Protecting Your Toesies For Pointe

I started pointe at age 9 –

(too young by some teachers’ opinions, but that’s another article), and my teacher was thoroughly set on having all of her students wear pointe shoes without padding.  Her philosophy was that if shoe fit correctly then there wasn’t any need for padding.

That’s a nice theory but, unless you have a custom-made shoe, it’s unlikely that you’ll find a shoe out there that will mold exactly to your foot. The other problem with this particular teacher’s point of view is that she required all of her students to wear Capezio brand pointe shoes. There’s nothing wrong with Capezio shoes, it’s just that if you’re going to make dancers dance on pointe without padding and request a “perfect fit”, then you had better give her as many options as possible!

Still, I walked out with my shiny new size 3 Capezios and a year later I had ingrown toenails, the beginning of bunions and bunionettes, and nearly constant abrasions and blisters. There just wasn’t a Capezio shoe that fit my foot with enough efficacy to wear it without padding.

I eventually changed studios and, at age 14, I essentially started over. I was asked to go to a professional pointe shoe fitting by a woman named Sylvia.

Sylvia, a purest in her own right, always started with Grishko and very rarely strayed to other brands, only allowing lamb’s wool as padding.  This time, however, I got a bit lucky and wound up with the Grishko Elite, which happens to be the best shoe out there for my foot.  I haven’t bought another shoe since.

I’ve recently been working on developing an e-course about pointe preparation and came across Nichelle’s great article on pointe readiness during my research.  I found all the comments and differing opinions about shoe types, brands, construction, and padding options really interesting.

Even when I found “my perfect shoe”, I still needed padding.

So, the focus of this post is to break down your options and help you get to the bottom of the pointe shoe padding conundrum.

I’ve tried pretty much everything in my shoes, including:

  • Lambs wool
  • Synthetic, imitation lambs wool
  • Pre-formed lambs wool pads
  • Ouch Pouches
  • Gel or silicone inserts
  • Gel toe sleeves
  • Paper towel
  • Cut off socks
  • Band-aids
  • Athletic tape
  • Toilet paper

There are no hard, fast rules about padding; if anything, there are as many opinions about it as there are dancers.

Here is the “low down” on a few of my favorites:

Lambs Wool: When it ain’t broke, don’t fix itIMAGE A knot of lamb's wool for pointe shoes. IMAGE

Lambs Wool is a great place to start for pointe shoe padding.  Though it’s considered antiquated by some teachers, I consider lamb’s wool to be the perfect padding because it can be shaped and molded to each individual dancer’s foot.  It gets in all the nooks and crannies that pre-formed pads don’t, and is thin enough to still be able to feel the floor and the shoe.  It breathes more than gel or silicone, meaning that your shoes don’t get as stinky as fast, protecting the shoe from accelerated wear due to the extra moisture.

How to make a toe pad out of loose lambs wool:
  1. Cut the lambs wool into two pieces (size will vary, but make sure it’s not so much that your toes are crunched)
  2. Stretch out the wool slightly and wrap around the front of your bare foot at the metatarsals, leaving excess on the tops of your toes and making sure all parts of the toes are covered.
  3. Cover the pad with your convertible tights and try on your shoe.  With new wool, you may need to make a couple of adjustments, but as your foot sweats and you work with the wool it will mold to the shape of your foot.
  4. Once the pad starts to get really worn and tear, you should replace the wool to try and avoid rubbing blisters through the worn parts of the pad.

Gel pouches: the toe pad of the future?

IMAGE A dancer wears toe pads on pointed feet. IMAGEI recently fit a new student in pointe shoes and they didn’t have any lambs wool in the shop.  We fit her using an Ouch Pouch Jr., and I have to say I was really impressed with how well these worked for her.  Though I’m a huge advocate for loose lambs wool, I can’t say that I would stop a student from using synthetic pads so long as they pass “the Lauren test”.

“The Lauren Test” for perfect pointe shoe padding:

No plastic.  Plastic is too hard, does not form to the foot, and doesn’t breath.  That means your feet will be a pruny, soft mess that are prone to blister.

Not too thick.  Too much gel in those gel pads means that you lose the feeling of the floor, and might be wearing a shoe that’s too big for you to accommodate the pad.  Shoes that are too big can cause a host of problems such as ingrown toenails, hammertoes, and sickling.

