Dance Dependencies: Entanglement by Hodder as Seen in Ballet Pointe Shoes and Ballerinas


American Ballet Theatre
(Photo credits: https://allarts.org/2020/12/american-ballet-theatre-met-season-2021/)

In the following text, I will revise Ian Hodder’s work on entanglement as a theory that may be applied not only in the realm of archeology, but in the world of Dance Anthropology as well. As much as I will try to develop a well written academic essay, I apologize in advance if this text occasionally drives down a more narrative, literary road, for dance is a passion of mine. Therefore, I tend to have trouble maintaining a linear academic style when describing and analyzing that which moves my heart. For the same reason, I will be citing a lot of texts rather than putting them into my own words. When it comes to artistic subjects, I prefer the words said to remain as intact as possible.  

Dance Anthropology

As a main guide to this work I now cite Wullf’s (2015) work when describing Dance Anthropology or Ethnochoreology:

“Dance as a topic for systematic anthropological investigation was established in the 1960s. As the Western category of dance did not always work in a cross-cultural perspective, bounded rhythmical movements were identified, as well as dance events. Dance is an expression of wider social and cultural situations, often indicating transition or conflict, as well as unity. Dance anthropologists study all forms of dance, Western and non-Western, ranging from ritual dance and social dance to street dance and staged dance performance. Dance and movement are understood in relation to theories of the body and gender, and to ethnicity, nationalism, and transnationality.” (p.666)

This citation clearly demonstrates the work that the Dance Anthropology field dedicates to. However, it also clearly depicts the lack of involvement of a study of materiality in the field. Here, we can observe just how recent the study of objects in human relations actually is. So, in this text, we will intertwine both worlds, the study of materiality and cultural objects, with the study of dance as cultural production and reproduction in human societies. Up to a certain extent, we could argue that dance is a thing itself, and a product created and dependent on humans. Although that may be an interesting approach, we’ll focus specifically on objects as things, and even more particularly, on ballet pointe shoes, as an example of the importance of objects in dance culture.


Contemporary Dance - Dance Anthropology
Photo by Ketan Rajput

Ballet History

La Classe de Danse Edgar Degas Painting
The Ballet Class by Degas (1871-1874)

So let’s begin with a brief summary of ballet’s history. Ballet was codified during a period in which European courts were accelerating the process of bodily autocontrol and self discipline (Chaimovich, n.d.). Ballet is born at European nobility parties, where every movement and behaviour or conduct had to respect a group of etiquette rules. Although that etiquette is no longer used, it’s components are still alive in ballet dance. Ballet originated during the Italian Renaissance. It comes from balletto, which means tiny dance. It was a mixture of social dancing and choreography for aristocratic events. It worked as a tool of control over the people who made up the court, for they had to strictly obey the rules. The study of ballet in court became indispensable. Up to the point in which it established the right etiquette and manners. If they didn’t follow it, they would be expelled from court. Catherine di Medicci introduced ballet in France when she married King Henry II. Ballet became more complex and it started a process of institutionalization. In XVII, with Louis XIII’s court, ballet was transformed into what we now know. King Louis established the Royal Academy of Dance in 1661. Pierre Beauchaump codified the five corporal basic positions that are still in use. In 1665 the Paris Opera Ballet was founded and it still exists. Ballet moved from court to the theater, and that is how it survived throughout history, despite all the revolutions and socio-political changes that occurred over the next centuries. Ballet kept evolving in countries like Russia (Ted Ed, 2016). 

