Your Most Important Instrument: 10 Signs of a Great Pointe Shoe Fitting.
I strongly believe that your very first fitting can have a massive impact on your experience of starting pointe work. Just as subsequent re-fittings are key to how you develop from there!
Sadly, it’s not uncommon that an adult’s experience of being fitted is not as good as it could be, and/or doesn’t bring the hoped-for outcome: To find a perfectly suitable shoe, so you can start learning pointe with confidence and joy! I have talked to SO many adults, both IRL as well as in my amazing group of Instagram friends, and have witnessed many frustrations and endless finding-the-perfect-shoe sagas. The challenge is that you don’t necessarily know how a good fitting and a perfect should feel when you go for the first time, so even if you come out with a shoe, it might not be necessarily the best one for you (and you’ll only find out later).
BUT, all is not lost! Many others have had great fitting experiences, and fitters are getting more and more experienced with fitting adult pointe starters.
While there is no guarantee that you will score the best possible shoe during a fitting, there are ways to ensure that you will most likely be successful.
Ever since starting pointe three years ago, I have had about 8 major fittings (including the first one), and probably about 10-15 “small” ones. Major fittings would be to me when you are trying to find your first pair ever, or a new shoe different from the previous one (re-fitting); whereas a small fitting would be when you just want to re-purchase the same model (with the exact same parameters) you had before. All these fittings were in different stores across two continents.
Let’s start with: the difference between stores is tremendous. And these very different experiences have taught me a lot about what makes a great fitting different from an ok-ish one, or one that is not good at all. I am also going to add that I am tall and have a large foot (European size 42 (7.5-8), or 11 to 11.5 womens US), which is an additional challenge in a world that caters to a much smaller average ballerina size.
I think that one of the general fitting challenge for adult pointe starters is that many stores have not had much experience with fitting adults in the past, when it was mainly pre-professional young girls who went on pointe. And while a lot is similar, there are also clear differences between fitting a pre-teen/teen and an adult. Adults come with a fully formed and longer foot, larger body height and weight, but possibly less developed technique/strength than a young girl who has been in a pre-professional environment for a few years. So all that means is that the foot shape variety is higher, the load on the shoe larger, while the ability of supporting yourself in the shoe may be not as strong yet. So ideally, the fitter needs to adapt their fitting strategy, and possibly shoe inventory, in order to serve adult dancers as good as possible.
The key is: We, as adult dancers, need to take responsiblity. As one professional dancer friend used to say to me: Your pointe shoes are your instrument, and as such need to fit absolutely PERFECTLY. Not just kind of. Anything that is “off” with your shoe will compromise your learning, comfort, security, and expression on pointe. And since there is a growing number of us adult pointe students, we have more and more of a voice (and buying power) in what is being sold to us! By expressing our needs, and addressing fitting issues to stores, we can let them know what works for us, and together co-create fitting experiences that are a win for everyone.
Therefore, let’s start the conversation! In the following, I’ll list the 10 main points that have made a fitting truly great for me and others, as well as No-Gos that are better avoided. Feel free to add your points in the comments, or on Instagram. Any additions from teachers and fitters are absolutely appreciated, too!
1. The more, the better!
This is not necessarily true for everything in life, but in the case of trying on pointe shoes, YES PLEASE. I have heard from and seen adults that have tried under 10 different shoes in a fitting. That’s not a very likely path to success. Unless you are extremely lucky, and it happens, but usually there is no way that you can find the perfect shoe among so few options. I talked to the fitter in my go-to store in Munich/Germany, and she said she usually lays out around 150 pairs for someone who gets fitted for the first time. That does not mean 150 different models; it does include slightly different sizes, widths, or shanks of the same model. That’s fine, because it’s still a different shoe from the foot’s point of view. It also doesn’t mean that you are actually trying on 150 different shoes in a fitting; in my first fitting, I tried around 50 pairs. The 150 pairs are simply a pool from which the fitter can start approximating from (meaning if a model doesn’t work at all, then the 10 other pairs with half a size more or less and different widths/shanks get eliminated right away. The way we work is that from the big pile, we narrow it down to the top 6-8, from there to the top 3-5, then top 2 and then the DECISIVE MOMENT.
