To the Pointe

Posted on August 15, 2008 by

A student shows up to pointe class in shoes that are so hard, she might as well be dancing on steel plates. The drawstrings are tied in dolly-dinkle bows, the ribbons are sewn too close to the box and the shanks skew away from her arch every time she relevés. Your heart sinks because you know she has just wasted $80.

Whether beginning or advanced, every student needs guidance when it comes to pointe shoes. From footcare to proper fit to shoe maintenance, there’s a lot to learn. Holding a pointe-shoe clinic is a great way to get the message out to all of your students at once. Be sure to invite parents—especially those of first-year pointe dancers—to dispel such purchasing no-no’s as “If I buy my daughter one size too big, then she’ll grow into the shoes and I’ll save money.”

Set aside a full day for the clinic, with different rooms in your school set up for different classes. (If you have only one room, section off corners for each class.) Ask other faculty members and advanced dancers to help lead the sessions, and build time into the schedule for questions and answers.
Consider making your clinic an annual mandatory start-of-school event. Even advanced dancers need to be refit every year as their feet develop.

“Students are constantly buying shoes from the internet,” says Sharon Story, dean of the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education. “They don’t realize that as you progress, your feet change. As you get stronger, go for a lighter shoe.” At the Centre, Story often brings in representatives from pointe-shoe manufacturers for professional fittings, as well as podiatrists to talk with dancers about footcare.

Here are some ideas to get started.

1. Welcome

Begin your clinic with a welcome speech and introduce the panel of experts who will be assisting you throughout the day. Serve light refreshments and pass out a schedule and handbook for note-taking. The handbook should include summaries of each session, written beforehand by the presenter, along with a brief guide on proper pointe-shoe fit. This is also a good place to include your experts’ contact info.

2. Beginning
Student Orientation

First-year pointe dancers should have their own class. Start by explaining that dancing on pointe is a rite of passage. Warn them that at first, they won’t be able to do everything they can do on demi-pointe, but with patience and diligence, they will improve over the upcoming year. Invite an advanced dancer to demonstrate how to stand on pointe, as well as a few strengthening exercises: ankle rolls with a Thera-Band, picking up marbles with each toe and 16 relevés in first and second positions, in cou-de-pied and in arabesque. Remind them to set aside a few minutes after every pointe class to stretch their calves.

3. Fitting Tips

Set up a separate space where each student can have a professional fitting. Enlist a local retailer to bring a variety of brands, models and sizes. If the retailer is also a fitting expert, then you can trust him or her to put your dancers in the best shoes. You may even arrange for a student discount for any on-the-spot purchases. Otherwise, you or another qualified teacher will need to fit each student.
It may be necessary to convince dancers that some pointe-shoe brands are not “cooler” than others. Often, dancers make their purchase decisions based on what is trendy, rather than what fits them best. “Just like a carpenter has to have the right tools to do his job, dancers have to have the right pointe shoes to do their job,” says fitting guru Judy Rice, who has held pointe-shoe clinics at Joffrey Midwest for more than a decade. She overcomes resistance by “selling” a well-fitting shoe. “I say, ‘Look in the mirror, that looks amazing!’” she explains. “I also have other people in the room agree with me.”

Make sure that seasoned students keep an open mind about trying new brands and models, too. Story urges teachers to check them once a year to make sure they’re still wearing the right shoe, adding that if a dancer repeatedly gets bruised toenails, it’s often a sign that she needs a different model.

4. Shoe Prep

This session should cover how to sew and tie ribbons and elastics and how to mold shoes. For new pointe dancers, Rice marks the satin where ribbons and elastics should be sewn for functionality and aesthetics.

The next step is to show dancers how to make their shoes class-ready—by doing what Rice calls “smashing and koonking.” “It’s not a Nike—you can’t just take it out of the box and go,” she explains. “The box is made higher than and not wide like your foot. Smashing it down to be flatter and wider will make it easier on toe joints.” Koonking involves bending the shanks slightly higher than the dancer’s arch to give heel support. You can do this by removing the nail and bending the shank with your bare hands. You can also use a surface, such as a table edge. But be cautious—start high and then go lower as needed. If you “koonk” too low, the shoe will be ruined.

Pass along any other tips you have for prepping shoes, such as painting the edges of ribbons with clear nail polish to prevent fraying or darning the platforms to prevent slipping. Some teachers, for instance, remove the shank nail closest to the heel. Others smash the boxes in doorjambs or with hammers. Demonstrate exactly how this should be done to prevent dancers from destroying their shoes prematurely.

5. Maintenance

Pointe shoes are expensive, but this doesn’t mean dancers should wear them until they’re as soft as Jell-O. That’s dangerous, especially for students who don’t have a lot of ankle strength. Still, there are ways to extend the life of a pointe shoe. Back in the day, a common method was to shellac and bake shoes in the oven. Now, a more popular choice is using Jet Glue, an industrial-strength instant epoxy. Younger students should use it only under supervision, since accidents can be serious.

In addition, instruct students not to store sweaty shoes in their dance bags. This will cause the shoes to weaken faster (not to mention smell!). Instead, they can air-dry them in mesh bags tied to the outside of their dance bags.

6. Footcare & Injuries

In this session, ask a local podiatrist to chat with dancers about footcare. It’s essential to bring in someone familiar with ballet dancers’ needs. If no one in your community fits the bill, call the nearest professional ballet company for a recommendation. If that person is still too far to attend your session in person, inquire if he or she would be willing to give a video-conference lecture over the internet.

The podiatrist should discuss blisters, corns, nail bruises, bunions, ingrown toenails, warts, calluses and repetitive-use injuries, as well as the dos and don’ts of footcare. Ask the doctor to recommend products that alleviate typical pointe problems. You can even assemble kits beforehand to sell to students. (See “The Goody Bag,” on page 127.)

7. Pamper

Invite a reflexologist to give foot rubs to students and parents at a discounted rate. Have attendees sign up for a time slot beforehand to avoid overwhelming the massage therapist with clients. DT

Kristin Lewis is a writer in New York City.

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