Hirschl School of Dance Arts:
Pointe Work Criteria Assessment and Evaluation Program
It’s hard to tell an eager young dancer she is not yet ready for pointe work. Some teachers face tremendous pressure to put students up en pointe very young. Parents demand it, or perhaps other nearby studios start at an earlier age and the teacher fears they will defect. Student and parents must be made aware of the requirements for safe entry into this particular aspect of the dance.
Risks: The bones of the feet are not fully developed, strengthened and hardened until somewhere in the early teen years. Naturally there is a great deal of individual variation. If a student attempts pointe work without adequately fulfilling the prerequisites, there is the chance they will permanently damage those not-fully-developed bones. Body weight multiplied by the energy of momentum carries a great deal of force.
The very beginnings: If the student has the strength and technique, and if the introduction pointe work is gradual and under total supervision, everything should be fine. For first year students, careful teachers usually put emphasis on special exercises for the feet and toes, then the students put on the shoes and perform a few brief exercises at the barre. It is not until the second year that students wear their pointe shoes for an entire class.
Exceptions: Upon occasions a very mature & strong 10-year-old has fulfilled the prerequisites and is ready for pointe, but this is very rare. Many adult beginners are not ready either, but the risk with them is less because their feet have fully matured and hardened.
Do not practice at home! Unless there are specific exercises the teacher has told the student to do, practice without professional supervision should not be done. Steps can to easily be executed incorrectly, causing injury. Incorrect execution can also lead to lowered performance in classes and on stage. Practicing steps the wrong way will only make it a longer and more difficult process to re-train to do steps the right way. This must be clarified to the student and parent.
Unfortunately there is no “crash course” to doing it correctly and safely. The student and parent must be made aware that they will get there just as quickly– and more safely– if they take their time.
Dancing en pointe is more than simply training the feet to do what they need. The entire body must make the adjustments. The balance points are different, as is the posture and body alignment. Everything must be re-learned and fine tuned to achieve correct pointe work.
All students are different. Progression is dependent upon many variables: age, maturity (physical as well as emotional), physical strength, how much they actually apply themselves (physically as well as emotionally), how long they have been dancing, how advanced they already are, the shape of the legs and feet, natural body posture, physical control and alignment and general body type.
This is not something that should ever be taken lightly! When we are born, the bones are soft and pliable. As we get older, they harden. Putting a student en pointe at too young of an age will cause things to happen– none of them good. These soft and pliable bones can very easily become misshapen, something that will stay with the person for the remainder of their life. This could lead to painful problems in the near or far future– something to be avoided with careful planning and patience.
Let’s face it, there are some things human beings around the world do to their bodies, things the body was just not made to do! Some people lengthen their necks by putting metal rings on, some people wrap feet to keep them small, some have even strapped boards to the children to change the shape of their heads. Being en pointe falls into the same category: it’s done for aesthetics, to bring an image of beauty, according to a concept conceived by the culture we live in. A (female, most of the time) ballet dancer must eventually get those pointe shoes, so they will achieve the next steps in the evolution of the art.
There is a gap, which could also be called the “chicken or the egg” thought. To get better more quickly en pointe, many specific sets of muscles will need to be strengthened. While practicing these exercises in soft shoes will get the student strong enough, many of these muscle groups can be strengthened more quickly by actually working en pointe. So, to fill the gap more quickly, the concept of barre arrest was devised.
The concept of “The Gap” needs definition here. There are certain muscles groups that are primarily used only when en pointe. These are the very same muscle groups that a beginning pointe student must learn to use. This is the gap, the area where the training will take time. Conventional and traditional ways in the art of teaching ballet dictate that the student must simply have the patience to get good enough and strong enough to use these muscles, but before actually getting the shoes to go up. In today’s age of instant everything, even the most patient student will have a difficult time with this concept. Barre arrest will shorten this process, and without creating any extra risk to the student.
Getting the first pair: All feet are unique and individual, and there are numerous kinds of shoes on the market. There is no particular pair that is better than another. Common sense should dictate the decision: What shoes are going to fit properly so that dancing will progress correctly & safely. When being fit for the first pair, make sure to go to a place that has: 1: A large selection of brands & sizes. 2: Persons that are knowledgeable in fitting pointe shoes (or bring your teacher with you).
Basic Criteria for starting Pointe: Students should: B
e at least 11 years old. H
ave at least three years of training in ballet. B
e taking at least 3 classes a week in ballet. B
e responsible enough to consistently bring all items needed for class. H
ave maturity and respect for the art. B
e well-groomed, with hair out of the face and in a bun. P
ay attention and perform well in class. B
e of normal weight
have enough of an arched instep to properly stand on pointe.
Student should have sufficient strength to do the following: H
olding turnout while dancing have a strong, straight back while dancing, especially the lower back, keep heels forwards when dancing (no sickling), use plié while dancing, pointe feet while dancing, 16 relevés in passé center floor without stopping (with proper posture), balance on 1/2 pointe in passé center floor (with proper posture).
There are also changes in the way the posture, balance points, weight transfer and body alignment is held and used when performing en pointe. The shoes themselves are constructed differently. Dancing at the barre and center floor in flat and on demi-pointe will feel very different. In some ways, the student will need to re-learn much of the way she dances. There is far less room for error, and less opportunity to “cheat” dance steps when en pointe. There are many steps that can still look, possibly even “feel” correct, but use less than the proper amount of effort. Tendu, for instance, can look just fine, especially when the foot already has a nice natural arch. Hopefully the student has been listening to the teacher, and has been putting the proper effort into execution of all dance steps. As a general rule, the philosophy for execution of all dance steps should be to put more effort in than is required. (Absolutely staying away from the “What’s the least I can do to make it look right” attitude!) Tightening up more than you need is the best way to make steps look graceful, and the only way to efficiently progress. This would make things easier & more enjoyable for teacher & student alike.
How much time should be spent at the beginnings? Probably the exact opposite of what the student may think. An exuberant student will want to get those shoes on and spend a few hours per day in them, seven days a week. Truth: For the first few months, 15 minutes of properly and professionally supervised work once or twice per week would be best. This will slowly and safely acclimate the feet, legs and body into the process. More than this will increase the risk of blisters and other unpleasant things.
If the student practices at any time other than when a well-informed teacher has given permission, this privilege could be put in jeopardy. The teacher can & will reserve the right to “take you off pointe” temporarily– even permanently- if they have determined the situation warrants it. The physical safety of the student should always take first priority– as it always does at the Hirschl Ballet.
EPILOG: Going en pointe is exciting and a big step for a ballet dancer. It is not to be taken lightly. Patience must be used, as well as proper communication and education on the part of the teacher, student and parent. There is no true average a student spends under barre arrest, and the teacher reserves the right to decide how long would be proper and safe. Yes, there have been some examples of students being under barre arrest for 3 weeks, but this is not the norm. Depending upon the factors involved, it could take 18 months- or more. Curriculum is based upon the student doing what they are told, and also upon the assumption that the student is planning on moving to the advanced levels. At the Hirschl Ballet, we do everything to assure the highest level of safety is maintained for the student at all times, while keeping the technical progress at a good pace. Even though the progress might feel slower than the desire of the student (and parent), the meticulous investment will become obvious when they get to the more advanced levels.