I personally prefer stores that carry a wide selection of brands vs. brand stores that only have their own models - especially for the first fittings, when you are still searching for your favorite brand.
So: What if your store doesn’t offer this kind of large selection? I get it. Because, let’s face it, most don’t, and there are also economic considerations. Especially if you have a large foot, or if your foot is in some other ways “weird”. I know that I am very blessed to have stumbled upon a store that does (it even has, brace yourself, a larger selection of Gaynor Minden shoes than the actual Gaynor Minden Boutique in New York City!). So first of all, if you are around Munich/Germany, you should go (I am NOT an affiliate - I am simply recommending because every adult dance should have this kind of experience!). If not: Try to get to multiple stores, if possible. This also means, start looking for pointe shoes some time in advance before you actually need them, so you don’t have to rush the process.
2. Appointment only, please, and LOTS of time.
I don’t get why some stores still don’t make appointments for a pointe shoe fitting. I mean, a fitting is such a highly personalized and concentration/precision-requiring thing - you just don’t want any distractions, neither for the fitter nor the fittee (new word, you’re welcome). Personally, I have done a fitting without an appointment once (didn’t find a shoe), and have stayed away from no-appointment-stores ever since.
That said, I have found that most stores that do make appointments don’t allocate enough time. The average fitting seems to be scheduled for about 30min. Again, not enough. I think that 1 hour is a good amount of time to try as many pairs as possible. My last re-fitting lasted 1.5 hours. It depends where you are physically. A fitting is hard work if done right, so especially if it’s your first fitting, more than an hour probably doesn’t make sense because your feet might be tired by then (and/or hurt, too).
So the general takeaway from this: You don’t want to be in a rush. You need time to get in and out of shoes, do your steps in them, and actually FEEL them. The last thing you want is to take a sub-optimal pair because your 30min were up.
3. NO GO: A paid fitting.
So from my experience this is not the norm, but I still want to include it as a heads-up. One store I tried to get fitted at had a “pointe shoe fitting fee” policy: If you got fitted but didn’t find a shoe that worked for you, you had to pay a fee for the fitting session. (If you did buy a pair, there was no fee.) To me, that’s really bad fitting manners. Because it incentivizes buying a shoe even if it’s not really a good fit. And it leaves you at the mercy of the store’s shoe selection: If your foot was somehow out of the normal range, you had less pairs to try, it was less likely that you would find a good shoe, and then would be “punished” for your out-of-normness by having to pay the fee. No thank you.
4. Let’s not overestimate the importance of your foot shape.
I know many fitters probably won’t agree with me on this one, but I’ll take it. There is this widespread notion that the fitter should assess the shape of your foot, and then choose potential brands/models according to this assessment.
From my experience, and just by considering physics/the biomechanics of it all, instead of assessing, time would be better spent trying more different shoes. The factors of how a shoe works for a particular foot are VAST, innumberable, and on top of it, how you actually FEEL in the shoe adds several more layers of complexity. Because it’s not just your foot. How the rest of your body aligns over it has such a big impact, especially in the case of adults. Because they are usually taller, heavier, so all the body levers and load that act on the shoe are much greater than in a case of a pre-pointe pre-professional pre-teen in the same situation. The foot is just one piece of the puzzle.
My lesson learned: Put on the shoe. Get up on it. Do this with as many as possible - then both you and the fitter can develop a sense of what type of shoe will probably work for you.
5. Preparation on both sides matters.
My best fitting experiences have been when there was attention to good preparation, on both my and the fitter’s side. I like it when the fitter gives me a quick questionnaire ahead of the fitting: It should include your street shoe size, how long you have been doing ballet, how many times per week, what kind of padding you use (in case of a re-fitting), if you’ll bring your own tights/what kind. If it’s a refitting and you have been to the store before, it should be a given that all this information and info about all the pairs you’ve bought before should be reviewed by the fitter before you come in.
