By Laura Di Orio for Dance Informa.
Dancing on pointe is the goal of every young female ballet student. Buying that first pair of pointe shoes is an exciting event. So, when will you be ready to lace up those ribbons?
What makes a dancer ready for pointe?
Many factors come into play such as alignment, core strength, technique and age, so it’s a case-by-case situation. Paul Plesh, Senior Product Line Manager of Pointe Shoes for Capezio, says that it’s difficult to define if you are ready for pointe by age alone. Instead, it is about you as a dancer and whether or not you have correct placement.
“Your body has to be properly aligned, bone on top of bone,” Plesh explains. “If your technique is not strong enough to properly do the positions on demi-pointe, injury is going to happen because now you’re performing the steps on a smaller surface. The shoe supports the technique, it doesn’t create the technique.”
Plesh brings up a quote from Balanchine, “There’s no reason to get a young dancer up on pointe if she can’t do anything when she gets up there.”
Kat Wildish, master classical ballet instructor at the Ailey Extension in New York City, agrees that alignment and some foundation of technique is important. “You need to be at least 12,” Wildish adds. “The foot doctors say that the little parts of your toes don’t ossify, or get hard enough to go up, until 11 ½ or 12.”
Plesh and Wildish believe that a strong core is key. “You can’t have a weak core,” Wildish states. “You have to be able to get up there and hold your upper body up.” Plesh agrees, saying, “it’s controlling everything. It’s core exercises that are the foundation of our whole vocabulary. If your core isn’t strong, you can’t go any further.”
It is also imperative to have strong leg muscles, a neutral pelvis that doesn’t tilt back and forth and good plantar flexion. The maturity of your movement is important, too. “You have to add in musicality, phrasing, and emotion,” says Plesh. “It’s a classical art form and needs to be treated that way.”
Why are my friends starting pointe before me?
Some students will be ready for pointe before others, but don’t let that deter you from working hard towards your goal.
“The rate at which your muscles, bones and tendons grow is different for everybody,” Wildish says. “The muscles aren’t going to get strong enough until the bones grow enough to match them so that they’re equal.”
If you start pointe before you are physically or mentally ready, injury may occur, so you shouldn’t rush things. Starting pointe too soon can also result in “ugly feet”, according to Wildish. “If your little toe nubs are not ossified, or hard enough, they start to buckle in the center, and that produces blisters, nubs and calluses,” she explains.
Who should determine when a dancer is ready for pointe?
A teacher or athletic doctor, someone who knows what is required of pointe technique and someone who knows the young dancer and her strength, should be the one to decide when a dancer is ready for pointe.
“The teacher, absolutely,” Plesh urges. “That’s what the parent is paying for, and they have to trust that judgment. I can get my driver’s permit at a certain age, but here we really have to look at each individual and make a judgment call.”
While Wildish agrees that a teacher is one of the best people to determine a dancer’s readiness, she that believes optimally the decision would involve a doctor also. “It would be great if we could get every dancer to go to a good athletic doctor,” she says.
Are there specific exercises that can help determine when a dancer is ready?
Plesh advises that pre-pointe dancers need to have correct body alignment, with the pelvis under, shoulders down and chin up. Can you perform a proper grand plié with port de bras, two counts down, two counts up, with your weight secure and placed?
Wildish stresses that dancers need to be practicing exercises pushing off against the floor, such as frappés and petit allegro, to work their toes and build their strength. She suggests testing dancers in 16 single-leg sautés in coupé and 16 relevés.
Should I get demi-pointe shoes?
Demi-pointe training can be very beneficial. Plesh explains that, “demi-pointe shoes enable the dancer to understand fit much better. A pointe shoe is not fit like a street shoe or a ballet slipper, it fits like a cast. There’s no extra space. Demi-pointe is a much smoother transition; a passageway to dancing on pointe. It enables a dancer to understand what it feels like, and to get in a relationship with their mind, foot and shoe.”
Capezio offers a tapered toe demi-poine (Style 1116) and a broad-toe demi-pointe (Style 1118). With these shoes, dancers don’t go up on pointe, but they get the sensation of what it feels like to have their toes supported in a different way.
So if I’m ready for pointe, will it still hurt?
Yes, pointe can hurt a little to begin with, but Wildish encourages young dancers to go for it and to pursue their dreams. “It is painful,” she says of beginning to dance on pointe, “but it’s something that dreams are made of. If you know that that’s the case, then you can endure the pain because it’s got such a beautiful outcome.”