3 Professional Pointe Shoes Break-In Routines - Samara Rittinger

Growing up as a dancer, I was always mesmerized by pointe shoes and couldn’t wait to get my feet into a pair of them. It wasn’t until I actually got the chance to try pointe shoes on that I realized I hadn’t taken comfort into account, and wondered how dancers were able to rehearse in them all day. Over time, I learned that it isn’t common to wear pointe shoes immediately after choosing them; as most dancers find their own routine to “break them in”. This can mean anything from hammering the box, cutting part of the shank, or adding water to soften the glue. These may seem like strange things to do to a brand new pair of shoes, but it ensures that dancers are able to work in their pointe shoes properly and with as much comfort as possible. To provide further insight, I spoke with three professional dancers who shared their routines of breaking in pointe shoes and how this can be affected by the repertoire they are working on.

Samara Rittinger © pointefolio
Samara Rittinger © pointefolio

Samara Rittinger

Apprentice Dancer with The Washington Ballet in Washington, DC

Current pointe shoe brand

Grishko 2007’s. Grishko pointe shoes are known for their comfort, this is most likely due to the fact they are available in various widths, sizes, and three types of shanks; allowing them to suit a wide range of feet. The 2007 model, in particular, is ideal for those with tapered toes since the shoe has a tapered box and U-shaped vamp. 

Company season’s repertoire

“Right now we are getting ready for our season opening program which includes three world premieres of more neoclassical and contemporary pieces. Later in the season we will be doing more classical ballets including Swan Lake and Coppelia, along with a program of Sir Frederick Ashton and Balanchine works.” 

Break-in routine

Samara prefers to soften the hard box of her pointe shoes, so she must always “squish the box by stepping on the toe area. I do it to the point where it’s nice and soft so it can allow me to flatten my foot in the shoe. [That way,] I have more stability while standing and I can roll through demi pointe easier.” Another common strategy other dancers use to make their box more malleable is hammering the edges of their pointe shoe box just to the point of softness needed. She continues breaking in shoes by “stepping on the underneath side of the shoe until [she] hears the shank break away from the shoe.” No matter what type of repertoire they are working on, she stresses, “I always form the shank to my arch by bending the shoe with it on my foot, not just bending it in a random place.” This is essential in order to avoid breaking the shoe in the wrong spot. 

Classical vs. non-classical

“Overall I usually like having a little harder shoe for classical ballets so I have more support for balances and pirouettes. When breaking in shoes for classical ballets I don’t bend the shank as much as I would for neoclassical pieces. For those pieces, I usually keep my shoes quite mushy so I can dance the tricky weight shifts with a little more ease.”

Monika Haczkiewicz © foot.4.thought
Monika Haczkiewicz © foot.4.thought

Monika Haczkiewicz

Corps de Ballet Dancer with The National Ballet of Canada

Current pointe shoe brand

Custom Grishko 2007’s. The grishko pointe shoe brand offers any alterations needed to all models of their pointe shoes; this is a great advantage as it creates a fit specific to the dancer’s needs, making them more comfortable and easier to work in. The only downside of this is the extra cost of your alteration(s) and time to process your order. In Monika’s case, she orders the 2007 model with the sides cut down 1/8th of an inch, to show off her arches, and swaps normal drawstrings for elastic ones as she finds they hold better. Another brand that is known for creating custom shoes is Gaynor Minden. 

Company season’s repertoire

“We've been working on Giselle, Etudes, Chaconne, and a new contemporary work by Robert Binet called Orpheus Alive. We have also been working on Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet, and Swan Lake which will be performed later on in the season.”

Break-in routine

Due to the fact Monika orders custom pointe shoes with a soft shank, they don’t require much breaking in. Her main routine is to “step on the box to flatten it so it doesn't look bulky, and make sure to put the shoes on and do some relevés to help the shank loosen up.” If she wants her new pointe shoes to be softer, she will “wet the box a little bit to help the shoe become more malleable when [she’s] on demi pointe.” Another great use for water when wearing pointe shoes is to wet your heels before putting your shoes on. The water sticks the shoe to your heel, ensuring they stay firmly on your feet for extra security. It is also useful on a slippery stage or studio floor: add a bit of water to the bottom of your shoes, it will have a similar effect to rosin but without the extra residue. 