Not too long.  A lot of pads are too long and poke out of the front of the shoe.  That’s why I like the Jr. version of the Ouch Pouches… because they don’t do that!  The pad should cover your metatarsophalangeal joints of the first and fifth toe, but that’s it.

They’ve got to be soft and mold to the foot.  Hard, rigid pads of any kind are a complete no-no.

As teachers, we want to use our expertise to inform our students and prevent injuries in their pointe training.  Perhaps it’s because of this that we sometimes create rules that don’t make sense (like, no one can ever use padding ever in their shoes, or, everyone has to wear such-and-such brand of shoes).  Every dancer is different, and ultimately has to make their own choices about what shoes and padding work best for them.

On the other hand, it’s important that we do instill some guidelines in dance programs to prevent dancers from making bad choices from among the countless shoe and padding combinations out there.

As a general rule, I always lean toward the side of antiquity and tradition when it comes to pointe; a well-constructed, handmade shoe with no synthetic parts and real lambswool padding are an excellent place to start.  However, that’s not to say that their aren’t some new products out their made from synthetic materials that can’t do the job just as well.

Teachers: What guidelines do you set in place in your program/studio?

Dancers: What sorts of products or tricks do you use to protect your feet from wear and tear in your pointe shoes?

Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke

Dance writer, educator at Art Intercepts
Lauren Warnecke is a dance writer based in Chicago, IL, and is a contributing author at 4dancers.org, danceadvantage.net, Windy City Times, and SeeChicagoDance.com. In 2009 Lauren created Art Intercepts, a blog for dance-based discourse that incorporates dance and movement research, editorial commentary, and critical reviews. She is a full-time faculty member at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Lauren Warnecke
Lauren Warnecke
Lauren Warnecke

Comments

  1. So informative Lauren! I will pass this on to my friends who teach pointe. I think they will really find it useful. I learned so much!

  2. Thanks, Maria! It can be a controversial topic… I’d be curious to know what other teachers think about the subject.

  3. dancergirl7 says:

    In pointe, it is very important to keep your toes in mint condition so to speak, so it is a good idea to use spacers for your toes and toe pads or something to help keep your toes padded from sinking too far into your boxes. Also, its a good idea to make sure that your ribbons are tight so you cant hurt your ankles or fall off of the boxes.

  4. Juli Soria says:

    Where can i puchase Lambswool?
    i Latin Dance, but my primery reason for needing the wool is that i suffer from Chilblains. i use the wool to wrap my toes.
    I used to by it in packets from Scholl but they have discontinued it
    any help would be greatly appreciated
    Juli

  5. Sylvia Windolph Fischer says:

    Hi Lauren! I am the SYLVIA you mentioned in your information above, and yes, I remember the delightful times we spent together while I was instructing you on the formation of your lambs wool pads, and finding the perfect shoe to keep your toes happy En Pointe. So pleased to read you went on to get a BA in Dance and an MA in Kinesiology!

    Sylvia Windolph Fischer
    MASTER POINTE SHOE FITTER AND EVER THE PURIST!

  6. Excuse me, Lauren, if you don’t mind answering, Sylvia sounds like the prime Pointe Shoe fitter. I was wondering if you could please inform me of her location, for I am starting Pointe this Fall.

    • Hi Sofia,
      Sylvia was based out of a little shop next door to the Judith Svalander School of Ballet in Crystal Lake, IL. I’m not sure where she is now… Sylvia??

      • Sylvia Windolph Fischer says:

        Hi Lauren, I am still in Crystal Lake, but different location. Thanks for sending Sofia’s request to me. JSSB recently celebrated their 40th Anniversary Celebration, with dancers performing excerpts from Aida, Sleeping Beauty, Coppelia, and a lot of Judith’s own choreography like Postcards, Requiem, and more. I still remember your love of dance and I think one of your last roles in The Nutcracker was the Maid. And you were wonderful!

        • My pleasure! I hope you’re able to connect, and I’ll keep your email on file for the future :) And you’re right… I was the Maid!

