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.