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Why do ballerinas wear ballet shoes?

Lindsey Donnell, Derek Brockington at Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Joey Palumbo
Vermont Public
Lindsey Donnell, Derek Brockington at Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Why do people dance? Where did ballet come from? How do you make pointe shoes for ballet? How does practice make you better at things? But Why visited Dance Theatre of Harlem to get answers to these questions with company artists Derek Brockington and Lindsey Donnell.

Download our learning guides: PDF| Google Slide | Transcript

  • Ballet started in the 17th century French courts under King Louis XIV. The art form took many of its movements from fencing.. In the 18th century ballet moved to Russia and that’s where the big story ballets like Swan Lake, Nutcracker were started. In the 20th century, choreographer George Balanchine created the neoclassical style of ballet which is still popular.
  • Modern ballet draws from all types of music and costumes, not just old or classical styles.
  • Pointe shoes are used to help dancers dance right up on the tips of their toes, providing support to the dancers' feet with a structured toe box and edges that hold the foot in place.
  • Traditionally, only female dancers wore pointe shoes. That’s still common practice, but some male and nonbinary dancers are experimenting with pointe shoes as ballet evolves.
  • Pointe shoes are made like papier mache, with layers of material and glue covered in stain. 
  • Pointe shoes break down quickly. Professional dancers can go through a pair a day when they are performing daily shows.
  • Flat ballet shoes have pads on the bottom so that dancers don’t slip on the floor and can be custom made to fit each dancer. 
  • Lindsey Donnell says she usually starts the day warming up in flat shoes before progressing to pointe shoes once her legs and feet are warmed up.
  • Ballet dancers practice every day and even professionals take classes. Dancers say muscle memory is important. Practice helps dances create patterns in their mind that their bodies can follow.
  • Dance can be an art form and a sport. It takes a lot of strength to be a dancer. 
  • Derek Brockington: “I dance because it is a way that I can express myself. I don't always have my way with words. So dancing is a great way for me to get out what I want to say or to make somebody else feel something.”
  • Lindsey Donnell: “No matter who you are, what color you are, how tall or short, what kind of hair you have, no matter who you are, if you have something and you apply your love for it, you can make it happen. So just keep believing in yourself. And I think the world is becoming a better and more inclusive place every day. So maybe you're the person out there to make change in the world.”
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.

But Why is a project of Vermont Public.

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