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