Prepared for Pointe?

In secret, young aspiring ballerinas might slip on a pair of pointe shoes, clutch the barre and stand on the tips of their toes with bent knees, wobbly ankles and weak middles. And they’ll often beg their teachers to let them start dancing on pointe. But overzealous students should be warned: Wearing pointe shoes before a body is physically prepared can lead to long-term injury and irreversible damage.

Knowing what strengths and weaknesses to look for will help you determine whether a student is ready to begin.

How Young Is Too Young?

There are no specific guidelines stating how old a girl should be to start on pointe; each student matures at a different rate. However, doctors suggest waiting until age 11 or 12, when growth plates in the feet are less prone to deforming forces. “The danger of starting too early is either compressing the growth plate, causing an irregular growth of the bone or dislodging the growth plate, causing a fracture,” says  Thomas Novella, a podiatrist who works with American Ballet Theatre dancers. “The growth plates are not fully closed by age 12,” he adds, “but they are more stable than at a younger age.”

In addition to age, individual strength and technical development are important factors. A student must have a strong core and sufficient back and abdominal strength, and she must demonstrate that she can hold herself properly while standing, turning and jumping. Judy Rice, associate professor of dance at the University of Michigan, likes to see that students have solid ballet technique while doing pre-pointe exercises at the barre. A girl should not go on pointe, for example, if she has difficulty doing a relevé retiré at the barre on demi-pointe. She should be able to hold this position for at least eight counts with her core, legs, ankles and feet in a stable and correct shape. “If they’re strong in ballet shoes, and they’re not overusing the barre,” Rice says, “then they can take the next step into pointe shoes.”

Long-Term Risks

It is simply not safe for a student to start on pointe before she is physically able. She is at risk for many long-term injuries. Early bunions, for instance, will form if she is not really turning out from her hip. “She’ll torque the foot in a pronated or tweaked direction, putting  pressure on the big toe joint,” explains podiatrist Jane Denton, who works with the San Francisco Ballet School.

If a dancer’s ankles and feet aren’t strong enough, tendonitis can occur as the tendons struggle to hold everything in place, and she will also be prone to muscle strains. A weaker student may curl her toes and knuckles over in her pointe shoe just to find a place that’s stable, so she is relying more on her bones than on her muscles for support. Poor alignment like this can cause hammertoes, corns, blisters and ingrown toenails. “Some of these things happen anyway,” Denton says. “While they do make the feet strong, pointe shoes also take a toll over a period of time. They’re not a vacation for feet.”

“But My Friends Are Doing It!”

When students want to be in class with friends, or parents feel their child is ready, teachers often feel pressure to start them on pointe despite the teacher’s better judgment. Rice recommends having students see a doctor to get an X-ray of their growth plates. “I encourage teachers to have relationships with the best foot doctors in their area,” she says. A medical opinion will validate a decision to have a weak or very young child wait. 

If both doctor and teacher recommendations cannot keep an unprepared girl out of pointe class, err on the side of caution. It is best to keep the student at the barre for the entire class or have her take class on flat. “But doing pointe class in ballet shoes can be really hard on their calves,” Rice says. “You have to be careful to find the balance.” Avoid having the student do excessive relevés or jumping and springing onto demi-pointe. These repetitive actions done without the support of a pointe-shoe box can cause bruising and muscle strain or tightness.

Students can best prepare themselves for pointe by working properly in technique class. “They need to have the muscular control to operate their feet as though they’re hands,” Rice explains. She encourages her students to really work the floor in tendus and dégagés, not crunching the foot but utilizing each muscle. For example, she has them do a simple tendu side from first position, flexing the foot and then pointing back to tendu, articulating through the entire foot. “Be meticulous about basic barre work,” she advises. “That’s what strengthens the legs, feet and core to take that extra step to pointe work.” DT

Pointe Strengthening Exercises

Strengthening the foot’s intrinsic muscles can help prepare a student to dance on pointe. Podiatrist Jane Denton suggests the following exercises:

* Pick up marbles or pencils with the toes to strengthen the small muscles of the foot and the longer muscles in the leg.

* “Doming”: This exercise will strengthen the arch. Starting with the foot flat on the floor, pull up through the arch while keeping the metatarsal heads (where the toes meet the foot) in contact with the floor and the toes straight. Do not scrunch the toes.

* Flex the foot and wave “bye-bye” with straight toes. Keep the second toes lined up with the shinbone throughout.

* Play the piano with the toes. Gently tap out a tune or just press random keys, but spread the toes wide and try to move each one as if it were a finger.

Julie Diana is a principal dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet.

(Photo ©iStockphoto.com/David H. Lewis)

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