Article by Kathleen McGuire | Published in DanceSpirit Magazine, September 16, 2015
Your teacher has finally given you the OK to go on pointe! As any experienced ballet dancer will tell you, your pointe shoes can either be your best friend or your worst enemy. The right fit ensures that you’ll be able to work safely and gives you a solid foundation for your pointe technique. Seeing a professional fitter for your first pair—and coming to your appointment prepared—will set you up for success.
How to Find a Fitter
In many cases, your teacher will recommend a fitter. But what if she doesn’t? “I’d suggest calling a dance store you trust and asking if there’s a professional fitter on staff,” says Josephine Lee, who owns Dancer’s Choice in Irvine, CA (and the affiliated roving pointe shoe fitting business The Pointe Shop). You should also be sure to ask how many brands of shoes the store carries. A qualified store, Lee says, will have at least five to eight different brands. That variety is important: It indicates that the store sells lots of shoes, and it makes it more likely that you’ll be able to find the perfect shoe for your foot.
How to Prepare
According to Kerri Angeletti, who manages The Dancer’s Pointe in Pittsburgh, one of the most important things to figure out before your fitting is what type of padding you’ll be using, because padding can dramatically affect the fit of a shoe. Talk to your teacher about what she prefers. Some teachers will want you to start with a specific type of toe pad, such as a gel pad or lambswool. Others may request that you learn without padding at all. Either bring the teacher-approved padding with you to your appointment or be prepared to buy it at the shop.
It’s important that you come to your fitting dressed appropriately, in a leotard and tights, so the fitter can see your lines clearly. “Your first pointe shoe fitting is your first pointe class,” Lee says. Make sure your tights are convertible, since the fitter will also want to look at your bare feet and toes. And don’t schedule a fitting right after class, Lee adds, because your feet will likely be swollen from dancing, which will change the way the shoes fit.
What to Expect
Angeletti recommends allowing at least an hour for your first fitting. “You need to try on a variety of different shoes so that you can really feel the differences between them,” she says.
The fitter will usually begin by getting up close and personal with your feet. She’ll analyze the line created by the top of your toes, the width of your metatarsal and the length of your toes and feet. Then, you’ll begin the Goldilocks-like process of trying on shoes, searching for the pair that’s just right. In addition to looking at the shoe on pointe, Angeletti has the dancer plié in second position—“the position in which the foot is longest,” she explains—to determine if the shoe’s length is correct. As a pointe beginner, it’s especially important that your shoes fit well on flat as well as on pointe. You’ll start out spending relatively little time on your toes as you build strength.
How to Get the Right Fit
To describe the perfect fit, Lee uses a saying she first heard from a Capezio shoe designer: “The pointe shoe should mold to the foot like a cast.” Your shoes should feel tight, but your toes shouldn’t curl under and you shouldn’t feel pinching in your metatarsal. “Be very vocal about how you’re feeling in each shoe,” Angeletti says. Now isn’t the time to be agreeable. Your fitter needs as much detail as possible in order to get you the best, and safest, fit.
Nervous about speaking up—or just about the fitting process generally? Mackenzie Cherry, a student at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, got a confidence boost at her first fitting because her whole class went as a group, which made her much more comfortable. If your class isn’t going on an excursion together, consider asking a friend if you can schedule your appointments together.
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t think your first pair is “the one.” It’s important to remember that this is a process. Lee points out that many dancers continue to change their pointe shoes periodically throughout their careers as their abilities and preferences change. And to answer one of the most frequently asked fitting questions: Does it hurt? “It’s a little painful,” Mackenzie admits, “but if you’re excited about being on pointe, you don’t really think about it.”
Common Fit Problems—and How to Solve Them
Pressure on the big toe
Josephine Lee, owner of Dancer’s Choice in Irvine, CA, says that too much pressure on the big toe can mean you’re sinking into the box, a problem that can be solved with a more tapered shoe. But it also may depend on your foot shape. If you have a long big toe, it’ll always bear more weight on pointe. As you train, you’ll gain strength and learn to lift up out of your shoes, which will alleviate that feeling.
Pinching in the metatarsal
“You need a wider box,” Lee says. The width is correct when your feet are nice and flat on the floor, without being able to wiggle inside the shoe. Some dancers need a more triangular box—one that’s wide at the metatarsal but tapered at the toe—to keep them from sinking into the shoe.
Lee says sickling on pointe may be a sign that a dancer is struggling to get up over her box and is pushing over her pinky toe to compensate. A softer shank can help you stand fully and correctly on pointe. The downside is that softer shoes wear out faster. But, Lee says, “it’s better than learning bad habits.”