Starting as a ballet dancer, Marisa discovered flamenco in her 40s. Now retired, she enjoys sharing her knowledge of all things dance.
All pointe shoes do not fit all feet. Pointe shoe makers make different models to suit different feet—for instance, the Bloch Sylphide suits tapered toes but would be uncomfortable if your toes are all even. So before you begin looking at shoes, it's important to know:
- Your foot type (Grecian, Egyptian or Giselle)
- Your profile (high, medium or low)
- Your toe length (short, medium or long)
In this article, I'll explain how to diagnose all three of these factors, as well as your feet's compressibility, size and width.
1. Foot Shape
You may have heard the names Grecian, Egyptian and Giselle (or Roman) bandied around when discussing pointe shoes. These are all foot shapes—or to be more strictly accurate—toe configurations. They're very important because they are the first step in determining what shoes will fit you, and what (if any) padding you need to wear.
The Grecian Foot (Somewhat Tapered Box)
The Grecian or Morton foot is described as "somewhat tapered". It's the easiest foot type to identify—if your second toe is longer than your first toe, you have a Grecian foot.
If this is your foot, it's bad news, I'm afraid. Your strong big toe is meant to take the brunt of things, but your longer second toe means it has to take all the weight—especially en pointe. You may be inclined to sickle on demi-pointe, and it can be a challenge to get your toes comfortable in a pointe shoe.
Some dancers make the mistake of choosing a shoe that fits the big toe, so the second toe is bent when en pointe. You may get away with that as a beginner, but it's asking for trouble in the long term—the bent second toe will cause pain and problems eventually.
The trick is to fit your pointe shoe to the length of your second toe, and fill the space under your first toe with padding, or by gluing a small piece of cardboard inside the platform. Some girls find a toe separator between the big toe and second toe helps, too.
The Egyptian Foot (Tapered Box)
The Egyptian foot has a big toe that's longer than all the others. Although the big toe is stronger than the other toes and designed to do most of the work, it was never intended to carry all your weight—which it can do, if your shoes aren't well fitted.
This can be a problematic foot to fit because a tapered box can bend the big toe, eventually causing a bunion—whereas a square box won't make contact with the small toes, leaving the big toe to bear all the weight. A properly fitted shoe will work rather like a hip belt on a backpack—it will transfer some of the weight off of the big toes on to the rest of the foot.
The good news is that your foot will look absolutely gorgeous in a pointe shoe because it's so beautifully tapered—unfortunately, there isn't a huge range of shoes made to suit Egyptian feet, so your choice will be limited.
The Giselle Foot (Square Box)
I suspect "Peasant foot" was the original name for this foot, and someone thought up "Giselle" just because "Peasant" sounds so unflattering! More recently, the term "Roman" seems to be getting more common.
Giselle feet are often described as having toes "all the same length", but that's not strictly true. I've yet to meet anyone whose little toe isn't small, and usually, the fourth toe is slightly shorter too. So a Giselle foot is one where the first three toes are more or less the same length.
OK, so it doesn't sound romantic, but in fact, dancers with Giselle feet are lucky. They may not have the most beautiful feet in the world, but they're ideal for dancing en pointe—those three even toes means they have a much better platform than their Grecian or Egyptian sisters. It also means they can't wear pretty pointe shoes with tapered boxes, but you can't have everything!
The shape of your foot is not the be-all and end-all—there are other factors to consider, like your foot's profile and the length of vamp you need. You'll find how to measure those in this article.
The shoe profile is based on the height of your foot when viewed from the side, measured at the metatarsal joint (where the bunion is, if you have one!).
Measure your foot (not in a shoe!) at that point. Be accurate because although there's not much difference between high, medium and low, that tiny difference can be very important.
- If it's an inch or less, you need a low-profile shoe.
- Between 1 inch and 1.25 inches, you're a medium.
- A high profile is over 1.25 inches.
Most pointe shoes are made to suit low or medium profiles. If you have a high profile, those shoes will squash your foot, so it's important to seek out the few shoes that have the extra space you need in the box.
3. Toe Length (Vamp)
The vamp is the part of the shoe covering the front of the toes, from the front edge of the platform to the drawstring. The length of vamp for you will depend mainly on the length of your toes—your vamp needs to be just high enough to hide your toes completely (no "toe cleavage"!).
