A Guide To Cleaning Your Ballet Shoes
How do you get black marks off ballet shoes?
Ballet is a highly technical type of performance dance that strives for perfection. The visual element of ballet is as important as the technical element. Everything must look as clean as the dance moves. If you’re a ballet dancer, you know that your shoes have to be in perfect condition whether you’re training or performing. They also have to look impeccable.
Cleaning your ballet shoes varies according to the material of the shoe. There are three types of material: canvas, leather, and satin. Canvas shoes are the easiest to clean because they are machine washable. You can spot clean leather ballet shoes. For satin shoes, you can use baking soda.
The process for cleaning your ballet shoes can be intricate, so we’ve put together a guide for you below. We’ll look more in-depth at how to clean each type of ballet shoe material, we’ll check out some tips from dancers and instructors, and we’ll take a peek at the history of ballet shoes.
The Materials Used for Ballet Shoes
Before you clean your ballet shoes, you should know that the cleaning process can vary a lot depending on their material. Three materials are commonly used to make ballet shoes and they each offer their advantages and disadvantages. You can choose between them depending on what you’re looking for in a ballet shoe, and also depending on how they will be used.
Satin ballet shoes are a great aesthetic choice. They give the foot lovely lines when you’re dancing and they enhance any costume. They look very flattering with satin ballet shoe ribbons and are the usual choice for exams, competitions, and performances. Pointe and demi-pointe shoes tend to be made from satin.
The main weakness of satin ballet shoes is that they have little durability. You can tell very quickly if they have been worn too frequently, and they get dirty easily. Cleaning them can also be a hassle because they lose their appealing shine in the process. Ballet dancers tend to keep satin shoes only for special occasions to preserve their state as much as possible.
Ballet shoes made from canvas are a convenient choice, especially because they’re machine washable and breathable. Canvas is a stretchy material, which makes it adapt quickly to any type of foot. Canvas ballet shoes take little time to break in and you can have more awareness of the floor while you’re dancing because the material is so pliable. This is also a cheaper choice when it comes to ballet shoes, as well as a very comfortable one. You can find canvas shoes in many available colors, and you have the option to dye them to match your costume. Canvas is the preferred material for split sole ballet shoes because of its adaptability and support.
The main weakness of canvas ballet shoes is that they aren’t very durable and may have to be changed often. It doesn’t take long for holes to appear in the toe area in particular, and changing them would quickly add to the costs of ballet gear. They tend to be worn with elastic rather than ribbons, which decreases some of their aesthetic value, particularly when it comes to performances.
Leather ballet shoes are one of the most durable and resistant options. The sturdiness of leather shoes provides better support, especially for children and beginners. This helps new dancers develop the correct technique while their feet get stronger. Leather ballet shoes will adapt to your foot the more you wear them, and they stretch best when they are warmed up. They are the main choice for full sole ballet shoes.
The main disadvantage of leather ballet shoes is that they are one of the most expensive options so they can be an investment. Cleaning them can be a complex process because they aren’t machine washable and dirt can get easily ingrained in them. The material can also show signs of indentations in the toe area if worn frequently, especially if a lot of point work is done in them.
How to Clean Your Ballet Shoes
Cleaning your ballet shoes depends entirely on adapting the process to the material. From the easy to the complex, there are plenty of ways to consider when it comes to cleaning your shoes.
Leather Ballet Shoes
Leather is very sturdy but that can also make the material rigid. Leather ballet shoes aren’t dirt-resistant, but you can apply a coating of leather-specific paint on them to prevent dirt from showing. If you’re looking to clean your leather ballet shoes, here are some tips:
- Spot cleaning. For superficial and easy to clean marks, spot cleaning is the best way to go when it comes to leather ballet shoes. A damp cloth gently applied to the mark will do the trick in these cases. If the dirt resists, rub at the stain as softly as possible.
- Detergent. For more troublesome stains, you can use fabric detergent, but make sure it is as mild as possible. You can either apply a small drop of detergent directly to the stain and then wipe it off with a cloth, or you can dip a cloth into detergent mixed with some water and gently wipe off the stain.