Classical vs. non-classical

“If I'm working on a more contemporary piece, I prefer my shoes to be softer because it's easier to feel the floor and to move in. However, if I'm working on a ballet like Sleeping Beauty with a lot of bourrées, I want harder shoes to avoid pain and injury.” When you have a busy classical rehearsal schedule that requires hard shoes it can be difficult to keep up with all the sewing. To help with this, you can add jet glue, which is essentially super glue, to the areas of the shoe that are most soft to re-harden them. It won’t last forever, but will extend the life of your pointe shoes. 

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Tania Angelovski © pickledthoughts.net
Tania Angelovski © pickledthoughts.net

Tania Angelovski

Dancer with Theatre Hof, Germany

Current pointe shoe brand

Freeds, with a bridge symbol. The symbols placed on each pointe shoe are a unique characteristic to the brand, as each pair is hand-made and the symbols correspond to the maker. This makes the shoe very customizable, as it allows dancers to request specific characteristics they’d like to have in their pointe shoes. Most dancers find them quite soft, probably due to the fact that they are hand-made with layers of biodegradable materials. Having real cobblers hand craft each shoe is a rare but traditional process, if you’re curious about the steps required to make a pointe shoe you can watch videos Freed has uploaded

Company season’s repertoire

Currently creating a new ballet based on the book “Dracula”

Break-in routine

Tania starts by softening the arch of the pointe shoe by  “placing my thumbs on the inside of the shoe and bending inwards and outwards.” A difference in her routine is how she places her elastics; “I always double cross my elastics for more support and sew them at the very back of my heel since my heels are more tapered than my metatarsals.” Sewing double elastics can feel time consuming, but to help your hands out, try sewing the ribbon and one end of the elastic at the same spot, this way you are sewing two pieces at once. As for a trick to saving a few dollars on materials, carefully cut off elastics and ribbons used on old pairs of pointe shoes and use them on your new ones. Tania also darns the platform of her new pointe shoes, by sewing a thick line of thread around the edge of the platform of the pointe shoe, which is what most dancers do for stability. For Tania, she explains “it makes them last much longer and [she] likes the way it looks visually as well.” When darning or sewing ribbons and elastics, some dancers prefer to use thread but not many know you can use dental floss as well. It is cheap, durable, and easy to find! 

Classical vs. non-classical

“Since Freeds are already quite supple for me I don’t prepare them differently for different choreographies, it usually just varies how long they last.” Apart from breaking them in, another way that dancers alter their pointe shoes is by their color. For example, it is common in non-classical repertoire for choreographers to want the pointe shoes dyed to match the dancers skin to create longer lines on stage. This can be done with special paint and a cotton ball, but be sure to stuff your shoes with socks while you’re painting as the paint can make them shrink. 

“it takes time to figure out what works for you”, but the benefits are well worth the work

Similar to the process of choosing the right pointe shoes, learning how to break in pointe shoes will take trial and error. Each of the dancers mentioned above have had to experiment and are still learning what works best for them based on their current needs. Samara explained, “It took me a while to figure out what works for my feet and I’m still trying new things to make my shoes perfect! There’s always something new you can do to get them that much closer to the perfect shoe.” The ballerinas’ greatest mutual piece of advice is to do your research on what other professionals have tried and see what works best for you. Be mindful to always ask why they are doing something in particular to their shoe. For example, if a professional chooses to hammer the box of their shoe to make it softer, that doesn’t mean you also have to hammer yours as well, unless you also want a soft box. Be patient with this process, Samara stressed, “it takes time to figure out what works for you”, but the benefits are well worth the work. 

main photo: Samara Rittinger

About the author

Kelsey began her professional training at Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet School when she was 14, where she would continue until she graduated in 2016. She then attended the RWB aspirant program where she had several performing opportunities with the company.  During her time in the program she was fortunate to attend various summer intensives such as: Atlanta Ballet, Arts Umbrella, and Ballet Jorgen where she was offered a short term contract. Following this contract Kelsey moved to France for a year to perform for Disneyland Paris while teaching ballet to the cast members. (And trying all the croissants!) This past summer Kelsey spent working with the RWB Summer Dance Collective, a contemporary based start up company, and is keeping her options open for her next opportunity.