A ballerina’s feet are the foundation of her artistry, her most important asset and greatest investment. Yet they are also the area of her body most subject to stress and abuse. Since her busy schedule allows her little time to heal, blisters, corns, bunions, fungus, split toenails, and other minor complaints can become a source of chronic pain. Meanwhile, the real injuries, like snapped ligaments, stress fractures, bone spurs and tendonitis can easily bench a dancer, or worse, end her career.
The root of all this suffering, and also, ironically, the wellspring for the classical ballerina’s extraordinary beauty is the pointe shoe, historically cruel foot gear only moderately refined since Marie Taglioni wore it in the nineteenth century.
These days, a standard pointe shoe has a hard box to protect the toes, and a firm shank that supports the arches. Still, and in spite of these improvements, suffering for art seems to carry with it some historical imperative, and painless dance gets little respect. Dancers regularly do their shoes violence, breaking the shanks and crushing the boxes to improve flexibility and reduce noise, rendering them fit to wear, often, for the duration of a single performance. Even students break in their new pointe shoes in this manner.
But a ballerina is an athlete as well as an artist. In the last three decades we have witnessed the benefits of using high-tech materials to build athletic equipment and apparel for sports. It seems natural and inevitable that pointe shoes be similarly redesigned through the introduction of modern materials.
Gaynor Minden has done just that with its 1993 creation of the elastomeric pointe shoe. More than an athletic shoe encased in pink satin, it uses shock-absorbing urethane foam to reduce trauma leading to injury, and promote proper alignment of the bones of the feet, legs, and torso. In addition, Gaynor Mindens require no breaking-in of the box and shank. They are sold at five different levels of stiffness to meet the needs of individual dancers, and can even be custom made. Finally, Gaynor Minden shoes do not stretch or deteriorate. Since only the satin surface is subject to wear, they last longer than their traditional counterparts. So, although they are manufactured in America and are therefore more expensive, dance companies who order them in bulk see tremendous financial savings over time.
Sounds perfect, yes? Who wouldn’t choose a pointe shoe that can enhance performance, while potentially extending one’s dance career?
But there are objections. The most common complaint is that the Gaynor Minden shoe might take on so much of the dancer’s work that her muscles are weakened, leading to injury. A second criticism is that the firm center the shoe provides might limit the dancer’s ability to dance off-pointe, inhibiting artistry.
Gaynor Minden is only a first such manufacturer in what I expect will become a trend, especially as men begin to dance more regularly on pointe. For now, the market for the shoe seems to be young dancers who have not yet developed prejudices, and, in fact, are actively searching for a trademark style that includes pointe shoes. Meanwhile, many dancers will continue to suffer, offering their pain as a tribute to the dance gods in exchange for success.