- Dish soap. This type of soap is recommended because it’s mild but make sure to gently wipe off any trace of it.
- Baby wipes. A good option for superficial stains, but make sure to patch test the leather beforehand to make sure the wipes don’t affect the texture or color of the material.
- Leather cleaner. You can use a gentle leather cleaner to treat the stains on your ballet shoes, but this may slightly dry out the material. Some conditioning with olive oil or similar after the clean-up is recommended.
- Melamine foam. Many household cleaners include this component, and some even come in the form of sponges made from melamine foam. This is an effective cleaner if applied gently and in small quantities to your shoe.
- Avoid water. Leather is easily damaged by water so it’s best to avoid using it in the cleaning process as much as possible.
Canvas Ballet Shoes
Canvas ballet shoes are the easiest type of ballet shoes to clean and there are a few options to do so:
- Washing machine. This is the most popular and convenient way to clean canvas ballet shoes. Make sure to put them on a delicate cold water cycle with mild detergent and no fabric softener. You can also put them in a laundry bag, a lingerie bag, or even inside a pillowcase to keep them safe. Do not put them in the dryer when the wash is done because they will shrink. It’s best to reshape them while they’re wet and leave them out to dry. Make sure to avoid placing them to dry in direct sunlight as this can affect the color and texture of the material.
- Spot cleaning. For smaller stains, spot cleaning with detergent or dish soap is a great idea for canvas ballet shoes.
- Restoring color. The cleaning process can dull the color of your canvas shoes. If that occurs, you can try out using a make-up foundation that matches the tone of the shoes. Calamine lotion can also be used for this purpose, as it is a light pink color that matches most canvas shoes. If you apply either foundation or calamine to your shoes, make sure to dab them gently onto the material all around the shoe with a make-up sponge or a cloth.
- Air dry. After every use, you can leave your canvas ballet shoes out to air dry to prevent them from becoming grimy. This will also reduce the need to throw them in the washing machine so often.
Satin Ballet Shoes
Satin tends to be used specifically for pointe and demi-pointe shoes. Its aesthetic value is unbeatable but the cleaning and maintaining process can be complex especially because its shine has to be preserved.
- Conceal. This is a preventative measure that you can use to minimize the need to clean your satin ballet shoes. If you start noticing scuff marks or black marks on your shoes, you can dab some matching tone foundation or calamine lotion on top to mask the problematic spots. This can help keep the state of the shoes intact while you’re dancing and it can also help to maximize their lifespan. Another idea is to use pointe shoe covers that are made specifically to preserve them for as long as possible. They also don’t interfere with the shine of your shoes.
- Avoid water. When cleaning your satin shoes, make sure to use water as little as possible. If you can, avoid using it entirely. Water can destroy the shape of the shoe as well as the material, and it can interfere with the glue that holds the toe box together. If the toe boxes of pointe shoes are deformed, they can’t be used.
- Spot cleaning. You can use a small amount of dish soap with a tiny amount of water to tackle the stains on your satin shoes. Make sure to dab the stain very gently with a cloth until it fades, and be careful not to use too much water.
- Baking soda. Add a small bit of baking soda to an even smaller amount of water and mix it. You can apply this mixture directly to the material in circular motions with a cloth or a toothbrush. Leave the mixture to work overnight, and then wipe off with a slightly damp cloth. Make sure to get rid of all the baking soda or it will leave a chalky color on the satin.
Other Cleaning Tips
There are plenty of other things you may have around the house that you can use to clean your ballet shoes. Always make sure to use them according to the material of your shoes.
- Damp paper towel. It’s recommended to use a slightly damp paper towel to wipe off superficial dirt that may be on your shoes after performances. This will help prevent black marks and stains, and it will also keep dirt from getting ingrained into leather ballet shoes in particular.
- A sprinkling of baking soda. You can use baking soda to clean your ballet shoes but you can use it to prevent having to clean them too. Sprinkle some baking soda inside your shoes before every training session or performance to prevent moisture from forming.
- Toothpaste. This is an insider tip from dance academies that is meant for leather ballet shoes. When you notice black marks or stains on your shoes, you can gently apply a small amount of toothpaste to them and wipe it off with a damp cloth. This will preserve the look of your shoes for a longer time.
