All About Pointe > History of Pointe


What exactly did these Romantic ballerinas do technically? What was theheight of ballet virtuosity in the Mid-Nineteenth Century? As far as pointe work went it included, among other steps, the single pirouette and the piqué. The dancer's alignment was also different. She was less vertical, less straight up and down. Her hips were released back and her upper body tilted slightly forward. She was not "over her feet" as are today's dancers. How could she be without support in her shoes?

Taglioni wore soft satin slippers that fit like kid gloves. They had a leather sole and some darning on the sides and under, not on, the tip. That's all. It must have been a lot like standing barefoot. The blocked pointe shoe with a stiff sole as we know it today did not evolve until much later.

By the end of the century the ballerina faced new challenges. In Russia, in St. Petersburg, Marius Petipa was creating what would become the classics: Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, La Bayadére, Don Quixote and many more. At this time there were two main-- and rival-- schools of ballet in Europe: the French school, which Petipa brought to Russia, and the Italian school of which Cecchetti is a famous example. When two of the great ballerinas of the Italian school, Virginia Zucchi and Pierina Legnani, came to St. Petersburg their visit had a profound effect on the history of ballet. [Legnani]

Whereas the French school emphasized refinement, the Italian school was more athletic; its dancers developed powerful calves and thighs. The Italian school pushed technique to the limit in order to achieve dazzling virtuosic feats. The Italians had a secret weapon, a closely guarded trade secret, for turning multiple pirouettes: spotting. They also had better shoes. Pierina Legnani was the first to do thirty-two fouettés on pointe and she caused a huge sensation. Soon all the Russian ballerinas had to catch up technically but found they could not manage in their soft shoes. So they had their shoemakers create harder shoes for them. The Italian ballerinas, by the way, were dancing in Italian-made shoes that were actually quite soft, harder than Taglioni's but nothing like today's shoes.

The Italians contributed to another change-- the shorter dancing skirt that eventually evolved into the tutu. Virginia Zucchi was a great beauty and she refused to dance in a costume that, in her words, was fit for her grandmother. So she flouted the Imperial Theatre's strict regulations and the ballet world enjoyed another delightful scandal due to a ballerina's hemline.

©1998 Gaynor Minden, Inc.

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