It all starts with a dream. A tiny ballerina’s dream: becoming a dancer in beautiful, pink, pointe shoes. Ballet training into pointe work is a long road. It takes dedication, technique, and strength training. Even with all of those things in tow, there is also the overlying question of when is the right time to get pointe shoes? Or is dancing en pointe right for every dancer?
Scientific studies have proven that going en pointe too early can cause damage to some young dancers. There can be long lasting consequences in the growth plates, or unnecessary stress on the leg, pelvic girdle, or even the trunk of the body.
On an average, some girls begin to be considered for pointe at the age of 12. However, growth plates, and bone development continue typically another four more years until age 16. How does a teacher decide when is the best time for each, individual dancer to begin en pointe?
Jennifer Colby, artistic director and owner of The Colby Center for Dance and Performing Arts, Inc. (C.C.D.P.A.), commented on how it is very different for each dancer.
“The appropriate age varies wildly on a lot of different factors. The first thing I would ask is: where are they dancing? If you’re talking about a dancer who is taking 5-7 ballet classes a week, in a ballet-driven academy, with the narrow goal of becoming a ballet dancer, then the age is likely to be younger when starting en pointe. They are developing the same parts and skills of their dance technique all the time. There are some studios that do offer a more versatile curriculum and cross train in other areas like tap and jazz, and overuse isn’t as much of an issue, and those kids are often suffering fewer injuries, because the muscles are more balanced in other parts of their bodies.”
There are many other factors to be recognized too. Foot, arch, and ankle strength are first to be looked at since pointe work requires a ballet dancer to dance through the extension of their toes.
With a little orthopedic background, Colby explains what happens when an injury occurs in the ankle joint or a metatarsal bone. “Those are tiny, little bones, and you’re putting your full body weight on top of them all the time in pointe shoes. If you don’t know how to hold your weight away from the foot, then you could potentially get a weight-bearing injury.”
Another thing to consider is if a dancer has what is commonly called a “banana foot,” or better termed an “over-arched” foot, it is more likely that they can have instability in the ankle due to the suppleness of their arches. On the opposite side of the coin, if a dancer has insufficient mobility, and flexibility in the ankle, it can cause problems further up the leg along with the foot.
“There are dancers, and we have had a few, that cannot get their feet to the angle that is necessary to be able to do pointe safely. Sometimes there are other problems where pointe would be more harmful now than if we waited to correct issues such as sinking into a sway back. In those situations, we have to explain to the child and parents that they are not ready yet, but that it’s not a “deal breaker”,” comments Colby.
Another aspect to look at when thinking about a dancer going en pointe is the kind of work ethic they have in the classroom, their attitude towards the hard work it takes, and their overall technique. Technique is very, very important when beginning, or extending into pointe work. The dancer must know how to lift up, and away from the floor, which is crucial since pointe shoes put a ballet dancer on top of their toes. Being able to lift up the knee caps, and lift in opposition of the floor is key to not sinking down into the shoes.
“For me, if you’re the kid that’s always being given the exact same corrections, and you really don’t respond when it’s anything below your upper body, then you are not mature enough to be en pointe,” explains Colby.
Different dance studio owners, and teachers have their own ways of deciding when a dancer is ready for pointe. At C.C.D.P.A., there are a few specific things that are looked at. “I start with a test that was originally written by an Australian ballerina who is now a teacher,” says Colby. “The test basically goes through the mechanics of how the foot and ankle work, how the toes respond to the extension or flexion of the ankle, and the angles that your foot can create with respect to your shin bone.”
Here at C.C.D.P.A. the dancers are trained in all different genres of dance to be able to be good enough to get into a college dance program if they so choose, or to be able to pursue a career in commercial dance. “We aren’t trying to make Gelsey Kirklands out of them,” muses Colby. “But our seven dancers who are going en pointe this year will be able to put the shoes on without any issues because of our approach.”
Every dancer is built differently. Every dancer matures differently. Every dancer’s goals vary. Each studio has a different curriculum that is used to train dancers. Each dance studio owner has their own philosophies, and methods about pointe work. There are so many variables that go into pointe work, and all of the science that has been conducted over many years. Maybe en pointe isn’t for every dancer and that’s okay. Even though the idea of being en pointe seems exciting to many, the good news is that unless the student is pursuing a career specifically in ballet alone, having training in pointe work is inconsequential.
“It’s important to understand that some people are never ready to begin pointe. Their body just isn’t capable of doing that. Just like some of our bodies are not able to bench press 300 lbs no matter how many times we try,” Colby closes. “People do have limits. We do have to be realistic. This is our body and we only get one.”
The benefits of waiting almost always outweigh the risks of rushing in, and educating dancers and their families about all the details is the key to a strong program rooted in safety and long-term goals.
