Dancing en pointe at Hirschl Ballet

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, often too young. Parents demand it, or perhaps other nearby studios start at an earlier age (or have reduced requirements) 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.

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 fulfilling the prerequisites, there is s 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.

Occasionally 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 at home, 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. When getting the first pair of pointe shoes: 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 and safely. When being fit for the first pair, make sure to go to a place that has: #1- A large selection of brands and sizes, and #2– Persons that are knowledgeable in fitting pointe shoes (or bring your teacher with you).

Basic Criteria for starting en pointe at the Hirschl School. Students should:
*Be at least 11 years old.
*Have at least three years of training in ballet.
*Be taking at least 3 ballet technique classes a week in ballet plus one pointe class.
*Be responsible enough to consistently bring all items needed for class.
*Have maturity and respect for the art.
*Be well-groomed, with hair out of the face and in a bun.
*Pay attention and perform well in class.
*Be of normal weight
*Have enough of an arched instep to properly stand on pointe.

The student should have sufficient strength to do the following on demi-pointe:
*Holding correct pelivic rotation (turnout) while dancing.
*Have a strong, straight back while dancing, especially the lower back
*Keep heels forwards when dancing, with no supination (sickling) or overt pronation (winging)
*Use correct plié while dancing
*Pointe feet while dancing 16 relevés in passé (center floor) without stopping.
*Balance on demi (1/2) pointe in passé center floor. (with proper posture)

Doing work “en pointe” is something that should never be entered into lightly or carelessly. It must be the final decision of a qualified instructor to give the green light for this. I’ve personally seen (and still do) far too many students, especially young ones, come to my studio from elsewhere, that have been put en pointe before they are ready. The risk is inherent to the art, as are the rewards.

“Barre Arrest”
is a concept I developed many years ago. It was designed to help students prepare themselves for pointe work quickly, and with a greater degree of safety. The best way to strengthen the required muscles for pointe work is to perform the basic exercises en pointe. It simply means that, during the time under barre arrest, the student is only allowed to perform dance movements or exercises “sur le pointe” (on full pointe) at the barre. There are different levels of barre arrest. Each is carefully chosen for each student individually at the proper time.

Barre arrest level ONE:
The student is only allowed to perform anything “en pointe” holding the barre with both hands, with both feet on the ground, and only with direct supervision of a teacher accredited to teach pointe work. They are not allowed to do any practice at home.

Barre arrest level TWO
: The student is allowed to practice at home, or without direct supervision. A certain amount of faith and trust is required here, but I very much hope this important part of the teacher/student relationship has already been established and clarified well before this point. The student is only to practice certain steps as specifically prescribed by the teacher, some on two feet, some on one.

Barre arrest level THREE
: Some steps will be allowed center floor, some across the floor. This will be varying degrees, depending upon the individual student’s progress. Even when the student is taken off barre arrest, there may still be particular types of steps and movements that the teacher will not allow until a safer foundation is produced.

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.

Practicing at home too often or too early is not helpful to the long range process. It could easily prove harmful to the student, both physically and emotionally. Absolute patience and faith in the teacher is required. The excitement is very much there, and quite natural. An eager student will want to get those shoes on every day, and practice for hours immediately. They may also want to attempt execution of advanced steps they are not yet capable of doing properly. This will not be any help to them a few years in the future. The feet and legs must be carefully conditioned to accept the stress and strain put upon them. This must be a gradual process, unfortunately there is not a “crash course” to doing it correctly and safely. The student 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.

NOTICE: This information is Copyrighted. Reproduction of any part of this material must have prior consent of the Hirschl School of Dance Arts 1992-2015

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