Dancing en pointe is the trademark of the ballerina. But where did this idea of dancing “en pointe” come from? Why in the world did someone decide to dance on the tops of their toes?!?! To begin answering these questions, we need to begin with a brief history of ballet. Ballet began in the courts of 15th century France as a part of the court "spectacles" – extravagant events meant to entertain the court. Often the king himself would play the lead roles and was featured during the events as virtuosic characters like Apollo.
At this time, women were not permitted to dance in these spectacles publicly. Their dancing was confined to social events and the queen’s ballets. It was not until the 1680’s that women started to become a part of these public events. Even then, women were limited in their movement due to large and heavy skirts and heeled shoes. Marie Camargo was the first ballerina to wear less bulky skirts and remove the heel from her shoe so that she could be more free to dance!
Part of the attractiveness of ballet as it developed was that the dancers appeared to be ethereal and not at all like people of this world. Many of these early ballets featured fairy-like characters, which were intended to look more like they were floating than dancing on the ground. The ballet La Sylphide is an excellent example of this – the main character is a "sylph," a fairy-like spirit of the air. It was during this time that the point shoe was born. It is unclear who was really the first person to create the first “pointe shoe”, but famous ballerina Marie Taglioni certainly paved the way for pointe to be used, not only as a “trick” to amuse audiences, but like it is today, as part of her beautiful artistry and aesthetic. She is credited to be the first ballerina to dance a full ballet en pointe as she performed La Sylphide in 1832.
These first pointe shoes were very different from the pointe shoes we know today – they merely consisted of a flat, soft shoe with a harder leather sole and darning around the sides and tips of the toes for added support. As ballerinas attempted more and more difficult feats en pointe, the shoes got harder. And as the shoes got harder, the ballerinas were expected to accomplish more difficult feats.
The pointe shoe is still evolving and changing today. When I got my first pair of pointe shoes, there were a few brands with limited styles to choose from. There are now hundreds of styles to choose from. As dance and the pointe shoe continue to evolve, I wonder what new innovations and what new feats the ballerina will accomplish next!
This post's author, Mrs. Cumpston, serves at the Ballet Mistress for the Ballet 5:8 professional company and is the Director of Residency Programs for Ballet 5:8 School of the Arts.