Tuesday, May 3, 2011

An evening with Anne Polajenko: "The Origin of the Pointe Shoe"

The origin of the Pointe shoe

No one knows who actually invented the Pointe shoe. But, as early as the 1840s, a teacher named Filippo Taglioni developed the shoe for his daughter, the famous Italian ballerina Maria Taglioni. Why would he do that?

The 1800s corresponds to what is known as the Romantic period in the Arts. At this time, literature, music and dance were full of supernatural stories. In the ballet "Giselle" a young girl dies of a broken heart and her spirit joins the kingdom of the Willis who seek revenge on unfaithful men. In "Swan Lake" a young lady is turned into a swan and can only be freed by true love. You get the picture.

For the ballerina to look as ethereal as a floating spirit, it was necessary to use some theatrical devices. One of these was the harness she wore under her costume which, attached to a cable high above her, would literally fly her up  and away. Another was Filippo Taglioni's shoe which added to the dancer's illusion of lightness as she rose up on her toes. Maria being not only his daughter but also the most famous ballerina of her time, it was natural Filippo should test the shoe on her. It created a sensation.

Once Maria Taglioni wore the first Pointe shoes, others were quick to follow. Soon, dancing on Pointe was the rule rather than the exception. By the late 1800s, the next generation of Italian ballerinas were performing unheard of technical feats on their toes.

The shoe was naturally nothing like the ones we have today. The toe box was hardened but it would be many years before shoe makers perfected the shape and strength of the shoe. Many more years would go by before dancers actually had choices of styles to fit their individual foot constructions as well as choices of shank strengths etc.

Interestingly though, some of the most difficult steps to date were first done in the late 1800s by these Italian ballerinas (like the 32 consecutive fouett├ęs) in shoes that were nothing more than reinforced slippers. It begs the question: have we gone soft over time or were they super human?

  --- Anne Polajenko

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