Relief, Down to the Tips of Their Toes

Posted January 12, 2018 9:33 p.m. EST

Change comes slowly to the ballet world.

One popular style of pointe shoes, used by ballerinas who perform on their toes, was designed more than a century ago and is made of paper, glue and fabric. To improve the fit of the shoes, dancers swathe their toes in lamb’s wool or household items such as paper towels and makeup pads.

But now, some dancers are embracing custom-molded shoe inserts made from silicone putty, a distinctly modern product from a Bay Area startup called PerfectFit Pointe. The inserts are meant to help distribute dancers’ weight more evenly and prevent skin abrasions like blisters and corns.

Kelly Schmutte, PerfectFit Pointe founder, initially marketed her product to dance stores and ballet studios. When some elite studios expressed reluctance, she decided to take a different tack: She approached professional dancers directly through Instagram.

Several agreed to try her product. Principal dancers at the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theater, San Francisco Ballet and Royal Danish Ballet now use the inserts in their pointe shoes. (The name comes from “en pointe,” a French ballet term that means on the point of the toe and is often denoted as “on pointe” in English.)

Schmutte is a designer and lecturer at Stanford University’s design school. She got her first pair of pointe shoes as a young dancer growing up in Davis, California.

“I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if there’s a better way to do this,'” she said of the shoes. “It’s an amazing feeling to stand on pointe, and yet it comes with a lot of costs for dancers.” Namely, pain and injuries.

The most common ballet injury, a sprained ankle, can occur when a dancer’s first three toes are different lengths, said Marika Molnar, director of physical therapy for the New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet. Those with a longer first or second toe put most of their weight on that toe, compromising their balance. Injuries also occur when dancers avoid putting pressure on a blister or a corn.

When Schmutte, 34, was a teenager, her longer first toe became a liability during a “Sleeping Beauty” solo that required numerous hops and skips on pointe. “I lost my big toenail,” she said.

As a Stanford undergraduate, Schmutte began designing inserts to address the problem; after her graduation, she worked on them as a side project for several years.

The PerfectFit Pointe inserts are made from a moldable putty that fills in gaps created by uneven toes and protects pressure points around bunions and corns. The company sells the putty as part of a kit that dancers use to make their own inserts. They spread the putty on their toes and slip their feet into a sleeve of fabric. Then they put on their pointe shoes and let the putty flow to the empty spaces in the toe box. It solidifies within 10 minutes.

Each time they dance, they slide the putty molds into their shoes. The putty can last up to six months for professional dancers and longer for those who practice and perform less frequently.

Part of Schmutte’s strategy from the start was to get her product onto the feet of elite dancers. “I knew it would be hugely helpful if I could get a high-level professional dancer to try these and give them their blessing,” Schmutte said.

When she encountered resistance from some ballet studios, she began sending private Instagram messages “out of the blue” to professional dancers she admired, she said. Among them were Sara Mearns, a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, and Sasha De Sola, a principal dancer for the San Francisco Ballet. De Sola said that she was inundated with product inquiries through social media but that the PerfectFit Pointe inserts had stood out.

“This was something I felt could really change my life in the sense of the way I work and the hours that I can work,” De Sola said. “I felt there’s nothing to lose by trying it out.”

De Sola tested the inserts during a practice session and decided to use them in a performance the same night. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is revolutionary,'” she recalled.

Mearns also began using the inserts as a result of Schmutte’s Instagram overture, and she has posted about them repeatedly on her Instagram account, which has 66,000 followers.

The dancers have given the company the boost Schmutte was hoping for. After Mearns’ first Instagram post, for instance, “sales increased by sixfold overnight,” Schmutte said.

But with the Perfect Fit Pointe kit, as with any do-it-yourself product, there’s a learning curve for customers. Molding the putty is “not as easy as just putting on a pair of socks,” said Molnar, who works with several dancers who use the inserts.

Educating dancers on how to use the putty has been a challenge for Schmutte. Initially, she included printed instructions and recommended that customers watch an instructional video. When she realized some people were starting the molding process without understanding the instructions, causing the putty to harden prematurely, she added an audio guide to the company’s website that explains each step in real time.

“It’s basically me narrating as I’m molding a pair on my own feet,” Schmutte said. “I wrote the script to be very friendly, very confidence-building.” She has received a positive response to the additional instructions. Even still, the molding process can require experimentation. Megan Fairchild, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, struggled with the putty at first.

“I loved it initially,” she said of the product. But as she continued wearing the inserts, “it was harder for me to point my feet in my shoes,” she said.

She stopped using her PerfectFit Pointe inserts for a year. Then, as she was preparing for her “Swan Lake” debut, she molded a new set of inserts, this time using less putty and applying it only to the undersides of her toes. The fit was much better, and Fairchild said the inserts had helped improve her balance during the notoriously difficult 32 fouettés she performed in “Swan Lake.”

The pricing of the PerfectFit Pointe kits, $42, is another possible hurdle for the business. The kit is far more expensive than a roll of paper towels, for instance. But dancers say it helps extend the life of their pointe shoes by reducing wear and tear.

Given that professional dancers go through about a pair of shoes per day, improving shoe longevity could mean significant savings for major ballet companies and an opportunity for PerfectFit Pointe, said Molnar, the physical therapy director.

The inserts “may be one of those things the big professional companies actually provide for their dancers,” Molnar said.