They're pink satin and lift a ballerina to amazing heights. They are the very foundation of advanced ballet technique for women. What are they? Pointe shoes! These shoes are the essential tool of the ballerina's career. Without them, ballet would have a completely different look and feel. An arabesque, with the leg lifted high behind, arms outstretched, is a lovely attitude, and would be with the foot flat or even on demi-pointe - what we call standing on tiptoe - but en pointe, it transcends itself as the ballerina seems to defy gravity. Pointe shoes allow her to achieve this beauty.
Ballet began as court dancing in the 1500s in France. At that time, men got to dance the most fun parts, since they could wear tights in public and their clothing was much less restrictive. Women had to deal with heavy dresses, corsets and farthingales that severely limited their movement. However, in the 18th century, some enterprising female dancers shocked their culture by putting on tights, leaving off the corsets and loosening their clothes so they could dance.
No one knows who the very first ballerina to dance en pointe was, but the first recorded dancer en pointe was Maria Taglioni. She danced an entire ballet en pointe in 1832. More ballerinas wanted to follow her example, and most soon found it extremely difficult to do so in soft leather slippers. Italian ballerinas prevailed on their shoemakers to cobble a harder shoe, and their creations of satin, paper and burlap evolved into today's pointe shoes.
Pointe shoes look soft and delicate, but they're not. They are sturdy shoes - they have to be since they balance the dancer's entire weight on an area about the size of a silver dollar. This flattened, oval platform at the tip of the toe box is what keeps a ballerina en pointe. Typical pointe shoes have a satin upper, a toe box made of paper and burlap stiffened with glue, and a leatherboard or stiff cardboard shank which supports the arch of the dancer's foot while she is en pointe. All this may sound like medieval construction, and it is. The traditional construction of pointe shoes hasn't changed much in the past 150 years. The materials in pointe shoes break down quickly with use, and most pointe shoes will hardly last through a single performance. Shoe budgets for most ballet companies are astronomical.
The Gaynor Minden company has developed a pointe shoe that uses elastometric materials for the toe box and shank. These shanks are unbreakable and, according to the company, require little "breaking in," unlike the traditional shoes. The company claims their shoes will wear out at the tips before the shank wears out, and some dancers and ballet companies have started using these shoes for that reason. Ballet is nothing if not traditional, however, and many companies and teachers are deeply skeptical of the Gaynor Minden shoe. Many dancers have said that it all boils down to which shoe best fits a ballerina's foot and allows her to dance to the best of her ability, using the best technique.
Dancers usually go en pointe only after several years of good training, in which their feet, ankles and legs are strengthened to handle the unique and difficult demands of pointe. A competent teacher will rarely allow a girl to dance en pointe before the age of 11. At this time, the pointe shoes come out for the last 10 to 15 minutes of class, and the dancer works up to wearing pointe shoes for the whole class over a period of several months. There are horror stories of girls whose feet were damaged from pointe technique, and some are true. However, most damage can be avoided by selecting a competent teacher who is more concerned with forming good dancers with good technique than with putting girls en pointe.
A competent teacher will also offer advice in buying good pointe shoes from a reputable maker, and may even wish to be present at the fitting, in order to make certain the dancer gets shoes that fit properly and are appropriate for her. Pointe shoe makers usually offer their shoes with various combinations of features, so a dancer has to be careful to buy the shoes that will offer her maximum flexibility with little loss of control.
There is a wealth of information about pointe shoes and technique on the Internet and in books about ballet. It is an endlessly fascinating subject.