I also like when the fitter prepares and piles up all the pairs she/he wants me to try. Meaning, she doesn’t have to go back and forth between shelves and storages, but everything is within reach and you can systematically and seamlessly go through different brands, different models of a brand, and different configurations of a model.
On the fittee side, preparation is also key. Your nails should be trimmed, for me to as short as possible and thinning out the big toe’s top outside corner. If possible, I like to schedule my fittings any time after a class. It doesn’t have to be right after class (that’s my ideal scenario though), even if there are several hours in between my feet still feel more supple than on a class-free day. I bring my normal padding. I know some stores like it when you bring your old pair if it’s a re-fitting - I don’t see this as crucial. I like to warm up my feet a bit, quick manual mobilizations, a few stretches and releves.
I feel like all this ahead work pays off in using the actual fitting time most efficiently - and I hope that more and more stores encourage it and follow suit!
6. Fitting = hard physical work and clean technique - and get on one leg, too.
It’s interesting how fitting “protocols” differ between different stores. By protocols I mean what the fitter wants you to do when you are trying a shoe. Some leave it more or less up to you (not ideal in a first fitting), some have a very clear sequence of steps (more helpful).
Let’s not forget what a challenge a first fitting is actually: You are trying to figure out if a shoe works for you on pointe - without having learned to be on pointe yet! Therefore, a good fitting experience needs to take the fittee through a well thought-out combination of placements and also give her technical cues to make the fitting a success. So yes, ideally a fitter should be kind of your teacher during the fitting. It doesn’t have to go to all the detail, but enough so you can be up there properly.
From my experience, the sequence should include standing on flat, a demi plié in first position, standing on pointe in first position, trying to balance on pointe in first position, and ideally some demi-pointe placement or rolling through, too. For my top 3 pairs, I also like standing on pointe on one leg (other foot in coup de pied), and trying to balance on that one leg. And yes, on one leg even in the first ever fitting (which many fitters don’t ask you to do). Going from two legs to one leg gives you so much more information about how the shoe works for you. Not saying you have to be able to balance on one leg, it’s ok to just try, but if you can’t shift your full weight at all on one foot, maybe it’s too early for pointe (my opinion, certainly differs from others).
To me, a fitting is almost like a pointe class. It’s not just pretty standing and checking, it’s full-body muscle activiation any time I try on a shoe. The day after, I am ususally sore. I think that only trying with this kind of intensity really gives you good information about how a shoe works for you. The fitter should actually cue you to activate that hard. If she doesn’t, keep reminding yourself - you will be much more confident and get a much faster sense for how a good-fitting shoe is supposed to feel.
7. They’re handmade: Try all pairs of the same exact configuration.
NO TWO PAIRS ARE THE SAME. Meaning, the exact same model with the exact same parameters (size, width, shank; and in the case of Gaynors also vamp, heel, box) will differ from pair to pair. Sometimes, quite significantly. So, when you are in a store wanting to buy a shoe that was a great fit for you again, or if you have settled on a shoe in your first fitting: Ask the store to give you all the pairs they have in stock of the exact same configuration. For example, in my last re-fitting, I tried 15 pairs of Gaynors with CL 11.5 M4HDH (pictured above). Or in the case of my Grishkos, in another store, I tried all the five pairs of the Nova size 7.5 shank S, width XXXX. Do it. Most stores will not offer it unprompted - if they do, they’re great. If not, ask for it. You will be amazed.
8. They should NOT hurt.
Somehow there is this “no pain no gain” mentality when it comes to pointe work: That it has to hurt. That there should be blood, and blisters, and bruised toe nails when done properly. So I think that this notion leads many starting pointe adult ballerinas to accept and tolerate a painful shoe. Because they think that it’s part of the deal!
