Dancing Shoes



Sometimes the biggest innovations arise from simple problems.

Take Abigail Freed: Last year, she found herself growing frustrated with her ballet shoes, because they wore out so quickly. As a member of Hilton Head Dance Theatre, she went through a pair of pointe shoes at every performance — and with a production like “The Nutcrakcer” that had multiple performances, rehearsals and practices, she was going through shoes fast. And at $100 a pop, it became an expensive problem.

So, when the then-junior was considering her project for the Hilton Head Preparatory School science fair, she had the perfect idea: Build a better pointe shoe.

Abigail FreedPointe shoes look delicate, but they have to be strong. Ballerinas use the box at the toe and shank along the bottom to roll up on their toes when dancing en pointe. Mastering this level of ballet requires strong feet, hard work and good shoes. Most pointe shoes, however, are made with cardboard, leather, burlap and other materials that easily break down under pressure. The shank has to bend with the foot as it curves to 90-degree angles, and once it breaks or becomes too soft to support the foot — usually after about 10 to 20 hours of wear — the shoes have to be replaced. And that can really add up. Take New York City Ballet: The ballet company orders about 8,500 pairs of pointe shoes a year for its dancers.

To extend the shoes’ life, some shoemakers have tried using plastic shanks, but they are pre-molded and feel stiffer and dance differently than traditional shoes. So Freed set out to create a shank that was flexible but strong. She researched fabrics and settled on carbon fiber she found online — a strong, flexible material.

To test different thicknesses, she cut and layered sheets of carbon fiber fabric — one layer, three layers and six layers. She heat-cured the shanks, glued them in her shoes, and danced in them. The one-layer design wasn’t strong enough, and the six-layer one was too stiff. But the three-layer shank worked perfectly, and Freed has been using the same ballet shoes for months.

And her shoes have danced their way into bigger successes. Freed’s project won first in the engineering category and the competition-wide grand award at the Hilton Head Prep School science fair, and then she took first place in the engineering category and the competition-wide grand award at the Sea Island Regional Science Fair. And last May, at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh, Freed won the Arconic Foundation Award for Material Science and Engineering.

“I’ve always loved math and science,” said Freed, noting that when she started the project, she primarily was interested in simply making shoes that last. “Lots of people have said I should start a business, and my friends have placed orders.”

Freed has filed a provisional patent and plans to file for a full patent for her shoes. But it might be awhile before she’s mass-producing her shoes: She’s entering her senior year at Hilton Head Prep, and plans to apply to 14 colleges to study industrial engineering or applied math, with a minor in international relations and dance.

So, at least for now, Freed’s pointe shoes are one of a kind.