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How a Pointe Shoe Works
The foot is supported from underneath the arch by a stiff insole, or shank. The box of the shoe tightly encases the toes, so that the dancer's weight rests on an oval-shaped platform. The shank has varying degrees of flexibility, and the box may have different configurations. The outer material is usually pink satin and can be dyed for performance to costume designers' specifications. Most pointe shoes will fit either foot; there is usually no left or right. Except in rare cases pointe shoes are worn only by women.
Although the shoe enables the dancer to poise indefinitely on tiptoe, it is her strength and technique that bring her from the normal standing position through a mid-position, "demi-pointe", to the full-pointe position. Once en pointe she maintains a contraction of the muscles of the feet, ankles, legs and torso to pull herself up out of the shoe. Without proper technique an attempt at toe-dancing can cause injury. Children with growing feet should not dance en pointe, nor should anyone lacking adequate strength and training. The introduction to pointe work must be gradual. Dancers should train for several years in soft slippers before they wear pointe shoes. Then only a few minutes of each class are devoted to special pointe exercises. Eventually dancers progress to wearing pointe shoes for half, or all of class.
The pain of pointe work discourages beginners and plagues even professionals. Until Gaynor Minden introduced cushioned linings, the pointe shoe was very hard and rough on the inside. Dancers in uncushioned shoes use lambs' wool or toe pads under their toes to make pointe dancing bearable. However, crude, bulky pads and excessive lambs' wool prevent proper fit and deprive the dancer of her essential ability to "feel the floor".