The first pair of pointe shoes are often bought when suggested and permitted by a ballet teacher. What is it based on? Unfortunately, usually on the dancer’s age, whereas it should be based on one’s physical individual abilities. In a group of ten 12-year olds there are equally many dancers all in different points of physical development, different types of bodies, and different levels of strength. Some are ready for pointes at the age of 12, some are not.
What should be evaluated?
Getting on pointes should be based on evaluation of individual readiness. Here is a list of things that should be assessed:
- The stage of physical growth and development
- Core control and stability
- Hip control and stability
- Leg alignment (hip-knee-ankle-foot) and strength
- Sufficient strength and mobility of the feet and ankles
- The duration and frequency of ballet training (min. 2 times a week)
Students who meet the requirements are recommended to begin pointe work when beginning the fourth year of ballet training (assuming that ballet training has began at the age of 8 and the fourth year of training begins at the age of 12). If at the fourth year of ballet training the core stability is weak or the feet and ankles hypermobile, going on pointe should be postponed and further strength training recommended to ensure the safety of the future pointe work. If ballet is trained only once a week pointe shoes are not recommended. Also, any student with insufficient pointing of the ankle (‘plantarflexion’) or poor alignment in the lower body should not be allowed to begin pointe work.
All adolescent dance students develop in different stages. This depends on the onset and tempo of puberty. One may grow even 10cm per year and gain up to 8kg of weight. The bones of the feet develop and change until the age of 14 for girls and 16 for boys. Between the ages 5-12 a girl’s foot can grow up to almost 1cm per year. At the age of 12, the growth does not end, it only slows down. Training on pointe has not been found to disturb the development of the feet. Nevertheless, as the body changes dramatically in a short period of time, it becomes more difficult to control. This may cause frustration and make pointe work more challenging as well – one usually gets the first pointe shoes around the time of puberty and growth spurts.
Pointe work is affected by the development and the individual structure and type of one’s body. The teacher should be able to support each dancer with their personal challenges. Often, the issues may only need time, and can be supported with right type of supplementary training. For example, one may need to train balance and strengthen the core muscles, and the muscles supporting the ankles. This will benefit all dancers whether dancing on pointe or not.
A dancer with hypermobile ankles will most likely get pointe shoes in an early stage as she is able to achieve the correct position on pointe easily. However, it should be noted that it is specifically hypermobile dancers that need a great amount of strength to support the hypermobile structures. Strengthening the hypermobile ankles (the muscles supporting the ankles) should be in focus before beginning pointe work and generally in dance training.
If again the pointing of the foot and ankle (top surface of the forefoot should be parallel to the front of the shin) it is unfavourable for one to train on pointe. Bad alignment will burden the feet and ankles but also the legs, hip, and trunk. Ankle mobility can be improved to some extent, but a young dancer with insufficient range of motion may not ever be able to gain the needed mobility for safe pointe training. In these cases, point work should not be recommended.
One group or individuals?
Dance teachers should have the ability to evaluate their students’ pointe readiness. I will definitely write more about assessment methods targeted for teachers in the future!
Understandably, decisions about allowing dance students to go on pointe are difficult for teachers and dance schools. A competing dance school can easily take away the students who want to go on pointe (and whose parents) regardless of the recommendations. Questions may arise if young students hear about other schools that allow the dancers their age in the same stage of training already to dance on pointe. Social media quite likely has increased the competition.
Also, when I began pointe work back in the days we all did it as one group. Doing the transition as a group is good for the group dynamics and makes it easier to plan and carry out the classes. Questions about superiority might arise if only a part of the class would be allowed the point shoes, and it might be awkward for both sides.
I would still like to remind, that for some dancers getting on pointe may not be in their favour but can cause risks of being injured and make training very unpleasant. If all energy is wasted on struggling to stay on pointe it is quite impossible to move on to more complicated technique. Would it be possible to divide into two groups? The other group training on pointe in the end of the class might be a good time for the other group to practice whatever may be their challenges, e.g. strength and control in specific movements. Thus, the time would be effectively used for all students supporting their personal stage of technique. Eventually, both groups would likely be able to train on pointe – safely.
Acknowledge and justify
It is extremely important for the teachers to understand the risks of getting on pointe too early as a young dancer. If beginning pointe work in an individual pace is found impossible, it can be at least foreseen as a group: Strengthening the core and ankles, working on the alignment and balance, etc. long before planning to go on pointe. This could guarantee all to have a good grounding for pointe work. The dancers are likely to be motivated for targeted training and conditioning if they know the reward to be pointe shoes.
A teacher should be able to justify why students should wait until their bodies are ready for pointe work. Young dancers need help in understanding how to work and what to train in order to prepare oneself for pointe shoes. Understanding of the uniqueness of each human body has increased and this should be stressed for the young people growing up in the dance studios. Also, communication with parents is needed for them to understand the possible postponement of buying the first pointes.
When discussing whether to begin pointe work or not, it is important to pay attention to how the subject is discussed. The purpose is not to decrease the self-esteem of young dancers. Also the dancers beginning pointe work much later can have great conditions for development.
Wonderful dance classes and patience for those moving on to pointe work! If you have any thought or questions do not hesitate to contact me below, via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Instagram (@dance.search.blossom)!
Weiss, D., Rist, R., and Grossman, G (2009) When Can I Start Pointe Work? Guidelines for Initiating Pointe Training. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, 13(3), 90-92.