    • Sylvia Windolph Fischer says:

      Thanks Sofia! My fitting studio is in Crystal Lake, IL, and appointments must be scheduled. You can contact me via email at: pointeshoebysylvia@att.net. A special thanks to Nichelle for sending me your email. Sylvia

  7. i have been dancing ballet since i was 2, i started pointe at 12 (old school RAD syllabus) an i started professional training at 13, my teacher was always very insistent on NO padding or in some extreme cases as little as possible, so i was trained using nothing but toe tape and toe spacers i recently lost a toe nail (nothing new) so i got the silicone pads as a measure for it but i hated them! you cant feet the floor, it messes with your balance and your toes get sweaty super fast (i usually roll my convertibles up) i wonder how girls who are just begging pointe can get anything with those on :p

  8. Alejandra Vasquez says:

    I’ve been dancing on pointe for almost 2 years now and i have to constatly be changing my shoes because the box quickly molds to the shape of my foot. This causes the box to be uneven from each side and it’s very difficult to dance and balance on them. Do you have any suggestions that might be helpful?

    • Alejandra, molding to your foot isn’t necessarily a bad thing… but if your alignment is not correct then it could be throwing off your balance. I would suggest you take a look at an old pair of shoes and determine if there is wear and tear in an area there shouldn’t be (like over the fourth and fifth toes). You also might want to consider trying a different style of pointe shoe and playing around with different sized boxes and platforms. Seeing a professional pointe shoe fitter could help trouble shoot what style of shoe is going to work for you. Good luck!

  9. Valentina Sibilla says:

    Dear Sylvia and Laurent:
    I dance Ballet since age 8, now that I have 35, I am dedicating to teaching here in my country (Chile). I am a Medical Technologist by profession, and I am a Pilates instructor, and now, I am running the RAD CBTS program. In my country there are no experts in adjusting pointe shoes, and all those who danced, went through an endless trial and error to find the shoes that fit us best. Do you know if there is any on line course or program aimed to become a pointe shoe fitter?
    Thanks!

  10. Daphne Klein says:

    Hi,
    Thank you so much for posting this! I dance on pointe shoes for about a year now and wear ouch pouches, but I’m looking for an other toe protector since I don’t feel the ground very good now. I’ve tried not wear anything at all in my pointe shoes but though that that was too painfull. I’m considering on using lambs wool now, but I bought my shoes wearing ouch pouches, so I’m not sure if it will fit good. But I’m also looking what new pointe shoes I want to get since I’m not very pleased with my current Sansha’s and their about to die. I’m looking for some other brands and I’m thinking about taking Gaynor’s but I’ve heard that Gaynor’s make your feet lazy.. What is your opinion about this?

    • Daphne, Selecting a shoe is a really individual process; no two feet are alike! Just make sure that you do your fitting with the type of padding you intend to wear for class and performances, and don’t be afraid to try different shoes and brands. If possible, I would really recommend getting a professional fitting. Good luck!

  11. Hi are their ways to dance point in shoes that are not for ballet? I would like to maintain balance without the point of my shoes bending when I dance. I don’t exactly dance point. But could inserts be made for shoes like Nike or Jordans? I mean no disrespect towards this site. If my questions sound odd. I’m simply also a dancer and would like to resolve my problem.

    • No offense taken, Isaac! I’m not sure I can answer your question exactly. Someone who makes or repairs shoes may be able to tell you whether there is a way to reinforce a street shoe for better support when on the toes.

      However, I’m imagining you may be working on or aspiring to some Lil Buck-style moves? One thing to note about this amazing dancer is that he has had some classical ballet and dance training. Now, my understanding is that he was quite good on his toes before that but I suspect that he was gifted with some innate sense of what dancers call “lift”. While pointe shoes do offer support of the foot and toes, these don’t amount to much if the dancer doesn’t have the technique and muscle control to support their body weight and create gravity-defying “lift out of their shoes”. Roughly, this concept involves activating the inner thigh, abdominal, pelvic floor, hip and back muscles. Classical or contemporary dance training may be the best way to learn and apply the concept of lift but other body training methods like Pilates and Gyrokinesis can help teach this kind of muscle control as well. In the end, dance training may be more effective for you than figuring out shoe reinforcement, though a new pair of sneakers could also help. Ballet dancers get rid of their pointe shoes when they are too broken to offer support. Professionals may actually go through a pair of pointe shoes every day! The good news is that I think a good pair of sneakers would hold up much better than a pointe shoe, which are sort of made to be broken because the pointed shape of the foot is important to the aesthetic of ballet.

      I hope this helps, Isaac! Good luck!

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