- If your big toe is around 1 inch long, you have short toes.
- Between 1 and 1.5 inches, your toes are medium.
- Over 1.5 inches, you have long toes.
The length of your toes = the length of the vamp for most people. The "knuckles" of your toes must be covered; otherwise, that part of your foot may "pop out" when you're en pointe.
It's important to get the height of the vamp right. Too high and the vamp will stop you getting properly over the box—unless you have a high arch, in which case you may need a high vamp to stop you going too far.
The compressible foot spreads out wide when the foot is flat on the floor but narrows when on pointe. If you choose a shoe that fits on the flat, the foot will just slide straight into the box, putting all the pressure on the toes and leaving an empty heel! Unfortunately, there's no accurate way to measure for this, so bear in mind that even if you do all the other measurements carefully, if you have a compressible foot, the shoes may not fit.
If you have a compressible foot, it's wise to be fitted by a good professional fitter. If that's not possible, it will likely take a lot of trial and error to find the right shoe.
Size and Width
The last two elements are your shoe size and width.
Start with your street shoe size. Every pointe shoe manufacturer uses slightly different sizing, but they will usually have a conversion table to show how your street shoe size converts to their sizing. If they don't, ask.
Widths are also very variable—what Sansha calls "narrow" may be standard in Grishko. Again, makers should be able to tell you what narrow and wide mean in inches.
Defining Your Pointe Shoe
Once you have all these measurements, it's time to translate them into the kind of shoe you need.
For instance, let's say you have worked out these facts about your foot:
- I have a Grecian foot. That means I need a somewhat tapered box.
- My profile is 1 inch. That means I have a low profile.
- My toes are 1.25 inches long, which is medium length. I need a medium vamp.
Put all that together and you can say, "I need a pointe shoe with a somewhat tapered box, a low profile and a medium vamp".
Chances are those are not your measurements, though! Do the exercise yourself to produce your own version.
How to Find Your Perfect Pointe Shoe
The disappointing news is that there isn't a "cheat sheet" anywhere, listing which shoes are suitable for which foot. The wonderful Miss DeVor used to have one on her site (sadly, no longer active), but there are now so many makes and models, it's almost impossible for one person to keep up to date.
So how do you find your perfect shoe?
The simplest approach is to ask. Visit the websites of the big pointe shoe manufacturers (e.g., Bloch, Capezio, Grishko) and use their contact form to ask them which model they recommend for your foot shape, using this template:
"I would be grateful if you could advise which shoe would be best for my foot shape. I have a [Grecian/Egyptian/Giselle] foot with a [low/medium/high] profile. I need a [low/medium/high] vamp. My street shoe size is..."
Of course, add anything else you know about your foot, e.g., if it's wider than usual, or if you have a high arch.
You'll find some are more conscientious in replying than others, but it's the best way to get completely reliable information.
Gaynor Minden have an excellent online service to help you find the right shoe—but do check with your teacher because some schools still do no allow students to wear Mindens.
Otherwise, if you browse the websites of the major dancewear suppliers, you'll see the product descriptions on their pointe shoes include information like the profile, shape of the box, length of vamp, etc.
Should You Buy Online?
I'm often challenged about providing this kind of information, because most dance teachers will tell you that pointe shoes must be professionally fitted, especially a student's very first pair.
In an ideal world, that's true. But many of us don't have a choice. Small towns don't have dancewear shops. Even if they do, they may not have a proper pointe shoe fitter.
If your local ballet shop is owned or staffed by ex-professional ballet dancers—even if they're not trained fitters—I would certainly recommend buying your first pair there. Their knowledge will help you find the right shoe.
However, many small dancewear shops simply sell shoes based on whatever is the cheapest brand, with no understanding of how they should fit. If you find that's the case in your local store, walk away and order online. You're likely to get a better result.
I had to order all my pointe shoes by mail—including my very first pair. The nearest shop was several hours' drive away. It wasn't until I was 18 and working at the RAD in London that I was finally able to visit the Freeds shop in Leicester Square and have my first real fitting.
So my personal view is that it is fine to buy your first pointe shoes online, provided you buy from a reputable, specialist online dancewear shop where you can speak to a real person if you need to, and where you can return the shoes (provided you haven't broken them in) if they're not exactly right.
© 2020 Marisa Wright