Why and How Ballerinas Break In Ballet Pointe Shoes

In Family, General, How To, Opinion, Video by Michael Sheehan6 Comments

With the holidays upon us, ballerinas of all ages become a bit more inspired. One of the primary reasons is that various renditions of The Nutcracker are being interpreted and performed widely, from local community dance groups to large scale professional productions. Whether you are “into” ballet or not, you simply cannot help being sucked into this magical story.

For me, The Nutcracker experience has now come full circle. I have been going to The Nutcracker ever since I was a child, seeing it first in Chicago and then in San Francisco. It was a family tradition for my grandmother, my parents and me. And it now has become a tradition with my own family and my daughters. To complete the circle, for the past 2 years, my oldest daughter who is a student at the San Francisco Ballet School, has been casted as Clara in the San Francisco Ballet‘s production.

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As is customary in every ballet performance, ballerinas literally dance their shoes off in each production. It is common for the principal dancers to wear out a new pair of pointe shoes in a single performance. My daughter seems to go through a pair of pointe shoes every week or so.

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The pointe shoe is the ballet dancer’s primary equipment. It allows them to be on their toes, spin (pirouette), balance and simply perform. Much like a new baseball mitt, a pair of cleats or racecar engine, pointe shoes must be broken in to reach the perfect state. However, unlike the traditional breaking in process that happens over time, many ballerinas practically destroy their brand new pointe shoes even before dancing in them for the first time. And I should know, I have “broken in” quite a few pairs now.

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Because this entire concept of “unmaking” or breaking in the pointe shoes is a bit counterintuitive, I thought that I would walk through this “break in” process – at least the way that my daughter wants her shoes broken in.

An important thing to note though, every ballet dancer breaks in their shoes a bit differently. Some do all or even more of the steps outlined below while others do only a few things shown. A good dance instructor can help the dancer figure out the best process for to do. There are also plenty of videos online that can help as well. As there are many different ways to break in a pair of pointe shoes ranging from simple bending to full fledged destruction, be sure to talk to teachers and instructors as well as more seasoned, veteran dancers. Most importantly, it is what the dancer feels the most comfortable with. Some dancers don’t do much with their shoes while others truly customize them. The steps that I show below might not be the best for other dancers so be sure to talk to your teacher or instructor.

Lastly, before you go and hack up a new pair of $100 pointe shoes, be sure you know what you are doing and what exactly you want to do. And if the customization process involves knives, scissors or needles and you are a child, be sure to have adult supervision!

Oh, and be sure to scroll down to the end of this article for the video slideshow of this process.

The Equipment

First, you will need to have a pair of new pointe shoes. My daughter has tried:

Each of these pointe shoes has a different feel, some are harder, others softer. Some are narrow while others are wide. Be sure to get professionally fitted (unless you know exactly which make, style and size you want). Some shoes have very hard shanks while others are much more soft. Some boxes (the area where the toes are and the dancer “stands” on) are harder or wider while others not. Again, it depends on what you want, and a dancer may break in different pointe shoes distinctly.

The equipment that I used to break in my daughter’s pointe shoes were pretty basic. Here’s the shortlist:

  • Leatherman (Wave)
  • Jet Glue
  • Needle
  • Lighter
  • Pen/Pencil/Marker
  • Cloth tape (or Duct Tape; a stronger tape)

I really only had one main “tool” that I use each and every time, namely a Leatherman. Specifically, the Leatherman Wave. I have had this multi-use tool for many years and for this particular break-in process, it is fantastic. For the pointe shoe customization process, I use: the pliers, the knife, the serrated knife, the saw (sometimes) and the scissors.

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The Jet Glue is used to harden any part of the shoe and, as my daughter says, makes the shoes last just a little bit longer. My daughter uses the blue bottle (the “instant” version).

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The needle (and appropriate thread) is used to sew on the ribbons. And the lighter is used to burn back any of the frayed edges of the ribbons or the cut satin of the pointe shoes themselves. I will go into greater detail below.

