Tip-Top Toes

“I used to wake up in the middle of the night just to look at my first pointe shoes, or walk in them to go to the bathroom,” says Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo soloist Noelani Pantastico. A dancer’s first pair of pointe shoes are like a graduation cap: They mark a rite of passage. Finding the right cap is tricky, however—and that cap isn’t always comfortable right away. All students require a bit of time to develop their own pointe shoe routines and rituals. But ballet teachers have passed down many tried-and-true solutions to common pointe problems over the years. Share these tips with your new pointe dancers to ease their transition.

Fit First
Finding the best shoe for a beginner can be a daunting process. “The first fit is the most important because it sets you up for the future,” says Mary Carpenter, pointe shoe expert and fitter for Freed of London.

Be clear about your shoe preferences when sending students to be fitted. There are generally two schools of thought: Some think beginners need a hard shoe for support, while others prefer a softer pair that help develop the supporting ankle and leg muscles. Judy Weiss, master pointe shoe fitter at Grishko, says: “George Balanchine thought that a very light shoe would force students to learn to work their feet instead of being held up by the shank. I’ve been fitting shoes that way ever since.” (If you do encourage your students to buy soft shoes, however, be sure to have them begin with very simple strengthening exercises at the barre to avoid the risk of injury.)

Get to know the pointe shoe fitters in your area, and send your students to the one who best adheres to your ideals. Having all of your students work with one reliable fitter will help ensure that both the students’ needs and your preferences are satisfied.

The Break-In
Once students buy that famous first pair, a few adjustments will probably need to be made. Every dancer’s break-in routine is personal, but show your students some of the more common tricks and techniques to get them started.

Carpenter uses the heel of her hand to flatten a new box before giving the shank a bend at the 3/4 mark. “Once the shoe is on, I mark where the natural arch lies and then curl that part over the barre,” she says. Water can soften the bunion area of the box, but should be used sparingly. Kathy Sullivan, who has taught pointe at STEPS on Broadway for 15 years, uses a spray bottle on the outer sides of the box and then has students work while the shoes are still damp. “That way, the shoes conform nicely to the shape of the foot and half-toe action is easier,” she says. But it’s best to discourage bending shanks to extreme pliability or dousing shoes in water, which “kills” them too quickly.

If the shoes do become too soft, Weiss recommends applying Jet Glue or Pointe Shoe Glue on the inside to the softened areas. Gluing too soon can warp the shoes, so Pantastico stresses doing this only after wearing. “You need to allow the dancer to mold the shoe to her own shape,” she says, and warns dancers to be sure that the tip of the shoe remains flat after gluing.

Sew What?
“The ribbons are like the icing on the cake, but they’re also functional,” says Carpenter. To help your students determine where to place their ribbons, Weiss suggests that you have them fold the heel of the shoe in toward the box, marking where it meets the side satin. When attached there, ribbons support the arch without hindering the demi-pointe position. Many instructors also tell new students to sew ribbons deep inside the shoe, so they nearly touch the shank, which helps stabilize the heel and allows the shoe to move with the foot.

Sullivan recommends using ribbons with built-in elastics, which provide more give around the Achilles tendon. “They are the greatest invention this decade! They give everyone a snug fit around the ankle,” she says.

Advise your dancers to use thicker thread—or even dental floss—when sewing their ribbons, to keep them securely fastened. And show them how to melt the ends of pointe shoe ribbons with a lighter to prevent unsightly fraying.

What’s on the Inside Counts

Every dancer’s foot is different, but generally “less is better,” says Weiss, when it comes to choosing toe pads. Silicon gel pads that cover only the top of the toes and bunion area allow the sole of the foot to feel the floor, as does lambs-wool, a more traditional cushion. Have students experiment with varying amounts of padding.

Toe spacers can help feet conform more comfortably to the box. Have students with bunions or slanted toes try a spacer between the first and second toes. This stabilizes the foot inside the shoe and relieves pressure on the sides of the foot. Toes may also be taped to prevent blistering, but be sure to tell students to allow enough leeway for them to bend. Pantastico prefers construction-grade painter’s tape to avoid too much bulk.

Though it can be a painful process, beginning pointe work—especially when your students are armed with these tips—is an exciting, transformational part of a dancer’s career. As Carpenter puts it, “It is a privilege to be on pointe. It’s a step toward becoming a ‘real ballerina.’”

Taylor Gordon is a dancer and writer in NYC.

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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