Ballet shoes as technology

At the Atlantic, science historian Suzanne Fischer has a really interesting post up about the development of pointe shoes. In the early 20th century, at a time when all sorts of technologies were remaking the way people lived, worked, and played, pointe shoes were doing the same thing for ballerinas.

In particular, Fischer writes, pointe shoes were almost the dance equivalent of Henry Ford's assembly line—they standardized bodies and turned dancers into a sleek, modern commodity.

... the new shoes forced dancers' bodies to move in new ways. Dancers on this pointe regimen developed characteristically long, lean leg muscles. Balanchine also encouraged dancers to let the shoes remake their bodies, including developing bunions that gave the foot just the right line. And as their bodies were remade, dancers became "like IBM machines," modern and indistinguishable. This had consequences for labor, too. For one, stars became a less central feature of dance companies as dancers became more interchangeable, and second, dancers came to spend hours working on their shoes -- altering, gluing, and caring for them. In fact, in 1980 dancers threatened to strike -- not over hours or pay, but for better pointe shoes, and better management of them.

Via Alexis Madrigal

Image: get the pointe III, a Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from chrishaysphotography's photostream


  1. They standardized bodies? Oh, if only that were true. I did ballet as a kid and was so thrilled to be en pointe, but alas, hormones and genetics took over.  My  C cup boobs put an end to my National Ballet School dreams.

      1. They standardized bodies? Oh, if only that were true.

        It is. You were filtered out in ballet’s standardization process, as is nearly everyone who draws center-of-gravity-affecting changes in the genetic lottery.

  2.  I can appreciate the shoes and how they allow dancers to carry themselves in ways that I would otherwise consider completely impossible for the human body. But I can’t really appreciate the concept that “Dancers became ‘like IBM machines,’ modern and indistinguishable.”  I doubt that’s what any ballerina really strives for.

    1. It’s hard to explain: you have to train your body to do everything in exactly the right way, so in that regard you really are indistinguishable (your leg cannot be held any higher or at a slightly different angle than any other dancer in the corps, for example), and yet of course you want to distinguish yourself as the right choice for a starring role.

  3. “I doubt that’s what any ballerina really strives for. ”

    Something tells me you may never have known anyone seriously into ballet?

    As mentioned above, it’s a rigid standardization process…one of the more grueling ones out there in fact.  I don’t think anybody personally familiar with that world would hesitate to compare it to SEAL training or trying out to become an astronaut.  While a dancer might feel some limited freedom to “express” herself in an occasionally personal way once she’s attained significant acclaim, for the most part they’re supposed to be obedient and interchangeable cogs in a machine, the tools for the director/choreographer.  The shape, size, weight, and other physical characteristics of the body itself are a major part of that.  Some dancers even refrain from many forms of “normal” activity or exercise for fear that they might develop in more normal, typically considered “healthy” ways.

  4. A pair of her [Marie Taglioni’s] shoes sold for 200 rubles and was cooked and eaten by her admirers.

  5. “long lean muscles”

    Oh Christ not this crap again.  Your muscles change length when you use them, ie when the contract they shorten and when they relax they lengthen.  A training regimen can’t change muscle length. 

    1. Your muscles change length when you use them, ie when the contract they shorten and when they relax they lengthen. A training regimen can’t change muscle length.

      I think that you’ll find that a training regimen that includes strength training without stretching will indeed shorten your muscles and limit your range of motion.

  6. I danced ballet as a hobby for most of my youth, but only started dancing on pointe at age 16 due to a previous ankle injury. I never really got the hang of it, and stopped at the end of the year when I went to college. I don’t know what my legs would look like if I had danced on pointe for any significant length of time. Having danced has given me significantly larger thigh and calf muscles than most people, and has given me a tendency to actively use my whole foot more.

    I do remember hearing all kinds of tales from the other girls in the class about how to perfectly tweak pointe shoes. Among other things, they recommended baking them in the oven, slamming them in doors, etc. I’m not sure how any of those things were supposed to help. I mostly just wore mine whenever I could to help them shape to my foot.

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