School is back in session, which includes all of its extracurricular activities: soccer, student council, and dance. When most people think about the word “team,” they typically associate it with sports, but what about the arts? Aside from taking weekly classes, dance is an excellent way to get involved in a team setting.
Being a part of a team can have a profound impact on a dancer’s life. Working together, collaborating, discipline, and learning new skills are tools to use in every part of life, whether a dancer pursues a career in the art, or not.
Most of the students here at The Colby Center for Dance and Performing Arts (C.C.D.P.A.) would definitely agree.
“I was a very shy, nervous kid, but dance has made me feel more confident,” reflects C.C.D.P.A. student Megan Jupp. “I have confidence in myself knowing that I started out as the shy, tall kid in the back to a more independent person on the stage.”
Jupp started dance at C.C.D.P.A. six years ago towards the end of middle school. She had no interest in being a part of the team when she first began. But after Jupp watched one team community performance (CDS) from the studio, she knew she had to sign up. “I thought that the dancing was so entertaining, and I thought to myself that that was something I would enjoy.”
Jupp is now a senior soloist on the studio’s competitive team (JCD), a student assistant for younger dancers, and taking as many classes as she can. “I wanted to improve my technique, and I liked performing in front of people. Being able to do more dance numbers with the JCD team in front of judges was so cool to me! Joining the team helped me grow my passion for dance even more.”
And that’s not all. Jupp continued to speak on what else she has learned through her time here as a JCD. “It’s taught me a lot about leadership, and how each individual person can come together as a team and do some magnificent things. If I wasn’t on this team, I would not be who I am today. I would probably still be that shy kid with no friends over there in the corner,” she laughs.
While Jupp took a path down the competition lane, there are other roads to take through the studio’s team: the CDS community performance group. Community involvement between all businesses is very important. That’s why C.C.D.P.A. gives dancers the opportunity to be a part of it. Dancers from 6.5 and up can come together for some very fun dance opportunities. That is why 8 year old and sixth year student Anneliese Mudd is going into her second year of CDS. “I love my friends on the dance team. I love the teachers, owners, and staff.”
As with any young student the simplest of questions can have such an immense answer: why do you love to dance? “I love to dance because it makes me feel at home,” she said thoughtfully. “Being on the CDS team is like family. It’s like having a second whole family!”
Mudd is homeschooled, which she loves, but being a part of a dance studio, a team, a class has given her a way to socialize, and have fun with kids her own age. “It makes her listen better. It makes her focus a lot more,” Anneliese’s mom, Mrs. Mudd states. “Anneliese is a little extra, and being on the CDS team reins her in a little bit. Now when she’s in a class with kids that are a lot younger than her, she’s trying to be a good role model for them.”
All of these skills like building confidence and leadership are helpful in school and in life. Joining a team and giving commitment to an extracurricular activity such as dance is beneficial even if you are not pursuing a career in it. “I want to be a scientist when I grow up,” Mudd said excitedly. “I want to be like Gabby from NCIS!”
Take it from Rachel Daniels a married mom of two kids with a very cool profession in clinical psychology. She works in behavioral health research in a hospital to identify ways to support families with children with type 1 diabetes. Some time ago, Daniels started out as a regular teenager looking to fill her extra time. So she turned to dance. Before C.C.D.P.A. was founded in 1997, Daniels began her dance studies at a local studio.
“I remember when Jennifer Colby came as a guest teacher. My very first memory was ‘who is this teacher coming in, and playing 80s music for ballet?’ Miss Jen had this way of identifying strengths of each person,” Daniels commented. “I remember what that felt like the very first time she did that for me.”
That moment was one of the reasons Daniels signed up immediately for C.C.D.P.A. in its opening year. Not only did she change her choice of studio, but also jumped straight into the JCD competition team. “I had been on other “teams” at other studios, and it was at the point where I wasn’t happy dancing anymore. Even though it was a pastime, it didn’t feel genuine, and that they weren’t invested in my training.”
Talking more with Daniels, she reflected on her time with the JCD team, and the life lessons that come along with it. A big part of the integral health research occupation is creating and writing research papers, and applying for grants. Who would have thought a lesson learned through dance would help in a hospital setting!
“The biggest skill I learned from the team that is applicable was the ability to both receive and give constructive criticism. The work I do can sometimes be lonely work since you are doing the majority by yourself, but you are also working as a team with others,” stated Daniels.
There are so many lessons to be learned from the dance classroom, and even more skills to add to your set by joining a team. Working together towards a common goal, learning to hear and receive feedback, becoming a leader, and generating self-discipline can be used throughout an entire lifetime. Creating and taking those new skills outside of the dance classroom can benefit everyone.
So whether dance is a fun pastime to make new friends, hang out with old ones, getting the fun kind of exercise, or even if dance becomes the focus of a career choice, plugging into the team aspect can have such a great influence on all parts of life.