Key Pages:

13 Things 2009

13 Things 2008

Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology

Search Brown



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
[email protected]

Tim Ingold, in his article “Materials Against Materiality” (2007), puts forth the idea that the study of material culture and materiality (a rather vague concept that he never succinctly defines) does not deal enough with actual materials and the properties of these materials. He says that, "Studies of material culture take...a world of objects that has...already been crystallized out from the fluxes of materials and their transformations. At this point, materials appear to vanish, swallowed up by the very objects to which they have given birth. ...We describe materials as 'raw' ... for by the time they have congealed into objects, they have already disappeared" (pg 9). I took this as an invitation to explore the materials that are masked underneath the layer of pink satin that is quintessentially emblematic of ballet. My goal was to dissect shoes, to break them down into their constituent parts, and to understand how these parts all come together to make one functional object. Given that we have been talking all semester about things as a gathering, I was interested in looking at the gathering of materials, not just the gathering of people around a thing. Of course, as with many things, discussing constituent materials is a recursive process; each individual material can be broken down even further into its constituent parts. For these purposes, however, I have chosen to only investigate one level down the hierarchy.

I began just by taking the satin off of one shoe. This is something I had done before, but this time around, I realized that taking off only one layer did not change very much about the make-up of the shoe. The satin is not so much a skin, but more like a costume, serving more of a symbolic purpose than a functional one. Even without the satin, the beauty of the shoe the gently curved form, is maintained. Removing only one layer did nothing to tell me about what makes the shoe work, what it is about the construction that enables dancers to support all of their weight on the very tips of their toes. I decided to try and strip away more layers.

My next step was to use an x-acto knife to try to carve out a wedge of the box and separate the many layers that I knew were lying underneath. After much sawing, I was able to cut deep enough to pull up the layer of cotton directly under the satin, finding two layers of fibrous woven burlap underneath. One layer was stuck to the top layer of cotton, while the other was still attached to the rest of the shoe. The under and over pattern of the weaving was very obvious, and the fibers came apart easily, made brittle by the dried paste that powdered under my fingers. This was a less than satisfactory approach, and didn’t really give me a clear idea as to how the shoe was made. As a final resort, I used a band saw to cut in half one shoe out of each of several pairs. Like a cross section of an organ, I was finally able to see every layer, every different material, all at once. I was able to see exactly where each layer started and ended.

Here's what I found inside four different brands of pointe shoe:




Russian Pointe

One type of shoe that I was not able to investigate was the Gaynor Minden, a shoe that uses synthetic elastomers that are supposed to be more durable, without changing or breaking down over time ( While technological advancements like these have recently been more accepted by dancers and instructors, they have a history of being rejected on the basis that they are not traditional (Stern, 1980). This is surprising in many ways, not least of which being that traditional shoes require frequent replacement, which can become extremely costly. Furthermore, pointe shoes are not comfortable and often result in bruising and blistering. Recent technological advancements in dance footwear have occurred primarily in the arena of supplementary padding, not in finding ways to make the shoes themselves more comfortable. Specifically, wads of lambswool have been replaced with specially shaped pads filled with gel polymers.

Back to The Making and Unmaking of a Pointe Shoe