Pointe Shoes

“Without music, lights, scenery, costume or false eyelashes a ballerina can still dance, given some space. But if her shoes are taken away from her, she loses her technique, her grace and her ephemeral quality. She will literally descend into the world as a mere mortal if her means of support are taken from her.” (Bentley, T., 1984, p. 3)

The Nutcracker at New York City Ballet in 2018.
Claire Kretzschmar and Preston Chamblee as the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier in the closing scene of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” at New York City Ballet in 2018. Photo Credits: Rachel Papo for The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/18/arts/dance/nutcracker-canceled-new-york-city-ballet-virus.html

The role of pointe shoes in ballet is one of extreme importance. “​​Pointe shoes are used for dancing on the tip of the toes and as they balance on them, ballerinas seem to float and become the ultimate expression of grace and ethereal lightness.” (Hoogsteyns, 2012). A professional ballet dancer, literally, can’t do her job if she has no pointe shoes. Although I would love to start an analysis over the relationship between pointe shoes and ballerinas, in order to do this, we need some comprehension on the theory I will be using for that analysis. This theory is Human-Thing Entanglement, as worked by author and archeologist Ian Hodder.

Ian Hodder

Ian Hodder
Credits: https://camnes.org/news/welcome-to-the-new-member-of-our-scientific-committee-prof-ian-hodder

Hodder has a number of published books that are very interesting, but in this text we will be focusing especially on his most recent work, published in 2012, Entangled. An archaeology of the relationship between humans and things.  

Ian Hodder joined the Stanford Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology in September of 1999. Among his publications are: Symbols in Action (Cambridge 1982), Reading the Past (Cambridge 1986), The Domestication of Europe (Oxford 1990), The Archaeological Process (Oxford 1999). Catalhoyuk: The Leopard’s Tale (Thames and Hudson 2006), and Entangled. An archaeology of the relationships between humans and things (Wiley and Blackwell, 2012). Professor Hodder has been conducting the excavation of the 9,000 year-old Neolithic site of Catalhoyuk in central Turkey since 1993.” (anthropology.stanford.edu)


In the Introduction of his book about Entanglement, Hodder (2012) initiates by explaining what entanglement means. This concept stands for the relationship between objects and human beings. HT entanglement refers to the human dependency on things. The TH kind refers to how things depend on humans, for objects require humans for their production and use. TT, on the other side, is how things depend on things. Basically, the creation of objects requires other objects and so forth. For example, to cook, humans require a pot (as the author explains). However, all these entanglements are at the same time entangled with the environment. For example, to cook, humans need to harvest, hunt, or grocery shop. Lastly, the author takes a look at the HH entanglement. He explains this kind of entanglement is usually related to things (T), although there are “HH relations that little involve things”. After these descriptions, the author mentions how complicated HH relations are, and how there are many other factors that we should keep in mind like words and ideas, or institutions and bureaucracies. He ends this idea by stating this definition of entanglement:

“the overall inter-dependence of humans and things and focuses more on the double bind, the tension between dependence or reliance between humans and things, and the dependency or constraint between humans and things; thus entanglement is the dialectic of dependence and dependency between humans and things.” (Hodder, 2012)

Of course there are a variety of other analysis included in his study of entanglements, but we will use these dependencies as stated above to further analyze the relationship between ballet shoes and ballerinas. 

Ballerina in studio
Credits: https://art-of.net/

Dance Dependencies

This text, I must state, is deeply inspired by the approach that Maartje Hoogsteyns (2012) takes in her investigation, where she considers pointe shoes “as a direct extension of the ballerina’s body and movements (…)” and she regards “the female dancer and her shoes as a unique, intimate and hybrid assemblage, shaping and exchanging each other’s characteristics” (p. 121). Hodder’s approach to Entanglement is directed to the archeological field of study. Here, I will use his work and direct it towards an Anthropology of Dance and Objects, as I mentioned before. In order to do that, I will describe exam

Credits: https://www.abt.org/performances/the-nutcracker/

ples where pointe shoes and ballerinas are entangled in HT, TH, TT and HH dependencies. 

HT Dependency in Ballet

“Ballet students seem to consider the difficulty of mastering ballet shoes a challenge, enabling them to excel and triumph. This feeling of pride is supported by the fact that a dancer on pointe shoes can move with extraordinary grace, speed and smoothness” (Hoogsteyns, 2012, p.123). 

Therefore, the dependency a ballet dancer has on her shoes is clearly recognizable, for she will only be able to execute her career as long as she is performing with them.

