Article Written By: Danielle DeVor
There is a wide disagreement wether pointe work for men is useful. Some men are interested in experimenting with pointe to strengthen their feet, while others want to learn because they plan on teaching pointe or choreographing and they want to have first-hand experience to fully understand the process.
Richard Sais, Associate Professor at Florida State University at Tallahassee, believes that pointe training offers male students a whole new level of stretch which is not possible on demi-pointe or in ballet shoes. Rodney Irving, who teaches pas de deux at the Ruth Page School in Chicago, thinks that a male that has experienced pointe finds it easier to understand the difficulties of his female partner. He also feels that the experience helps a male choreographer understand the limits of pointe work.
Mikhail Messerer, a ballet master for both the Royal Swedish Ballet and the Munich Opera Ballet, thinks pointe training for men is sensible if they can find pointe shoes that will not damage their feet. Messerer studied at the Bolshoi School, where men took pointe classes for strength and better balance. However, Joanna Kneeland doubts that pointe shoes build strength in men that they cannot gain through other exercises. Another concern of those opposed to men's pointe training is that men may be heavier on their ankles and feet, which could result in injury.
With the choreographers of today wanting to break ground and create something other than the classics, we will undoubtedly see more of men en pointe. And with the advent of companies like Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, it looks like pointe technique for men is here to stay.
In fact, many female dancers would prefer that their partners had pointe experience. Merrill Ashley has said,
"Mr. Balancine is one of the few men who is experienced with pointe work, he really understands it."
Karen Kain shows a similar view:
"Men would understand more about ballerinas, especially in partnering if they tried doing a little pointe work themselves."
And Elisabetra Terabust said,
"I think it would be beneficial for men to do exercises on pointe to strengthen their feet. When I was studying ballet in Rome, I remember that twice a week the men did exercises on pointe. But I have to admit, I thought it was pretty funny."
There is a common thread of inequality in the general idea of men wearing pointe shoes. Mostly it is seen as an element for a comic role, though in the more recent past, choreographers are using pointe for men as a true choreographic element.
It is surprising to some that many famous male dancers have pointe experience. Daniel Duell states:
"I don't think men should perform in toe shoes, but to practice on pointe can be very useful. In fact, a couple months ago I started doing the barre in company class in toe shoes. Initially I felt very weak and shaky, but it wasn't as painful as I had imagined it would be. Unlike the ballerinas, who dance for hours and hours every day on their toes, I'm only spending half and hour at a time in toe shoes, and I'm not always on pointe during that time.
Already there is quite an improvement in how my feet feel and look, and working in toe shoes stretches my feet as nothing else can; and my feet are becoming increasingly flexible.
Dancing on my toes has made me realize just how difficult it is to do certain steps on pointe- for instance, to do a pique' back and to position the ankle in a supportive way. Now I have an extra awareness and comprehension as a partner."
Mikhail Baryshnikov has also commented on the subject of male pointe work.
"I've seen men dance on pointe: In Russia the Georgian folk dancers, and here in New York, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. (I think it is hysterically funny, but it's really a question of taste.)
If dancing on pointe works for the choreography, why shouldn't men do it? I saw a ballet in Russia called "Faun and Nymph". The male dancer who represented the faun was on pointe, and he truly looked like a faun with hoofs. It was positively spectacular!"
Other dancers have commented:
"To strengthen my feet, I tried doing some pointe work, but I found it excruciating because I have an enormous big toe. Merrill Ashley has toes shaped like mine, and I don't know how she can dance. When I tried standing on pointe, I couldn't bear the pain, in fact, if I had to dance on pointe, I wouldn't be a dancer."
"I've often wondered why boys don't begin working on pointe from a young age to develop strength in their feet and to gain an additional skill. Because of the speed that can be attained on pointe, a whole new technique for male dancing could be developed. Imagine a powerful turner like Peter Schaufuss in pointe shoes! He could come onstage, prepare for a turn, and continue the turn for the entire variation, possibly he could keep turning in place for ninety-six counts!"
"I'm the only male dancer I know of who has had the experience, but in Paris I wore pointe shoes for my beginning ballet classes. I was the only boy in the class, and the teacher didn't know how to instruct boys. She had the crazy idea to put me on pointe with the rest of the class. For six months- I studied with her, and in a way the pointe work has been beneficial - it strengthened my ankles and improved my high arches. Ironically, I was the best in the class! I still do some pointe work to build up strength in my ankles."
