The Deal on Shankless Shoes

Every budding ballerina dreams of the day she’ll put on her first pair of pointe shoes, but in reality the transition from soft ballet slippers to stiff pointe shoes can be difficult and painful. The unexpected surprise of painful blisters and sore toes dampens many young dancers’ enthusiasm for the coveted satin shoes.


To help students develop the proper muscles and balance to succeed on pointe, teachers are incorporating shankless shoes—pointe shoes manufactured without the stiff sole, but with the stiff box—into expanded pre-pointe training programs. “Shankless shoes are a steppingstone in the progression to pointe work,” says Jennifer James Church, director of The Academy of Dance Arts in Red Bank, New Jersey. Shankless shoes (also known as pre-pointes) offer a more gradual—and less painful—transition into pointe work. “These shoes introduce students to the feeling of a pointe shoe,” explains Gillian Davis, director of The Center for Dance, Drama and Music in Port Richey, Florida and an examiner for the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD). “After using them, it’s not such a big jump when they get real pointe shoes.”


Although they are not supportive enough to enable true pointe work, shankless shoes have a toe box and a thicker sole than ballet slippers to help students get used to the feel of a pointe shoe. “Tendu in soft slippers is so easy, but in pre-pointes it’s harder,” says Church. “Balancing on flat and jumping are also different.”


Davis uses extremely soft-soled shankless shoes for her pre-pointe students and even for her pointe students’ technique classes. She believes that even with soles almost as soft as a slipper, shankless shoes make dancers work harder in preparation for pointe. “With or without a shank, the feeling of the box is different [from a slipper],” she says. “Balance is more difficult and you have to take more care with placement.”


Wearing shankless pointe shoes can be a particularly useful intermediate step for students who are accustomed to split-sole slippers, according to Philip Burnham, who teaches ballet at University of Florida in Gainsville and works with RAD students preparing for exams. “I’m not keen on young students using split soles,” he says. “Although split soles are handy later in students’ training, it’s better to start out with full soles.” Burnham believes that young dancers who have trained in full soles are better able to feel the floor and to arch their feet fully in pointe shoes, as they are accustomed to thicker materials between their foot and the floor.


Toronto’s renowned National Ballet School (NBS) also utilizes shankless shoes in pre-pointe training. Footwear specialist Carol Beevers, who fit National Ballet of Canada dancers for thirty years before becoming manager of The Shoe Room at NBS, claims that proper preparation can help circumvent beginning pointe students’ technique problems. “With a hard pointe shoe, dancers push to get their weight over their toes and often they can’t,” she says. “Sometimes they end up working on the pleating [on the bottom tip of the shoe]. The muscles remember wrong, and later it’s hard for them to get all the way over.”


Pre-pointe classes generally include exercises to strengthen the abdomen and lower back as well as the feet. Typically, students begin in slippers and advance to shankless shoes when their balance, strength and placement have developed to the teacher’s satisfaction. Depending on the student’s physical development and ability, this preparatory training can last up to two years, when students get their first true pointe shoes. Church, who requires X-rays and medical consultation before any dancer goes on pointe, believes that careful attention to children’s pre-pointe development really pays off. “When our students go on pointe, they take off and fly—they’re not staggering around in agony.”


Although training in shankless shoes does not include true pointe work, Beevers notes that roll-ups to full pointe with both hands on the barre are part of pre-pointe training at NBS. Davis’ students also practice slow rises at the barre in their shankless shoes. Church’s students do tendus with a push-over, learning to hold the arch just as in pointe shoes.


Because of the possibility of misuse, students in shankless shoes should be monitored. Manufacturers specifically advise consumers that they are not for pointework, and some teachers, including Church,  do not allow students to put their weight on their toes. Some teachers may be concerned about students taking shankless shoes home and using them improperly; Church believes that teacher supervision keeps students safe. “I’d recommend collecting the shoes after class [if there is concern],” she says. Davis speaks to students and their parents about safe use when they get both shankless shoes and pointe shoes. “I’ve never had a problem,” she says. “Any teacher with beginning pointe students has to explain the dangers.”


A large proportion of U.S. sales of shankless shoes are to RAD students, as shankless shoes are required for exams. The shoes are not limited to a specific pedagogical method, however.  “Any teacher can use them if they understand what they’re doing,” says Church. Teachers can also wear the shoes themselves, to demonstrate pointe positioning.


Removing shanks from pointe shoes does not necessarily produce the same effect as purchasing shankless shoes. Burnham points out that manufactured shankless shoes are flatter under the foot and have a slightly softer box. While students who are already on pointe may choose to remove the shanks from their broken-in shoes for class use, pre-pointe students don’t have old shoes to de-shank.


In addition to their pedagogical benefits, shankless shoes may have psychological advantages for young students who are eager to go on pointe before they are ready. Because shankless shoes look like pointes but don’t allow real pointework, students can experience some of the excitement of getting shiny satin shoes a bit sooner. “I think it lifts their morale because they know they’re on track. If they’re in pre-pointe and they work hard, they’ll get their pointe shoes,” says Davis. Adds Church: “One of our teachers calls them the pretty pink shoes.” DT

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"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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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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