A well-fitting, properly laced shoe is integral to achieving correct technique and preventing injury on pointe. A shoe that is too short, too narrow, too long or too wide hampers a dancer's ability to get her body into alignment on pointe and can cause ailments ranging from blisters and tendonitis to a sprain or even stress fractures. Once they're professionals, dancers will make their own choices about how their shoes look and feel, but as teachers, you can guide students to prioritize safety over aesthetics, and to listen to the advice of experienced fitters.
Mary Carpenter, who has been fitting pointe shoes for 25 years, trained under a Repetto master fitter and has worked for Capezio and Gaynor Minden. She does fittings by appointment at the Chacott by Freed of London store in New York and teaches ballet and Pilates at Barnard College, The New School and The School at Steps. She started the YouTube channel “Dancewithmary NYC" in 2015 to offer tutorials for pointe shoe wearers, like custom cushioning and foot-strengthening exercises. Here is some of her best advice for pointe shoe safety.
#1 Get over the baggy heel.
Carpenter says everyone needs to calm down about seeing a little bunchy satin at the heel when a dancer is on pointe. Dancers' feet contract when they're on pointe, so it's a natural result—one nobody in the audience will notice. What's important is to make sure the feet don't scrunch when the dancer is on flat, especially for young students. “Someone 15 and under is still in the growth phase—we have to let go of the idea that the shoe has to be so pristine-looking on pointe," says Carpenter.
A dancer needs a box wide enough to accommodate her metatarsal and a shoe long enough that she can plié in second and lunge side to side without her toes cramming against the front of the box—even if that means there is a little extra material at the back of the shoe when the dancer is on pointe. For young students, Carpenter will push her palm against their fingertips and ask them to describe the pressure they feel against their longest toe (or toes). It should gently touch the front of the box in plié, but not so hard it hurts or causes the toes to bend. She also watches the satin at the heel when a dancer pliés and lunges. It shouldn't be so taut it strains the seams. If a dancer complains of pain in the heel on flat feet, that's another sign the shoe is too tight.
Carpenter also notes that a bulky toe pad can require a wider shoe, another reason why a teacher might see extra material at the heel. Some foot types need that extra padding, but if a dancer can find a thinner option—perhaps supplementing with makeup sponges in spots that need spacing or cushioning—it may give her a closer fit.
#2 A too-big shoe is just as bad as one that's too small.
It's easy for an expert like Carpenter to spot a shoe that's too large, but sometimes students or their parents will try to build in extra space on purpose. “I get asked a lot about growing room," Carpenter says. Not a good idea. “It has to be fitted snug. For the parents who don't quite understand, I say, 'Like a cast fits a broken limb.'" That snug fit, she says, is around the metatarsal—not the toes. It keeps toes from collapsing down into the box.
Without that firm support from the shoe, most dancers will struggle to get properly up on pointe. "They can't get their hips over their legs," Carpenter says. "They can't get into correct ballet alignment.
Other common problems with loose shoes are blisters and bruised toenails. Additionally, if the fit isn't secure enough, a dancer will instinctively tense her feet to keep them from slipping around. That increased tension can cause tendonitis.
A fitter for 25 years, Carpenter learned her craft under a Repetto master fitter. Photo courtesy of Carpenter
#3 Ribbons are more than just decoration.
Once a dancer has a correctly sized shoe, she has a couple more sources of support. Carpenter likens a ballet dancer's pointe shoe ribbons to laces on a basketball player's sneakers or an ice skater's skates. In other words, they are crucial, maybe even more so than other athletes', since pointe shoes cover less of the foot. “The ribbons are an important part of the support of the shoe," she says. “All you get is the fit, the elastic and the ribbons. You don't get laces."
Carpenter suggests crisscrossed elastics, particularly for dancers with high arches, narrow heels or ankle injuries. Some teachers don't like the look, she adds, but it's another detail that will be invisible to the audience.
Tie ribbons too loose, and you miss out on that extra support. Too tight, and you risk developing Achilles tendonitis from the pressure at the back of the ankle. Some dancers even prefer ribbons with an elastic insert for cushioning at the Achilles. Carpenter says that with a correctly fitted shoe, properly tied satin ribbons shouldn't cause a problem.
She recommends a specific approach to tying them. “Be cautious and respectful of how you're doing that very first cross of the ribbons," she says. The ribbons' X shape mimics the crisscross of ligaments across the front of the foot, which serve in part to provide the ankle lateral stability. She suggests pulling the inside ribbon across the top of the foot first, since most dancers have a tendency to pronate, especially those with high arches. “It gives you a cue to pull up on that side." She says even if you prefer the look of crossing the outside ribbon first, make sure the one on the inside gets a good, firm tug. Next, flex the foot to ensure you don't wrap too tightly as you pull the outside ribbon to complete the X across the foot and wrap both ribbons around behind the ankle. Then, point the foot as you tie the ribbons on the inside of the ankle between the anklebone and the Achilles. A knot directly on the tendon will irritate it.
Usually young dancers have more trouble with ribbons coming undone than being too tight. But you'll be able to tell if a student ties her ribbons too tightly, because you'll notice them cutting into the skin in demi-plié. Like the shoe, the ribbons should feel snug, not strangling. “Like a nice, friendly, familiar hug," Carpenter says. “It can't be a mean hug, like you're trying to hurt someone. And not a fake friend hug." She'll often give dancers an example by firmly squeezing their hand or foot.