- Coconut soap. When it comes to cleaning your ballet shoes, you should use soap that is as mild as possible. A dab of coconut soap and a damp cloth can go a long way to remove grime from your shoes.
- Windex. You can use some Windex (or similar glass cleaners) sprayed onto a paper towel or a cloth to remove stains from your leather ballet shoes. Make sure to not spray Windex directly onto your shoes.
- Suede brush. For ballet shoes with suede soles, you can use specific brushes to remove any dirt ingrained in the sole.
- Antibacterial spray. You can use an antibacterial spray to wipe down the insides of your ballet shoes.
- Wear while damp. After you’ve cleaned your leather ballet shoes, you should wear them while they’re still drying so that they mold to your foot.
The Long History of Ballet Shoes
The art of ballet can be traced back to the years of the Italian Renaissance. The dance evolved from the intricate choreography of court dances that were popular at the time. Ballet then reached France when Catherine de’ Medici married Henry II.
The dance style flourished in the 17th century, particularly at the court of the Sun King Louis XIV, when he established the Academie Royale de Danse. Then, it spread to the other main European courts and became a part of traditional arts.
By the 20th century, ballet had become an intrinsic part of the culture in Russia and the United States too, especially following the success of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris. It has evolved into other styles like neoclassical ballet and contemporary dance.
Ballet shoes are an essential part of the dance and have also evolved along with the style.
History of Ballet Shoes
Ballet shoes initially had heels because they were still meant for courtly dances. It took until halfway through the 18th century for a dancer to wear non-heeled ballet shoes. This dancer was the Marie Camargo, also known simply as La Camargo, who performed for the Paris Opera Ballet.
Following the French Revolution of 1789, ballet shoes remained as we know them today: slippers without heels.
It is alleged that the first ballerina to dance on pointe was the Italian Marie Taglioni in the ballet La Sylphide which premiered in 1832. Until then, dancing on pointe was more of an occasional stunt instead of integrated into the choreography.
Ballet shoes had no support or structure during that time, which put a lot of pressure on the legs and feet of the dancers. The Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova made a huge change in the structure of ballet shoes because she needed to adapt them following several injuries. She reinforced the soles of her shoes and also started creating the beginning of toe boxes in her pointe shoes. This then led to the current design for ballet shoes.
Types of Ballet Shoes
We’ve seen that there are three types of material used for ballet shoes, but there are also three types of ballet shoes. The three types have various pros and cons.
- Full Sole Shoe. An excellent type of shoe for beginners, the full sole shoe gives the most support to the foot. It is also a type of shoe with more resistance and traction. This helps both new and experienced dancers build up strength in their legs. The main drawback of the full sole shoe is that it doesn’t allow much room for growth for advanced dancers.
- Split Sole Shoe. The split sole ballet shoes have two different sections: the toe pad and the heel pad. This leaves the center of the shoe uncovered and allows for more flexibility in the arch of the foot. The split sole shoe is light and quiet and it allows a great deal of traction and more precision for pointing. However, the increased flexibility comes at the cost of decreased arch support. This type of shoe is not suited for outdoor wear.
- Pointe Shoe. This type of shoe has become synonymous with ballet and it is meant for experienced ballet dancers. It offers great support for pointe work with its main feature, the toe box.
The Pointe Shoe
Charles Didelot anticipated the pointe shoe in 1795 when he created a wired mechanism that he called ‘the flying machine’, which allowed dancers to lift onto their toes before performing jumps. In the 19th century, ballet started focusing more on the technical aspect and on achieving dancing on pointe without any support from wires.
In 1832, when Marie Taglioni danced the ballet La Sylphide on pointe, there were no shoes that offered support to make the technique more comfortable. Ballet shoes started including variations of platforms and toe boxes, as well as better construction, towards the late 19th century, especially with the creations of shoemaker Salvatore Capezio.
Anna Pavlova was instrumental in the creation of what has become the modern design of the pointe shoe when she started adapting her ballet shoes specifically to her feet. Pointe shoes very specific to the types of feet of ballet dancers to this day to ensure that they receive the best support.
