How To Choose & Prepare Pointe Shoes
Finding the right pointe shoe is very important if you want to attain good technique, endure as little pain as possible and maintain healthy feet. You may have to try out several brands (see below) before your find the one that works for you.
Don't be afraid to switch to a different shoe at any time as your feet may change with age and progress. Make the effort to visit several shops until you are happy with the fitting, even if you may feel intimidated at first.
If you go during the winter walk around the shop for at least 10 minutes until your feet adjust to room temperature (your feet get smaller in cold weather) and wearing pointe shoes that are just slightly too small is pure agony. (I have done this mistake once!)
Size and Padding
As with flats, pointe shoes should fit snugly with your toes neither squashed nor room for manoeuvre inside the box. A dancer colleague once told me
heap of new and used pointe shoes
"when standing in 2nd position the big toe should touch the tip of the shoe without pushing against it". I do like this advice.
Choosing a bigger shoe in order to add more protective padding is the wrong approach. Too much padding prevents you from feeling and using the floor, which in turn limits your technique and can reduce your confidence. A well-fitted shoe should not hurt and therefore will require the least amount of padding. However, make sure you get your shoes fitted with the padding you are intending to use (and the tights you are wearing in class). I once had a client who was sold her perfectly fitted first pair of pointe shoes and given the padding afterwards. Needless to say that the shoes were too small to use any protection.
In the old times, we used cut-up nylons or paper towels for protection. Their advantage was that we could adjust their size and thickness to exactly fit our feet. Keep this in mind as a potential emergency solution should you forget your high tech silicone or lam's wool pads one day.
A too narrow box squeezes the toes into an unhealthy shape, can bruise your toenails, and does not allow for movement needed to work through the foot properly. On the other hand, a box that is too wide does not give enough support. The foot slides around the shoe, causes rubbing of the toes against the shoe and leads to painful blisters.
The length of the box depends on the length of your toes and the height of your arch. In General, a longer box is more supportive but also requires more strength to rise onto pointe. If the box is too short, e.g. stops below the joint of the big toe, the foot collapses and you "sit in your shoe" with all your weight resting on your knuckles. You basically "claw" your toes. This prevents you from building strong and functional metatarsals (middle foot bones) and their surrounding muscles; it damages your toenails and can create bunions.
parts of a pointe shoe
The softness of your shoe depends on the sole that offers different grades of strength and thickness. The higher or stronger the arch of your foot, and also the longer your foot is, the harder your shoe needs to be.
In the beginning, when working mainly at the barre it is preferable to use a softer shoe, not only ease the transition from flats to pointes but also to avoid relying too much on the support of the shoe instead of using your own muscles. Later when you are more advanced you may need different pairs at the same time, softer ones for the barre work and jumps, harder ones for turns and balances and medium ones to cover all situations.
Depending on the width and shape of your foot, the box can end in different shapes of the platform (the part you stand on). Some shoes become pointier with a smaller platform whilst others are more square with a bigger platform. If you find the platform of your shoe too small you can darn around its edge to create a bigger platform that helps you to balance. It involves quite a lot of effort but you can find people who offer this service.
Some dancers cut off the satin of the platform because it can be a bit slippery and it will tear very soon anyway. You can leave it with the underneath canvas exposed or you can glue a piece of leather onto it to make the shoe last longer and for greater grip. It also depends on the stickiness of the floor you are dancing on. Wooden floor is usually more slippery than a vinyl dance floor.
Ribbons and Elastics
Double up one end of each ribbon to about 2cm that you are going to stitch to the inside of your shoe. Fold in the heel of your shoe toward the box and attach a ribbon on each side at the fold crease in a slightly diagonally forward direction. Ideally, you only stitch at the inner canvas layer to keep the outer sating intact.
Avoid sewing in the draw-string most pointe shoes come with. Before any sewing put on your shoe, fasten the draw-string, make a double-knot, cut the ends off at 1cm and perhaps secure it with tape at the inside of the box.
Once sewn on tie the ribbons around your ankles and cut the ends, leave enough length to fold them under the knot. You can burn the ends with a lighter to seal them. Careful though, run the lighter quickly along the ribbon edge. If you try it for the first time do it over the sink, perhaps with running water for safety.
The purpose of the elastic is to prevent the heel from sliding off your foot when on half-point. First, sew one side next to the heel seam then measure it around your ankle to make it strong but not too tight and sew the other side. "Breaking In" Before wearing your shoes in class you need to soften them by gently massaging the box, the half-point area and where your heel becomes the arch whilst keeping the middle of the sole hard. Then do battement tendus, pliés on half-point and successive relevés from half-point to pointe.
Blisters and Toenails
Additionally, to using padding you can tape your toes for an extra layer of protection, put gel cushions between or under some toes to create a more balanced weight distribution.
Should you get blisters, treat them with an antiseptic, e.g. tee tree oil to avoid infection. Let them air overnight and protect them with tape during the day.
You can pierce water blisters with a sterile needle (make 4 holes), drain and sterilise them. This way they heal faster.
Your toenails should end in line with your toes. Too long or too short can become very uncomfortable and painful. Try to cut or file them a few days before your pointe class in case you did cut them too short.
heel elastic to secure pointe shoe when on half-point
stitched elastic and ribbons on pointe shoe
There are two main reasons if your toenails bruise or become black. 1) your shoes may be is too small, 2) your middle feet are not strong enough and too much weight rests on your toes instead of being carried on your entire foot. This means you need to 1) change your shoes, 2) do strengthening foot exercises and add a stretch band for extra challenge.
Tips For Your Fitting Session (from The Pointe Book by Janice Barringer and Sarah Schlesinger):
standing on flat, your toes should be straight, just touching the front wall of the shoe
demi-plié in 2nd position, the shoe should be slightly tight, as the foot is expanded, but not bend the foot, the sides of the foot should feel supported with slight pressure but not pain
if the toes are pushed back or the heel of the shoe cuts into your heel, the shoe is too small
if wrinkles appear at the box area, the box or entire shoe is too narrow
if a finger can be slipped between the edge of the box and the top of the foot (on flat or on pointe), the shoe may be too wide
place one foot on pointe, the heel of the shoe should lie smoothly over your heel if too much material can be pinched together, the shoe is too long, the end of the leather sole should come to the end of your heel in this position
rising carefully onto demi-pointe and the heel pops off, the shoe may be too wide
Check the shop's return policy so may be able to exchange your unused and undamaged shoes if necessary after you checked with your teacher.
Popular brands are: Bloch | Capezio | Chacott | Diva | Freed | Grishko | Gaynor Minden | Merlet | Repetto | Suffolk
Note: Grishko offers custom-made pointe shoes (and ballet slippers) with non-animal based and non-toxic glue. Tell them you want your shoes veganised when you order. Perhaps other brands will follow.