TH Dependency Ballet

nyc ballet
Credits: https://www.nycballet.com/discover/stories/the-making-of-the-2021-summer-session-films/

Now moving towards a TH dependency. Ballet pointe shoes have one particular user: ballerinas. This makes this relationship even more dependent than the one described before. Pointe shoes are literally created and made specifically for ballerinas, in that sense, they achieve their objective through the use that ballerinas give them. 

“A professional working dancer may easily use 12 pairs of new toe shoes a week, and often more. Under average circumstances, a pair lasts for 15 minutes of performing and is then ready for class, rehearsal, autographs or, most often, the trash can. A used toe shoe is not revivable- this is the secret of the eternal demand for new ones. A toe shoe is as eccentric as the ballerina who wears it; their marriage is a commitment” (Bentley, T., 1984). 

Pointes, on the other side, before being used, are actually created by humans as well. In Toni Bentley’s article titled The heart and sole of a ballerina’s art: her toe shoes, he portrays the manufacturing of pointe shoes, as done by Freed’s company in the 80’s. So the entanglements that pointe shoes are involved in are countless, in a sense where we can map out various dependencies, are limited, in the sense where they are all happening inside one specific field; the classical ballet world. 

In this TH dependency, we can also evaluate the shortness in the life of use of pointe shoes. This is depicted in the previous citations, as well as in several audiovisuals where Scout Forsythe collaborates with Glamour’s YouTube channel. She explains that the life of her pointe shoes is of about three days, and she shows the way she uses them as those days goes by in her life as a corps de ballet ballerina in the American Ballet Theater (Glamour On Pointe, 2020 and www.abt.org/).

Brief Summary of Analysis so Far

From this HT and TH relationships we can understand particular ways in which the thing and the human interact with each other. For example, for ballerinas to be able to use their pointes, they need to modify them following a series of actions that model the shoes to the feet and prevent injuries as much as grant comfort and mobility. Toni Bentley (1984) explains it as following: 

Hammering pointe shoes
(Photo credits: Toni Bentley’s article)

“With the combined application of door hinges, hammer, pliers, scissors, razor blade, rubbing alcohol, warm water and muscle power- followed by repeated rapping against a cement wall- we literally bend, rip, stretch, wet, flatten a new shoe out of its hard immobility into a quieter, more passive casing for our feet.” (p. 3)

TT Dependency

In this consistent modification that ballerinas put their shoes through, there is yet another type of dependency proposed by Ian Hodder. TT entanglement is evidently seen in this action, for ballerinas need all the things mentioned by Bentley to adequately modify their pointes. We can also see this in Scout Forsythe’s videos, where she explains how she glues, swes and breaks her shoes to prepare them for use. For instance, she uses dental floss and needles to sew the very point of her shoes (Glamour On Pointe, 2020). Here, we can see TT entanglement between artifacts as needles and pointe shoes, as well as the human’s role as a mediator for this relationship. 

HH Dependency

Lastly, the HH entanglement is spread all over the classical ballet world. Once ballerinas enter this world as professional dancers who wear ballet pointe shoes, they are meant to integrate themselves in all sorts of HH relationships. Examples of this are the relationships ballerinas have with their professors, physiotherapists, and colleagues. A particular HH relationship stands out as correlated with the use of pointes. Hoogsteyns explains the approach that Feminist Anthropologists have toward the HH relationship between male dancers and female dancers, and the role of pointes, given that males are not educated or obliged to use these shoes. She explains this in the following way:

Ballet Dancers
Credits: https://www.nycballet.com/discover/stories/studio-visit-chun-wai-chan/

“Feminist writers often consider the dancer-on-pointe as the ultimate expression of inequality in ballet: whereas male and female dancers still performed similar steps, alongside each other, in the 18th-century pas de deux, the arrival of pointe shoe technique in the 19th century, brought about a different way of partnering: ‘always with the male dancer supporting, guiding and manipulating the female dancer’ (Foster, 1997: 4). The instability of the pointe shoes makes the ballerina a graceful yet fragile creature, literally dependent on male support for her balance (Novack, 1993).” (Hoogsteyns, 2012, p.121).