Oh, and you need time. I usually spend anywhere 20 minutes or more doing the process specific to my daughter’s shoes.

Breaking In Pointe Shoes

Below is the typical process that I take when breaking in my daughter’s pointe shoes. Remember, this process is customized based on her requirements. If you are looking for a how-to on this process, work with an expert on this as your customizations may be completely different. However, I do know that there are many dancers who follow a process similar to the one listed below. Ready?

First you need to fit the new shoes properly. These pointe shoes are hand-made so they are not entirely identical. Also, people actually have different sized-feet. So before you start any customizations, see which shoe feels better on specific feet.

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Try them flat footed as well as en pointe (above).

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Once you figure out which shoe fits best on the feet, be sure to label them inside. You can see the L and R indicated below.

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Depending on the dancer’s preference as well as the stiff and hardness of the box (the front area of the shoes), you may need to break in the box. This is your chance to get your aggressions out (and typically it is better to get an adult who weighs more than the dancer to do this). You simply need to crush the box. Here’s the before:

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…that is my lovely socked foot…

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…and this is the result.

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At this point, my daughter likes to have the back portion of the shank cut and removed (this process is called “3/4ing”). Not all dancers do this. Some simply bend and condition the shank to their liking. As you saw in the previous picture, she draws lines on the shank to indicate where I should cut. This depends on where your arch is.

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This is where the sharp blade of the Leatherman comes in handy. Depending on how hard the shank is, you can use a simple blade but sometimes I have had to use the serrated blade of the Leatherman to cut through stiffer shanks.

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And sometimes you have to do it in batches, cutting and ripping out the shank.

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Depending on the maker of the shoes, the shank may be anchored to the sole with a small nail. Be sure to look for those and remove them.

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Once the shank is out, the sole can be bent more easily and conditioned a bit more. Here my daughter is bending the sole to her liking. This is completely up to the dancer though.

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Repeat this process with the other shoe.

This next step also depends on your preferences. As part of this break-in process really weakens the shoe to make it more supple and comfortable, you may want to strengthen the box a bit. To do this, my daughter pours Jet Glue (the quick drying one) down into the box.

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It dries pretty quickly so don’t pour in too much!

One thing that a ballerina quickly become is a seamstress as they need to sew on the various ribbons onto the shoes. Think of the ribbons as “shoelaces” around the ankles.

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Sometimes you need the Leatherman to pull the needle through.

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The sewed ribbons typically look like this.

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Following is another step that is optional, that is, to cut away the satin around the toe (the pointe). She does this to make the shoes a bit less slippery.

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It sort of feels like peeling an apple.

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Once you go a couple of times around with the knife, the satin can be pulled off.

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The result is a bit ugly but it’s more about function than appearance.

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Now it is time for some fire. You use the lighter to burn down (carefully) the frayed edges of satin on the shoes or the ribbons.

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The breaking in process is almost complete at this point (at least on my daughter’s shoes). Because the cut shank can sometimes be uncomfortable, my daughter tapes up the exposed area inside the shoe. She uses cloth tape for this. But you can also use a stronger tape like duct tape.

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Lastly, trim the ribbons so you don’t have extra and your knot remains small.

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With this last step, you have thoroughly destroyed broken-in the pointe shoes!

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That wasn’t that difficult, right? Well, considering that you just took an expensive ($100) pair of pointe shoes and glued, cut, burned and hacked them up, it sometimes is a bit difficult to stomach. But, as I mentioned, pointe shoes are a ballet dancers primary piece of equipment so this type of break-in and customization shouldn’t seem that out of the ordinary.

I have all of the pictures from this process over on my Flickr set. And you can view the video slideshow below:

Again, I have to stress that the process that I outlined above is very specific to my daughter’s preference. You should get opinions from your teachers or instructors or from the people who sell pointe shoes. This is a very individual preference so what you end up doing may be dramatically different.

My daughter, Natasha, and I are happy to answer any questions you may have about this process so be sure to leave a comment!

HTD says: Does the breaking in process for pointe shoes surprise you?




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