"I was fascinated when I saw the male folk dancers who dance on pointe in Russia. Having tried to stand on pointe myself, I fully appreciate how difficult and painfil it is. As a choreographer, I am finding that the creative possibilities for dancers on pointe are far greater than on half-pointe. Although there are fantastic things that one can choreograph for men, I find it more of a challenge to choreograph for women, because pointe work adds an entirely different dimension to explore."
"When Ashton's ballet "The Dream" was being set on The Joffrey Ballet, I was rehersing the role of Bottom, which is a very complex acting and dancing role and one of the few male roles that call for pointe work. Unfortunately, my feet are not felxible, and it was an incredible strain on my body simply to push my toes forward in the pointe shoes in order to stand directly on the tips of my toes. I did look very funny, though, pounding my toes into the floor like a donkey. At the first run-through I did my variation very well- I even held a long balance- but the strain on my body was great. My back dislocated, and I was out for a week. Since then, I am sympathetic to girls who dance on pointe- It's torture."
"OK, the year was 1968, and the ballet we were setting was a version of the Mussorgsky score for "The Fair at Sorochinsk". There was a lot of character work in it, and particularly my part, which was heavily based on Georgian/Circassian vocabulary. There was a lot of bouncing around, hopping on what I thought then was demi-pointe; as a matter of fact, my entrance was made from the #2 stage left wing, where I was tossed onto the stage by two of the other boys, to land in a sixth position (that's first with no turnout) en (demi-)pointe.
My boots were a custom make from Selva, and Joe Levinoff, their roving sales rep/good will ambassador spent a lot of time taking all sorts of measurements for these boots. When they arrived, the ballet master tossed them at me and said, "Here, try them on." I did, and when I stood up, I realized that I was feeling things in these boots that I didn't normally feel in ballet shoes or even other character boots. They had a block and a shank in them, and when I asked what about the pointe shoe in my boots, I was told, "Oh, didn't you know, dear boy? Your part is en pointe!" This was two weeks from the opening. The boots were actually Selva Italiens which had been encased in a good calves-leather, and the tops carried as high as the knee where they ended, and continued to thigh length in kidskin, making a sort of top-boot. They cost about $800 in 1968 dollars, so no small investment for my company.
I had to do a more or less crash course in pointe, so I'd be used to the sensation by the time I hit the stage, and it worked all right. We kept that ballet in rep for a year, and I went through several pairs of boots, so it was not just a casual relationship I developed with pointe work.
I later discovered that Georgian/Circassian male pointe work is done on the knuckles of the toes, and using the sole of the boot as a sort of shank. Thank God I didn't have to do that!"
"Having been a former male dancer during the Mikhail Baryshnikov years at ABT and being one of the few male dancers trained in pointe technique, my experience is very specialized and unique. I was an experiment in Mischa's eyes, he wanted to see first hand if someone as tall as I was could possibly dance en pointe like he'd seen Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and the Folk dancers of his native land do. I remember going to the cobbler at Capezio with him and having a pair of shoes made for me that would support my large feet and high arches. I had to have a cast of my foot made so they could create a special last becuase my feet are so unusually large. What I ended up with was a custom made pair of Capezio Duro Toes. This model was decided on because they were made with heavy boxing and a decently strong shank, the suede tip was also a plus in my eyes because I was a bit afraid of falling and for someone my height that is a big worry.
He taught me the same way you start a beginning pointe student, at the barre facing the mirror so that I could see myself. It was rather amusing to see me at 6'6" going on pointe for the very first time and quite wobbily, if it weren't for the barre I would have fallen on my ass. But I stuck it out. I continued with private classes 3 days a week to continue the experiment and so that Mischa could keep a close eye on me since he wasn't sure of what effect that pointe work would have on my feet.
After awhile, I got the hang of things and managed to become quite accompished. I went from the basics, to being able to do pirouettes and fouettes in multiples. Unfortunately, do to chronic health problems I had to cease my dancing career. However, I still keep up my barre work and still do my pointe work because I feel that since I put so much work into learning there is no sense in letting myself get out of shape. You never know what could happen in the future, and besides, it makes for a good stress release."
While many teachers may not want to teach men pointe technique, it seems that many dancers do benefit from its rewards. But just as much care should be taken for men to study pointe as women. It should be remembered that not everyone is cut out for pointe work, while you cannot be a ballerina without it, a man can still be premiere danseur without pointe.
The Pointe Book- Janice Barringer and Sarah Schlesinger
Dancershoes- Daniel S. and Stephanie Sorine
Interview With Mel Johnson- Danielle DeVor and Mel Johnson
Interview With Peter Thomas*- Danielle DeVor and Peter Thomas*