Dancer and designer Kelly Schmutte was 11 years old when she finally got permission to go en pointe.
She remembers being thrilled. She was a kid growing up in Davis, California, and had taken a liking to ballet right away for its mix of technicality and artistry, she said in a recent interview.
"There's a very creative artistic side to it, and it's also a very technical dance form and requires a lot of concentration, thinking about form and technique," she said.
Getting to go en pointe is considered a rite of passage for many young dancers.
"It's this coming-of-age moment in the ballet world. It's really special," she said.
But when Schmutte actually went to put on her first pair of pointe shoes, it wasn't the beautiful experience she'd thought it would be.
In fact, it was pretty painful.
"I pretty clearly remember thinking, ‘There's got to be a better way to do this,’" she said.
Traditionally, dancers should be at least 10 years old, have a certain amount of strength in their feet and flexibility in their arches before being permitted to go en pointe, she said.
"You can damage your feet if you go en pointe too early," she said.
Dancing en pointe can cause foot injuries like bunions, hammer toes (when toes become permanently curled up), blisters, soft and hard corns, and bruised or lost toenails, she said.
"No podiatrist is going to tell you, 'This is a good thing. You should dance en pointe,'" she said.
But ballet is an old-fashioned art, and over the years, dancers have developed their own tools to make pointe shoes more bearable, from packing lamb's wool, gels or paper towels into their shoes, or using numbing products, all toward the goal of easing the pain of a shoe that's designed for beauty, not comfort – each shoe has a squared-off toe box and there's no right or left pointe shoe — they're interchangeable.
The degree of discomfort dancers experience depends on each dancer's foot and toe shape, Schmutte said.
"It was never, never a comfortable thing for me," she said.
It wasn't until years later, though, when Schmutte was a budding product design student at Stanford, that she decided to tackle the challenge of how to make pointe shoes more comfortable as a student capstone project.
Schmutte tried out different materials, working with fluids in small pouches and continuing to experiment after college, where she worked at a dance shop helping to fit pointe shoes. There, she tried out different materials like cork pastes, foam, putty and heat-moldable ski boot foam.
After testing out the foam for about a year, she determined that it wasn't moldable enough to provide the level of comfort she wanted.
"It was really disheartening to kind of realize this foam wasn't going to work," she said.
So she went back to the drawing board, starting by acknowledging the constraints of the pointe shoe, she said.
"At the end of the day, the whole reason you dance en pointe is to make you look more beautiful. It's all about aesthetics. It's about extending the line of your foot," she said. "You have to work within the constraints of that world and respect the honoring of aesthetics."
Eventually, she came back to a material she'd overlooked: polyvinyl siloxane, a putty-like substance that, when mixed together, chemically cures into a rubbery texture over seven minutes – just enough time for dancers to customize the shape of the putty to fit around their feet in ballet shoes.
She got great early feedback having dancers test out the product around the Davis and Sacramento area. But marketing her product was its own challenge. It was harder to sell top-level folks at dance studios of the importance of her product than it was to dancers themselves, she said.
She decided to put the business on hold and went back to Stanford to attend graduate school for product design. But she couldn't give up on her product. In 2015, she started an e-commerce shop called PerfectFit Pointe, selling customizable pointe shoe insert kits and started marketing the shoes to elite dancers on Instagram.
One of the dancers who said yes to trying out the inserts was celebrity ballerina Sara Mearns, a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet.
Over a stressful series of days, she said she saw Mearns post on Instagram about making her custom toe pads, but then several days passed without her review. Schmutte was beginning to fear Mearns hadn't liked them when she wrote back saying she loved them. Shortly thereafter began a whirlwind trip to New York City to introduce more elite dancers to the product.
Ten years after completing her first prototype from a classroom in Stanford, she said, she finally let herself dream. "I think it's gonna be real in the world," she said she remembered thinking about PerfectFit Pointe.
Over the past few years, Schmutte has been busy balancing the demands of running an e-commerce shop and being a lecturer at Stanford's d.school, also known as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, which is part of the university’s engineering school. She also co-authored a book, "Navigating Ambiguity," with fellow d.school lecturer Andrea Small, which was released recently.
Having an impact
For Chantelle Pianetta, a dance teacher at Menlo Academy of Dance and elite dancer herself, PerfectFit has been helpful in her own dancing and for one of her students in particular as she begins to dance en pointe, she said in a recent interview.
"New pointe shoe technology is hard to come by these days," she said. "They allow my foot to grip in the shoe way better than any of the other kinds of toe pads I've tried."
Young dancers are taught that pointe shoes are not entirely comfortable; they're a little awkward, tight-fitting, snug and rub the sides of one's toes, she said.
Today, Schmutte is in discussions to lease a business space in Menlo Park that could provide consultations and fittings and is looking for part-time marketing, operations, business planning and strategic visioning employees, as well as high school students who can help to assemble the kits. Looking ahead, she's interested in possibly developing a men's line of pointe inserts or working on how to make climbing shoes more comfortable, she said.
"I've always felt that this has been really purposeful work, because it has knit together skills that I've learned in school, and in my life, and my passion for ballet — and this very clear need in the ballet world," she said.
Her book, "Navigating Ambiguity: Creating Opportunity in a World of Unknowns" is available for purchase online at dschool.stanford.edu.