So let me get this straight: Yes, there is pain involved with pointe work. As with anything that you are not used to, or when you exceed your body’s adaptation. Meaning: When you’re dancing on pointe for a long time, at some point pain will set in. And the point at which this happens will change, the more you practice and get used to it. A professional ballerina will be able to handle more time on pointe than someone doing just a couple of hours a week. And someone not used to pointe work at all, will probably feel some pain after maybe 20-30min (one reason why you start with only 15-30min of pointe work in the beginning).
But if you just step into a shoe and get on pointe, and feel intolerable pain, then it simply means it’s not the right shoe for you. Now, there might be some discomfort, and discomfort is usually a sign that something new is happening. And discomfort, you can deal with, by either pimping the shoe somewhat or experimenting with your padding. But you have to learn to feel the difference between a shoe that is only painful, and a shoe that is a new experience for your foot but otherwise a good fit. The only way to learn this is by trying as many pairs as possible - hence point no. 1. above. For me personally, this difference can be like completely different worlds. Like, I’ve been in shoes that hurt so much that I can’t even step on pointe. To me, a good shoe actually feels, in a strange way, quite comfortable.
Painfree really should be the goal - cause, you want to enjoy the time together, right?
9. Don’t mix conventional shoes and Gaynor Mindens in one fitting.
That comes from my personal experience, curious how others feel. In essence: If you are considering you to possibly get a pair of Gaynors, then schedule a Gaynor-only fitting. Mixing conventional shoes and Gaynors in the same fitting session will make it difficult for one reason: The difference between a not-broken-in conventional shoe and a Gaynor will be too big and will give you a wrong impression of the conventional shoe. Either the Gaynor will feel weird (if you have been wearing only conventional shoes so far), or the Gaynor will feel so much better (if you have been wearing Gaynors and considering a conventional shoe again).
I personally still appreciate working in both types of shoes. While I have really come to like Gaynors (after intially not being so much into them), I do feel the benefit of stimulating the foot with different types of shoes. It will develop more resilience in your body and enhance your motor learning on pointe (remember from a previous article? Variety is key for neuroplasticity and learning progress).
10. Love yourself. Even if the fitter doesn’t.
Let’s remember, for a moment, that pointe work is a highly unnatural way of moving for a human being. So by deciding to give it a go, you are asking a lot from your body. Not only in terms of technique and strength, but also in terms of resilience. Your body has to withstand a lot of discomfort, physically, mentally, and emotionally, in order to accomodate your pointe goals. So as a gesture of gratitude to this remarkable body, trying to get the best possible pair of pointe shoes goes a long way. Even if it may take a while, possibly several unsuccessful fittings, until you get there. Never should you settle on a shoe just to leave the store with a shoe.
For that, you need the fitter’s full attention and support.
That said, there can be also a lot of anxiety, and sometimes not so supportive fitting experiences that pave the way to the perfect shoe. After all, you’re an adult starting pointe, and you’re presenting all you’ve got to the fitter. It can feel quite exposing, and some may give you the impression that you’re not being taken seriously. As with everything, it’s a learning process, and the more fittings you have, the more shoes you try, the better you will know how things need to feel. And at the same time it’s important to give yourself time and slack to learn through trial and error, and be ok if you don’t get it right the first time around.
As Olivia (@bunheadlivi on IG), an experienced and ambitious adult ballerina, commented on one of my Instagram posts, “as an adult, you often have to be your own advocate.” Shoe goes on to say how doing her own research helped her a lot with finding the best shoe and improve her subsequent fitting experiences. I think that is so true for many things in ballet, and even more when it comes to finding something as instrumental as the perfect pair of pointe shoes. And it’s also one of our advantages as adults, that we can speak for ourselves, educate ourselves, and say what we need!
I hope you enjoy the always-evolving pointe shoe finding journey as much as I do - good luck and all the best!
Curious about your fitting experiences! What was your best and/or worst one, and what made it so? Leave a comment below, or come and join our conversation on Instagram!