"When can I dance en pointe?"
The question every dance teacher loves and hates at the same time.
Pointe shoes allow dancers to rise all the way up on their toes to perform turns, hops, and balances. This may all seem easy to an untrained eye, but looking further into the mechanics and anatomy of dancers one realizes very quick that pointe shoes are not for amateurs.
First imagine your foot just standing. Your body weight is spread out over the entire foot from the heel all the way up to the toes. Now imagine standing on a "demi-pointe" or a less formal term of tippy-toes. The ball of the foot makes a shelf for you to balance on, and the ankles are supporting your body as well. Now imagine you are standing on you toes (this is the edge of your toe right below the toenail, but not the bottom/underneath of your toe). The entire foot, ankle, legs, abdominals, and gluts are supporting you. The surface area of your foot on the floor has now decreased to about an inch. Sound easy?
Steps to get en pointe:
- Start by choosing the right studio and well-educated teachers in pointe work and ballet technique. The studio you should be looking for has a strong classical ballet background. The teachers should be educated whether completing a dance degree in college or having been employed by a professional ballet company for several years. In either case your teachers should be committed to continuing education in teaching systems and anatomy.
- Age: while there is some debate among the ballet community most teachers and educators will say no student should go en pointe under the age of 10. However everyones body develops differently and at different times. Age cannot be the only determiner of when is the right time to start pointe. The most important thing is that the student's bone structure is developed. Around the age of 12 (depending on individual growth patterns) 3/4 of the growth plates are already fused. While this is important to combat long-term injuries, age is not the only deciding factor.
Flexibility And Muscle Control In The Ankles and Foot: in order to stand properly on the toe of a pointe shoe, a dancers ankles must be flexible to pointe fully. If a dancers ankles are not flexible enough they will struggle to get on the box of the shoe, which can be very frustrating. Another important part is control over the small muscle within the foot. These muscles run throughout the foot and the toes. Dancers should be able to isolate different muscles in the foot without difficulty. It is a good test to see in a dancer can to 16 relevés on each foot while maintaining perfect alignment and turnout. This is without clawing the toes and excessive wobbling.
- Balance: Not only do the ankle have to be strong and flexible, but the rest of the body must as well. Abdominal and back muscles are extremely important to pointe work and balance in general. If a dancer cannot balance on flat or on demi-pointe, balancing en pointe will be impossible. Abdominal muscles must be always engaged while dancing to not only support the upper part of the body, but also to ensure the lower parts can move freely. If the upper body is not held, the lower body will be weighed down making even the simplest movements hard or even impossible. Balance is always being tested in a ballet class. Can you let go at the barre immediately after a rising up to demi pointe? Can you perform a grand plié in center floor from fifth position? Can you easily complete turns? (Turns are just a rotating balance!)
- Emotional Maturity: physical strength and flexibility is a huge deciding factor of whether a student is ready to go en pointe. But emotional mature is just as important. First students must pay attention in class, learning the combinations and performing them with proper technical skill and alignment. Then the student must take in feedback given by the teacher to the whole class and maturely take feedback or corrections given to them personally. Not only is taking feedback important but most important is that the student fixes the corrections and continues to work on those corrections in other classes. Repeated correction of the same problem should not be frequent. If a dancer does not take correction well and apply the corrections, pointe should not be an option. The risk of injury then outweighs the benefits.
- Number of Ballet Technique Classes Per Week: at a minimum dancers should take two ballet technique classes per week. These classes should consist of barre work, stretching, and center floor and should not be less than an hour each. On top of that dancers should take other genres of dance such as modern and jazz. Without a proper number of classes dancers will stop improving and muscles will not strengthen enough to properly do pointe work.
Will I ever go en pointe?
Sometimes a persons body or foot shape is not suited for pointe work. The only genres of dance that use pointe work are classical ballet and some contemporary ballet. However if a student has no interest in becoming a professional ballet dancer or a dance teacher, pointe is not needed in their dance education. Yes, many dancers will want to get pointe shoes, but the benefits should always outweigh the risks. A student should never go en pointe just because her friends or classmates are going en pointe.