When most people hear the term "toe dancing," it brings to mind the anglicized term used to describe what most advanced students or professional ballet dancers, whether male or female, have done at one time or another- dance en pointe. If we turn back the pages of history, "toe dancing" was the term used to describe a specialized act performed using some sort of blocked shoe.
Up until the 20th century, most dancers only had the opportunity to work professionally on the popular stages of the time--music halls, burlesque, and vaudeville. Vaudeville shoes most often featured comic and character dance sketches, adagio teams, ballroom dancers, skirt dancing, interpretive dance, ethnic style dances, tap, and toe dancing.
Barbara Stratyner's "Ned Wayburn and the Dancing Routine: From Vaudeville the 'Ziegfield Follies' " depicts some of the ways toe-dancing was incorporated into choreography for popular theatre. A favorite example are the pique turns and pendulum kicks Bessie Clayton performed down a staircase in "The Passing Show of 1913." Toe-dancing would not evolve into ballet since it was a sub-category; as ballet made its way in popular entertainment the term was "upscaled" to "pointe."
After the popularity of toe-dancing gained its "foothold," it was only natural that in the world of vaudeville, someone was about to raise the stakes. Toe-tapping, dancing en pointe with taps attached to the platform of the shoe, was born.
The stars of this art form were Harriet Hoctor and Marylin Miller. Harriet Hoctor, better known as "America's Most Cleverest Ballerina," was a Broadway favorite in the 1920's and 1930's. She stunned audiences at the Hippodrome in London by tapping up and down an escalator en pointe in shoes supported by steel shanks. Other tricks performed by Hoctor include executing a backbend while doing bourees en pointe, zipping through a circle of pique turns at breakneck speek, and tapping out the meter to Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" with the taps on the ends of her shoes. Marylin Miller made her fame in vaudeville with her family's act called "the Five Colombians." Aat the age of 22, she was the first "star dancer" to be in movies such as 1929's "Sally." She was considered one of the best toe and tap dancers of her time.
Other revue dances, such as Helen Brown, woresteel reinforcements to enable them to perform the Charleston on pointe.
In this "eccentric" pointe tradition, Gloria Gilbert used ball bearings in the platform of her shoes to allow her to turn at a dizzying rate while she performed backbends. "Toe-tap" became a national craze with entrants at local amateur nights performing such routines as tapping on toe and playing the trumpet at the same time.
Even until the 1980's when I was first beginning my dance training, a girl at my dance school performed a recital routine doing a "toe-tap number." But it seems as if toe tapping has finally lost its momentum, especially with horror stories of broken ankles and feet from the use of the stiff steel shanked shoes. We must applaud those daring and talented forerunners in the history of pointe technique in the 20th century for literally risking their limbs for their art.
Compiled and Written By: Danielle DeVor, Founder of the Pointe Shoe Information Exchange