A Pointe in Time

Graduate student Whitney Laemmli discusses the evolution of pointe shoes.
March 29, 2012

Pointe shoes have been co-stars in some of ballet’s most iconic and well-known moments, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that ballerinas started routinely going en pointe—the act of dancing on the tip of their toes—and not until the 20th century that dancers began spending the majority of their time on stage en pointe.

Whitney Laemmli, a third-year graduate student in the Department of History and Sociology of Science, says ballerinas began dancing en pointe in the mid 1800s, the most famous of whom was the acclaimed Marie Taglioni, who was renowned for performing in romantic ballets.

“The reason she was going en pointe was to be more ethereal, to embody these romantic values of lightness and otherworldliness and femininity,” Laemmli says.

Pointe shoes still evoke notions of ethereality, beauty and romanticism, but Laemmli says the shoes have changed a lot since the 19th century. “The kind of shoe Taglioni used was soft,” Laemmli says. “She made it herself and she could only go up onto her toes for a few moments.”

The 1900s ushered in new modes of production and standardization of pointe shoes, and new designs that could be worn for longer periods of time. The shoes were no longer exclusive to stars, but were worn by dancers of all abilities.

Laemmli says modernist choreographer George Balanchine, founder of the School of American Ballet, was instrumental in shifting the patterns of pointe shoe use, design and consumption, requiring all of his dancers to wear them.

“Balanchine’s outlook was actually something rather new, especially for the length of time they were required to wear them and the kind of control he exerted over what kind of shoes his dancers wore,” she says.

Balanchine aspired to create uniformity in ballet training and fashion dancers that looked identical to one another. He talked openly about how he valued the idea of engineering and wanted ballet “that looked like IBM machines.”

Laemmli was recently awarded the Joan Cahalin Robinson Prize by The Society for the History of Technology for her presentation, “A Case in Pointe: Making Streamlined Bodies and Interchangeable Ballerinas at the New York City Ballet.”

A former ballerina, she says she became interested in researching pointe shoes because they allow dance to be seen as more than just an aesthetic product, but as an art form dependent on material tools and in tune with larger political, cultural and economic processes. The pointe shoes of the 20th century were designed to literally shape dancers’ bodies.

Laemmli says the increased use of the shoes, the type of shoes used and the new kind of training created dancers whose muscles were longer and leaner.

She says Balanchine preferred his dancers to have bunions because he thought they made the foot look better. To please him, one dancer purposely walked around on the inside of her feet until she formed a bunion in order to get a better aesthetic line.

Most ballet dancers today are still wearing the same sort of pointe shoes prevalent in the early 20th century. Transforming the body can be painful and physically intense, but dancers have accepted the pain and body-altering as “fundamental to the practice of the art and to their self identity.”

In the 1990s, a pointe shoe manufacturer began producing shoes that were supposed to be healthier and more comfortable for dancers, but Laemmli says they were rejected by the ballet community.

While training as a ballerina as a child, Laemmli says she and her classmates were generally very proud of their blisters and bunions.

“You would complain, but it did signify your entrance into the professional community,” she says. “It’s a moment of transition.”