The main feature of the pointe shoe is known as the toe box, located at the front of the shoe, which supports the toes of the dancer when they are doing pointe work. Traditionally, the box is formed from pieces of paper and fabric that are glued together to form a box-like structure that is placed at the front of the shoe. The intricacies of the box design depend entirely on the shape of the foot and the level of the arch.
Dancers looking to progress to dance on pointe will usually start training for it on the demi-pointe shoes. The demi-pointe shoes have a toe box but offer more support and resistance. They aim to build up the strength of the dancers before they make the jump to full pointe shoes.
The Parts of Ballet Shoes
It may not look like the case, but the design for ballet shoes is complex and formed from many parts. Here are some of the terms you might encounter when researching ballet shoes:
- Ribbons. Ballet ribbons help to secure the shoe to the foot. They create beautiful lines and match well visually with satin pointe shoes, which makes them a great option for exams and performances.
- Sole. Leather or suede tend to be the usual materials for the sole of ballet shoes. Beginners tend to start on full soles that cover the length of the foot, but more advanced dancers move on to split soles, which offer more flexibility.
- Elastics. More commonly used for training and non-formal occasions than ribbons, elastics are used to secure the shoe to the foot. Ballet shoes can have either one elastic that goes from one side of the foot to the other or two elastics that crisscross. Usually, elastics will match either the color of the tights worn or the skin tone of the dancer.
- Arch Panel. This part is specific to split sole shoes. It covers the arch of the foot and is usually made from a thin layer of suede or leather.
- Back Seam. Usually, the back seam is a rectangular patch of material that reinforced the back of the ballet shoe.
- Throat/Opening. The part of the shoe where you can insert your foot.
- Vamp. On pointe shoes, the vamp is the part towards the front of the shoe. This is usually made specifically for the dancer’s foot so it can vary in detail.
- Shank. The shank is the core of the pointe shoe structure and will also be tailored to the foot of the ballet dancer to ensure the best support and flexibility.
- Platform. This element is also known as the block, the platform is what dancers dancing on pointe use for balance.
- Wings. On pointe shoes, the wings are located on the sides of the shoes and they help with slipping the shoes onto the feet.
The Ballet Flats
Ballet shoes have become a sensation even outside the world of performance ballet. The ballet flats are an accessory based on ballet shoes that have become a staple in the world of fashion.
They first started becoming part of the fashion industry when Claire McCardell, an American sportswear designer, commissioned Capezio for a collection of ballet flats in 1941. This attracted the attention of major retailers like Neiman Marcus and Lord and Taylor.
French actress Brigitte Bardot further elevated the status of the ballet flat in the 1950s, when she commissioned footwear brand Repetto for a more comfortable version of ballet shoes. Repetto created the now-famous Cendrillon design of the ballet flat. The Cendrillon featured prominently in Bardot’s movie ‘And God Created Woman’, which came out in 1956.
Since then, the ballet flat has become part of every wardrobe. It’s also frequently seen in fashion collections and well-beloved by designers and fashionistas. Ballet companies have collaborated on numerous occasions with the biggest fashion brands to design new ballet flats. Dior looked to the American Ballet Theater for inspiration, Rodarte collaborated with the New York City Ballet, and Ricardo Tisci worked with the Opera de Paris.
Fashion houses like Valentino and Giambattista Valli have also incorporated the ballet flat into their designs, making the ballet flat into an iconic accessory, especially in France.
Cleaning your ballet shoes can be a complex process. The material of the shoes influences the cleaning process. Ballet shoes are usually made from three materials: canvas, leather, and satin. Canvas ballet shoes are the easiest to clean because they are machine washable. It’s recommended to spot clean your leather ballet shoes. Satin shoes are usually pointe shoes and require the most care while cleaning as water can distort their shape and ruin the material.
Ballet has a long history that started in the Italian Renaissance and then spread around the world in the following centuries. Ballet shoes have evolved significantly in the past two centuries in particular.
Ballet has also become a great influencer in the world of fashion, especially with the design of the ballet flat, which is part of everyday life.
An outline of ballet footwear from the Romantic Period through to Modern Dance