably, but can also compromise the structure of the shoe.

When dancing, your foot sweat causes pointe shoe materials to weaken, much like a cardboard box left in the rain. The longer, and more frequently you wear a particular pair, the faster it will break down. Alignment, choreography and foot strength also affect the natural wear of the shoe.

How does a dead pointe shoe cause injury?

Dancing on pointe is not a natural activity. Pointework puts four times the body weight through your feet, so it is important to try to transmit forces through the bones and soft tissues as evenly as possible.

Each foot/ankle has 26 bones, 33 joints and more than 100 ligaments and tendons. A well-fit shoe supports the alignment of these structures, but a "dead" shoe can cause these structures to collapse onto themselves. This can overload the joints and lead to long-term alignment problems like bunions or damage to the cartilage which can lead to arthritis, bone spurs and subsequent loss of motion in the joint (something known as hallux rigidus, which can make demi pointe very difficult).

When the platform breaks down or the box or shank no longer support the foot, this causes your center of gravity to change. Force is no longer evenly distributed through your feet. Instead, it's excessively loading the top of the foot. As the top of the midfoot and back of the hindfoot start to absorb these forces, the bones of the foot and ankle can be at risk for stress fractures.

Many soft tissue injuries can also occur as your body tries to compensate. Both the flexor and extensor tendons of the foot and ankle can get overworked and/or overstretched from trying to correct the malalignment caused by a dead shoe. Several other muscle groups also must work harder, putting you at risk for tendinitis, bursitis and even tendon tears.

These problems are usually treatable but may linger even after the dead shoes are replaced.

An X-ray of feet in a new pointe shoe (on the left) and an old pointe shoe (on the right), showing the change in alignment and collapse of the joint spaces caused by the lack of support.

Photo courtesy of Meier

How can you prevent injury from dead shoes?

While there is no avoiding shoe breakdown, there are some things you can do to prevent injury.

  1. Make sure your pointe shoes are well fit. Feet change over time as you get stronger or more flexible, and with wear and tear.
  2. You don't need to destroy your pointe shoes to break them in. If you are relatively new to pointe, you don't need to do anything to your shoe unless guided by a teacher. When you see the more experienced dancers modifying their shoes, remember that they are seasoned "mechanics" and are modifying their shoes to their own feet. What they are doing is not necessarily right for you.
  3. Change shoes on a schedule: Don't wait for them to break. Most pointe shoes made from traditional materials need to be changed after every 10 to 20 hours of use, depending on your level of training.
  4. Feel your shoes before and after dancing: Check for any asymmetries, soft spots or areas of excessive wear. Monitor these areas and if your shoes are not wearing evenly, consider watching your biomechanics to understand why certain areas break down more quickly.
  5. Let shoes completely dry out after every use. Always have a couple pairs prepped and ready for dancing so you can rotate and avoid dancing on damp shoes.

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"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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