The Evolution of Ballet Slippers
Primitive Shoes for Performances
When in the early 1400's the Italians held their pageants of music and dance called balletto, what was worn on their feet was the fashion of the times, not a shoe specifically designed for dance. And when Catherine de Medicis brought ballet to France, in the mid 1600's, the Parisian version of ballet although less cumbersome in costuming than the earlier Italian displays, still did not have a shoe created for the express purpose of dance.
It was not until the late 1600's that King Louis XIV wore his high-heeled shoes with the large guilt buckles complete with shining sun rays, that shoes took on a more important role in the ballet. The shoes worn at Court were made of a very delicate upper, such as damask, silk or other fine fabrics, with a leather sole. King Louis made a habit of turning his toes outward to pompously show off his shoes. Oddly enough, that simple motion of turn out was perceived as extremely graceful and had some influence on what became the five basic positions of ballet.
Soft Ballet Shoes on Stage
In 1700 many of the words and movements common in today's ballet were already in use, including jeté, sissone, chasse and pirouette. But in 1730 ballet began to change. No longer were elegantly performed poses enough to quench the pallets of ballet audiences. Dancers took to the air, they began to leap. Because of their slighter stature and greater agility, women started to replace men in principal roles. Next came the discarding of restrictive costumes. Marie Sallé literally let her hair down and donned looser clothes for her ballet d'action, and Marie Ann Cupis de Camargo took the heels off of her shoes and shortened her skirts to perform the techniques of entrechat quatre and cabriole.
Toe dancing began to develop at the very tail end of the 1700's. Dancers balanced on their toes in attitude for just moments, wearing soft ballet slippers. Mind you, not like the soft leather ballet slippers worn today, by any stretch of the imagination. Today's ballet shoes are constructed of thin, flexible leather, the pleats of which are precisely stitched flat to a sueded sole so soft and smooth that the dancer hardly feels anything on their feet at all. No, these were the less refined, simple shoes of the times, radical changes in dancewear would take place over the next hundred years.
Dancing en Pointe
The ballerina who is traditionally credited with being the first dancer to dance en pointe was the Italian, Marie Taglioni. Taglioni wore satin ballet slippers that had leather soles. Her ballet shoes had to be darned on the sides for strength . But they were not darned on the tip of the shoe. She danced without shoe support, as though barefoot. The blocked pointe shoe with a shanked sole did not evolve until much later.
Italian schools pushed technique to the limit. Pierina Legnani was the first to perform thirty-two fouettés on pointe which caused a huge sensation. The Italians were keeping a closely guarded secret, however, they were developing better shoes. Italian ballerinas were dancing in shoes that were harder, stronger and more supportive than those worn by Marie Taglioni. Russian ballerinas had to catch up technically, but could not do so because of their shoes. In time, Russian shoes were made firmer, and eventually grew quite hard and stiff. Even today Russian made pointe shoes are stiffer than other makes.
Satin, leather, paper and paste were, and still are, the primary components of a blocked pointe shoe. Contrary to some people's belief, there is no wood involved in this construction. Pointe shoes are made inside out and turned after the box has been formed which is achieved by building layer upon layer of paper and special paste, the formula to which each manufacturer held sacred. When the heat of a dancer's foot warms the box of the shoe, the special paste then moulds it to the shape of her foot. The foot is supported from underneath the arch by a stiff spine, called a shank. The outer material of a pointe shoe is usually pink satin.
Noted Ballet Shoe Designers
In 1887, Salvatore Capezio opened his cobbler shop on Broadway and 39th Street, across from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. He soon made the transition from repairing shoes to shoemaker. He found that making dance shoes, particularly pointe shoes, was an art he enjoyed. As his notoriety grew, dancers from around the world made it a point to visit his shop and purchase his shoes. In fact, Anna Pavlova purchased Capezio pointe shoes for herself and her entire company during her first tour of the United States in 1910. Since choreographers asked more from their dancers, ballerinas required more from their shoes. The shanks were made harder, the boxes were reinforced, and the platforms got wider. It is rumored that Pavlova, who danced on the new broader platform, is said to have had photographs retouched to remove some of the tip of her pointe shoe for the sake of preserving the Nineteenth Century ideal that ballerinas balanced on the tiniest of shoes.
Russian born, Jacob Bloch arrived in Australia in 1931 at the height of the Great Depression and began making shoes by hand in a workshop where he lived. His reputation for piecing together fine leather that hugged the arch of a dancer's foot spread rapidly. In the late 1930's many overseas ballet companies toured Australia. Among these companies, was De Basil's Monte Carlo Russian Ballet, the original Ballet Russe. Jacob made ballet shoes for Spessiva, Baranova, Riabouchinskaya, Toumanova, David Lichine and many others. The Bloch brand has come to be recognized as one of the most distinguished among dancewear manufacturers in the world. Any dancer who has worn one of their many split-sole ballet shoe styles can attest to that.
Grishko, Ltd. started the production of a Russian pointe shoe as a small cooperative in 1989. A shoe of high quality, Grishkos are firmer and stiffer than American made pointe shoes. The brand Grishko is very popular in more than 70 countries of the world.
While other pointe shoe manufacturers remain faithful to the original turned last style of building a pointe shoe box, one new-comer has made inroads to the development of high-tech pointe shoe styles. Gaynor Minden opened its doors in the Chelsea section of Manhattan in 1993 with one employee and one product, the patented pointe shoe that Eliza Minden had taken eight years to develop. Her brand includes a variety of ultra-flexible shanks and boxes made from the most advanced elastomers - materials only recently developed. Today, they are proud to serve hundreds of dance specialty stores nationwide as well as numerous overseas distributors, and almost every major professional ballet company in the world including American Ballet Theatre, England's Royal Ballet and Russia's Kirov Ballet. Their motto: Having sore feet does not make a better dancer.
There are as many ballet shoe designs as there are foot shapes. Finding the style that works for you is what it is all about. From kids beginner full-sole pink and white ballet slippers, to intermediate split-sole styles of leather or hybrids with canvas inserts, or perhaps all canvas ballet shoes, to the best fitting pointe shoes, it's clear to see that technology has a challenge to keep up with the strides of today's artistic talent.