You waited all this time, took the required amount of classes, worked extra hard on your ballet technique and were finally approved by your teacher for pointe. How exciting! You may have visions of your favourite prima ballerina wearing her beautiful, satiny pointe shoes and were hoping for the same elegance and beauty. But then…ouch. While it’s certainly thrilling to get your first pair of pointe shoes, they may not be the most comfortable things you’ve put on your feet. But will pointe shoes always hurt? Can dancing en pointe become pain-free?
Dance Informa turned to master pointe shoe fitter Mary Carpenter of New York to see if pointe shoe pain is normal, if it’s manageable and how you can overcome the uncomfortable transition.
“I’m scared to start pointe because it will hurt!”
Some young dancers may be afraid to start pointe work because they’re afraid of the “pain” that may come along with pointe shoes. Carpenter assures, however, that if you have a strong core, good alignment, good foot hygiene, training appropriate to your level and the skills necessary to go en pointe, then the “pain”, or “discomfort”, should be manageable.
“Will dancing en pointe always hurt? How long will it be painful?”
While the initial pain may become manageable, dancing in pointe shoes may never feel as comfortable as lounging around in your house slippers.
“There is no such thing as pain-free in pointe shoes,” Carpenter says. “Humans are not born en pointe, and they do not come out of the womb with their hips turned out 180 degrees. You have to accept that this is an unusual thing for the human body to undertake, like tightrope walking, ice skating and pole vaulting. That being said, the stronger you are in the core, the legs, the feet and the overall technique, the easier it is for your body to adjust to the demands of that external rotation (turnout) with that vertical line over the toes (en pointe).”
“How can I make pointe less painful?”
Sure, pointework may be uncomfortable. After all, Carpenter points out, ballet itself is an unusual thing for the body to experience. “If ballet is unusual, then rising on to your toes in a hard shoe designed to support your entire body aligned over a small surface area is doubly so,” she continues.
But if you change your perspective, it may help. Instead of focusing on the pain or being afraid of dancing en pointe, try to relish in the sense of accomplishment of finally getting your pointe shoes! A better mindset can translate to the body.
There are other things you can do as well. Carpenter encourages dancers to listen to their teachers. Take note of and try to apply any corrections your teachers give you in all of your classes. Take initiative and do extra exercises to strengthen your core – abdominals, back, glutes, shoulder girdle. (Ask your teachers if you need some examples.) Work hard in your ballet technique classes, focusing on a high demi-pointe and articulate tendus.
And of course, make sure you’ve been fit in your pointe shoes by a professional; don’t just choose a pair off the shelf. “Make sure your pointe shoes fit really well with no growing room, and also are not so tight that your metatarsals are crunched,” Carpenter advises. “A moderate amount of padding is okay, but if you have to shove layer upon layer into your shoe, there is a problem. If you can, seek out a professional fitter, or have the teacher schedule a day when he/she assists the store with the fitting. If that is not available, talk to a fitter online; many online stores have qualified people who help on the phone.”
A trip to your podiatrist may be in order as well, if there is some misalignment issue with your ankles and feet. Carpenter says, “The doctor can give you therapy exercises, strapping techniques and foot care tips in advance. For example, if you have dropped arches, ask the doctor if there is a taping method or some exercises you can do to help yourself.”
“How do I take care of my feet?”
Proper foot hygiene can certainly help with the discomfort that pointe shoes may bring. Carpenter urges dancers to not let their toenails get too long and also to not cut them too short. In addition, you may want to avoid pedicures, which dig at cuticles and get rid of calluses; you actually want these to protect your feet against infection, Carpenter explains.
“Start a foot care regime right away,” she adds. “Always have what I call ‘magical ballet spray’ in your dance bag. Take a small spritzer bottle, fill it with ¾ rubbing alcohol, ¼ water and a few drops of whatever essential oil you like. I like lavender, so that is what I use, but you could also use tea tree oil, lemon, sage, anything. Spray off your feet after you have finished dancing for the day. The spray kills odors, gets rid of bacteria (athlete’s foot), toughens up feet by drying them out and helping to develop calluses and is inexpensive to make. Do not spray directly on an open wound because it will sting. Use a pumice stone on your calluses after a shower, but do not try to get rid of them completely. You need your skin to harden for protection in the shoe.”
Also, Carpenter says to be sure to dry out your pointe shoes after each class or rehearsal – tips up – to help pull moisture out of the shoes. And wash those toe pads! Not only do they smell, but they often can be home to bacteria that can cause foot or nail infections.
“What if it’s still painful, even after following all of these tips?”
While some discomfort may come with the territory of dancing en pointe, Carpenter says that a large amount of pain may mean that something is off.
“Consult with your teachers and a professional fitter or podiatrist, and be specific about what you are feeling,” Carpenter encourages. “If you tell a professional that it hurts, that isn’t helpful. Be proactive, try to improve your technique, change a toe pad, change a brand of pointe shoe. Does paper tape or sports tape work better for you? Do you really need that gel pad, when lambswool might just be fine? Why are you trying to wear the same shoe as your friend when she has completely different feet? Are you really doing your TheraBand exercises and slow rises to demi-pointe every day, or you’re just looking at Instagram pictures of dancers en pointe, expecting to look like that? You have to be the one to make this happen; no one can do it for you. Teachers, fitters, therapists and doctors can guide you, but you have to put in the hard work. Your reward is knowing you did it yourself and steady improvement. Good luck!”
By Laura Di Orio of Dance Informa.