Monday, February 25, 2008

Monday Ballet: En Pointe

Wherein it's hard to tell watching them onstage, but if you ever meet ballerinas up close pay attention to just how muscular the legs, especially the calves, are. There's some freakish strength and power there

Pointe shoes are elongated ballet shoes encasing a solid box (shoe anatomy). Even with a platform, it requires much strength and balance. Training usually begins no earlier than 9 or 10 years of age, and after 3-4 years of classical training. Advanced technique, physical development, and ability to support their own weight are all considered before a dancer is allowed to begin en pointe work. Even then, work in pointe shoes starts out at no more than about 10 minutes a class. I made mention of muscular ballet legs, but I should also mention that dancers tend to have some ugly feet and toes from all the abuse.

Because of the point shoe construction, they have a relatively short life span and dancers will rehearse with a large bag of shoes. The idea is to break in and find the sweet spot in one pair just in time for the performance. After that, the shoe is done. The Child (age 6) attends classes at a school with a professional company and we're told that the company members will go through upwards of 60 shoes a season at a cost of around $100 a pair. Yeah, obviously we need to start saving now.

If you're interested in ballet techniques, a good place to look is Suki Schorer on Balanchine Technique. Ms. Schorer, spent almost a quarter century dancing with George Balanchine and teaching at the School of American Ballet. Her book is essentially an encyclopedia of the Balanchine method, along with little biographical details. Some of which are interesting, others are just odd:
When I joined the faculty of SAB, Madame Danilova and I got to know each other as colleagues and in the teachers' dressing room. This was a ballerina to the nth degree. She arrived for work every day impeccably dressed down to her underwear, the most beautiful I have ever seen.

Okay...thanks for sharing. Back to the pointe shoes, it's less gossipy:
Balanchine was very much aware of the expense to the company caused by the need for so many pairs of pointe shoes. He therefore did not object to our wearing old shoes for class, as long as they were not so old that they failed to give us the support we needed to dance full-out on pointe. Also, for me and for some of the other women, it was easier to start class in softer shoes. We had better articulation of the foot and pointed our toes more easily, so we wore older but serviceable pointe shoes for the barre exercises. Then as the center work began, we changed into newer, slightly harder shoes.

Once a dancer has become accustomed to working in pointe shoes, it is hard to go back to ballet slippers. Soft slippers give much less support, and, although in jumps you have to point your feet extra hard against the end of the pointe show in order to bend the shank and box, the shoe actually helps the dancer when landing: The box provides resistance, which helps control the foot as it makes contact with the floor. Because it is soft, the slipper offers no such resistance, which makes it ore likely that the dacner will land on the ball of the foot and go immediately onto her whole foot, rather than landing on the tips of the toes and easing down through the toe joints and then through the rest of the foot.

...When the dancer is standing on pointe, most of her weight should be borne by the big toe and the toe next to it. The toes are usually not straight to the floor, which would place the dancer on the tips of her toes. Instead, they are slightly bent under. This is achieved by placing the weight above the top of the supporting foot and by stretching the top of the foot. The dancer does not intentionally bend the toes; rather, the placement of her weight and the flexibility of her instep determine their shape and position in the shoe. The dancer pulls up off her feet and out of her shoes; she does not relax and sit into them.

Suki teaching a pointe class

From Physics of Toe Shoes
What stabilizes a dancer en pointe is the upward tension in the achilles tendon as the toe pushes down into the floor. The achilles tendon must withstand a tension force two to three times a person's body weight! The achilles tendon is vital to a dancer, and if it tears it can mean the end of a dancer's career.


How is it possible for a dancer to balance her entire body weight on one square inch (the approximate are of the pointe of a toe shoe)?! The key is that her center of gravity, that is the location where the mass of her body is concentrated, must be exactly in line with the area of support, that is the pointe of the shoe.

The state of static balance, that is balance without moving, can only be achieved when the sum of the forces on the body is zero. When a dancer is en pointe and is not holding onto anything, the only forces acting on her are the downward force of gravity, and the equal and opposite upward force of the floor that balances it. When a dancer relevees, she will be balanced if she relevees straight up, exerting zero horizontal force. However, she will be unblanced if she is slightly tipped one way or the other and exerts a horizontal force as she relevees, and she may topple. In order to relevee straight up a dancer must have enough strength in her legs, feet, and ankles, and she must maintain good form by not sitting in her hip or arching her back.


One of the most beautiful moves in ballet is the pirouette, a turn on one foot often with multiple rotations. The Law of Rotational Inertia, a variation of Newton's First Law, states that an object that is not rotating will not begin rotating, and an object that is rotating will not stop rotating unless acted upon by an external force. Rotational inertia depends on the distribution of the mass of the object relative to the axis of rotation. The greater the distance between the bulk of the mass of an object and the axis of rotation, the more rotational inertia it has. This explains why when a dancer pulls in her arms while she is spinning she has less rotational inertia, and therefore spins faster and for longer. This also explains why the rate of turn of a pirouette in the retire position (the most common position for a pirouette with the gesture leg bent so that the toe is placed at the inside of the knee of the supporting leg) is more than double the rate turn of an arabesque turn (when the gesture leg is extended out behind the dancer).

Katherine Healy dancing the Black Swan

This has nothing to do with pointe, I just don't see having any other place to use this. Though this song might need to be added to "hip hop songs white people love."


Blogger justkim said...

I once knew a girl who would go on pointe while "barefoot": no shoes, just a couple of pairs of socks. She, not surprisingly, didn't like to show her bare feet.

The Company, directed by Robert Altman and starring Neve Campbell, is a pretty good ballet film.

I wanted to be a dancer when I was little, but circumstances were never right. We moved around too much for me to spend any time working with one teacher and most of the places we lived didn't have classes anyway.

2/25/2008 06:57:00 AM  
Blogger bill said...

The Child walks around the house on pointe in tennis shoes. She'll even do a little in ballet slippers. Here's something y'all might find interesting -- her current teacher is a former Disney princess and dancer.

2/25/2008 08:14:00 AM  
Blogger bill said...

justkim, I just checked and the school for your local ballet has adult classes. The Wife is thinking about taking classes. After about a year or two, they start pointe training.

2/25/2008 08:18:00 AM  
Blogger justkim said...

Aw. That's sweet of you to check. Unfortunately, I screwed up my knee a couple of years ago while being enthusiastic in an aerobics class. Any twisting or turning causes a lot of pain. Besides, I don't think my toes will be up to supporting my, um, voluptuous frame for many more pounds yet.

It does remind me though, that I've been considering buying a pair of roller skates. And I need to start walking now that life has sort of returned to normal. I will keep the classes in mind though. I always felt like a princess when I took classes. Something about the posture and grace of it all.

2/25/2008 09:08:00 AM  
Blogger bill said...

As someone whose knee sounds like a bowl of rice krispies when it bends, I've been pleasantly surprised with taking glucosamine.

2/25/2008 11:22:00 AM  
Blogger Ahistoricality said...

Sounds to me like there's a gold mine in pointe shoes for some enterprising materials science experimenters. There have to be some kind of synthetics at this point with the right physical properties....

2/25/2008 02:22:00 PM  

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