Virginia Postrel’s recent post on the advertising for Smuin Ballet featured one poster that said, “Ballet but sexy,” a slogan that suggested somehow that ballet is usually not sexy. Since male and female ballet dancers are in incredible physical condition and ballet costumes are often highly revealing, I have seen numerous ballet performances that were remarkably “sexy.” In New Orleans I attended a ballet performance that began with soloist Jorge Dunn rising from the stage floor wearing a smaller costume than the one he wears in the photo at left. I vividly remember hearing more than a thousand women (including my wife) gasp for breath.
If you study this photo you will see that all of the dancers, male and female, have stretched their back leg into a straight line that extends all the way through their feet and toes. This creates the ultimate pointed foot, and a ballerina’s pointe shoes are constructed in a way that to allows her to stand on an extended foot. In a recent DG interview Philip Gardner of Oberson’s Grove said, “This may seem odd, but I think the glamour of the ballet comes from...toe shoes! Yes, the satiny pointe shoes have their own mystique and give the ballerina an elegance that is quite unique.”
If we look closely at the cleverly executed photo used for the Smuin ad, we can compare the shape of a woman’s foot wearing pointe shoes versus high heels. As it happens, this dancer in her toe shoes has exquisitely shaped legs and feet. She has increased the flexibility of her arch so much that the curve of her calf and the curve of her foot combine to create a beautiful s-curve. Developing this kind of arch is hard work. This site shows how to do it. Look at the expressions on the young girl’s face as she moves past pointing her feet to stretching to increase the curve in her arch.
Pointe shoes were gradually developed to allow ballerinas to rise from standing on the pads of their toes to standing on the tips of their toes, increasing the illusion that they are weightless. Contemporary pointe shoes have a toe box which becomes a small platform that the highly trained dancers can balance on, even during turns. (This article details their construction.) In pas de deux work the male dancer often serves to display the ballerina balanced in impossibly beautiful positions. (You can see photos of Wendy Wheelan supported by Albert Evans in a few amazing positions positions here.)
High-heeled shoes can accentuate a woman’s calf muscles, and add curves to her back and buttocks, but her toes end up bending in the opposite direction from the arch of the foot. Women’s feet and legs can look wonderful in high heels, but if the desired effect is for the feet to point, then pointe shoes have a distinct advantage.
Another approach to having a pointed foot is to wear pointy toe shoes. Naturally this is hazardous to the foot, since five toes don’t naturally taper to a single tiny point. And constantly wearing very high-heeled shoes of any kind can create foot problems for many women. Ballet point work is hazardous as to the feet as well. This site gives advice on wrapping your toes to prepare for ballet pointe that is brutal in detail. And this article on point work includes a long list of common injuries associated with pointe work.
Nonetheless, the pointed foot remains a sexy ideal and is characteristic of pin-up art and photography. (Here are links to two Alberto Vargas pin-ups using toe shoes: 1 2.) In pin-ups high-heeled shoes are most often used to achieve the flexed calves and pointed feet, but it is particularly revealing to look at images that include bare feet. In this situation when standing the woman often rises on her toes. But if not standing, the ideal is have her feet pointed and her toes placed in line with her arch, as in this site’s photo of young ballet-trained Brigette Bardot on the beach. And in the photo shown at left, we see famed 1950’s pin-up model Bettie Page, “playing” in the water with her foot pointed beautifully. In an interview late in her life she talked about enjoying “playing in the water” photo sessions in Florida. Her biography makes it unlikely that she had ballet training, but she certainly learned to point her feet and toes. No one ends up in this position without being aware of the effort required to maintain that pointed foot.
While researching this article I discovered that there are quite a few blogs by young women who aspire to a figure that is as sexy as those of the pin-up girls of photos and drawings. (Here are links to a couple of those blogs: 1 2 . ) Weight loss and fitness seems to be a frequent theme, but the aspirations seem to involve a more hourglass-shaped than rail-thin figure. Pin-ups date back to the 1890s, and I have no doubt that throughout that history many women have aspired to have pin-up figures. Given that high heels and pointed feet are characteristic of pin-ups, as well as high fashion, it’s little wonder that women are sometimes willing to suffer some discomfort to have those shapely calves and pointed feet.
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