Here, especially, the dependency of female ballerinas on male ballet dancers can be seen as a HH entanglement.


Hodder explains that in all of  “ (…) these different approaches it is accepted that human and thing co-constitute each other. In these different approaches it is accepted that human existence and social life depend on material things and are entangled with them; humans and things are relationally produced.” (Ian Hodder in Graham Harman, 2014, p.43)

However, in his text Human-thing entanglement: towards an integrated archaeological perspective (2011), he states that he failed to establish the precise integration he meant to. So there are two things there that need to be highlighted. First, the fact that this text was written before his book on Entanglement (2012). Second, the reality that he was working with cultural archaeological materialities, therefore he has not had direct contact with the society and humans that were related to these objects. In the conclusions of his text he writes that he has “offered the idea of entanglement as a bridging concept” (p. 174), and that is what is most valuable here. 

Importance to Anthropology

Hodder’s Entanglement Theory, I consider, is not only a bridge, but should be a reference for all cultural studies. As much as he fails to accomplish his objectives in one of his first approaches towards Entanglement, he most certainly established a valuable precedent for anthropological studies, as I have shown in my own letters. Based on a number of diverse bibliographies and audiovisual research, after a strong familiarization with ballet as a subject/object of study in Anthropology and Social Sciences, I have been able to apply Hodder’s Entanglement Theory’s bases to further comprehend this historic art form. This was achieved by a specific analysis of the relationship between ballerinas and their pointe shoes, and the entanglements, nets and knots created through it. This shows just how important Hodder’s scientific proposals matter. This text also pretends to iterate the importance of the inclusion of objects/things in the study of culture and peoples. 

Misty Copeland
Credits: https://centre.atlantaballet.com/news/celebrating-black-history-month-spotlight-on-misty-copeland

If you enjoyed this reading, please check out some of my other articles on Anthropology and Travel:

Anthropology: A View of Adoption and Kinning in Kinship Studies

Sources and bibliography:

Graham Harman (2014) Entanglement and Relation: A Response to Bruno Latour and Ian Hodder. New Literary History, Volume 45, Number 1, pp. 37-49 (Article) 

Maartje Hoogsteyns (2012) Giving more weight to the ballerina: Material agency in the world of pointe shoes. International Journal of Cultural Studies 16(2), pp. 119–133 (Article) 

Toni Bentley (1984) The heart and sole of a ballerina’s art: her toe shoes. https://www.tonibentley.com/pdfarticles/smithsonian/tonibentley_smithsonian.pdf

Ian Hodder (2011) Human-thing Entanglement: towards an integrated archeological study.  Stanford University. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 17, pp. 154-177


Hodder, I. (2012). Entangled: An archaeology of the relationships between humans and things. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Felipe Chaimovich (n.d) El ballet como movimiento del cuerpo reprimido. Recuperado de http://www.bivipsi.org/wp-content/uploads/Caliban_Vol14_No1_2016_-esp_p125-129.pdf

Stanford Website https://anthropology.stanford.edu/people/ian-hodder

Wulff, H., 2015. Dance, Anthropology of. In: James D. Wright (editor-in-chief), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Vol 5. Oxford: Elsevier. pp. 666–670.

Marko Marila (2013) Ian Hodder: Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things , Norwegian Archaeological Review, 46:1, 121-123, DOI: 10.1080/00293652.2013.773367

Pérez García, G. (2015) La danza hace cuerpos y los cuerpos hacen danza. (Tesis de Grado en Antropología Social y Cultural) Universidad Complutense de Madrid Facultad de Ciencias Políticas y Sociología. Recuperado de https://eprints.ucm.es/id/eprint/55731/1/21-2017-12-21-CT04_Gara%20Perez.pdf


Girl (2018) https://www.netflix.com/title/81004374

The Origins of Ballet (2016) TedEd https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OEekFTj5PvU


Ballerina Breaks Down How to Customize Pointe Shoes / On Pointe / Glamour (2020) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6PtpMaAv6Sc

Black Swan (2010)

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