Dance Training

How Young Is Too Young For Pointe Work?

A pointe class at Youth America Grand Prix, where performing on pointe before age 11 is now prohibited. Photo by VAM Productions, courtesy YAGP

In 2018, the Youth America Grand Prix added a rule: For participants under age 12, performing on pointe became strongly discouraged. For those under 11, it became prohibited.

The competition organizers made these changes after jury members, teachers and others raised concerns about students being pushed to perform on pointe too early. Larissa Saveliev, YAGP co-founder and director, says, "Ten years ago we didn't have to have these rules because nobody was progressing that fast."

As ballet prodigies get younger and their abilities more extraordinary, many are asking, How young is too young to let their bodies dance on the tips of their toes?


Different techniques introduce pointe shoes at different ages. Photo by Jess Watters/Unsplash

Most ballet teachers believe that pointe work is not suitable for students under 11 years old. Some believe that even 11 is pushing it. "The earliest age a child should be dancing on pointe is 11. However, 12 or 13 is more common," warned the Royal Academy of Dance in a 2016 statement. RAD alumni who dance with The Royal Ballet, The Washington Ballet and Staatsballett Berlin chimed in with their support.

But the question is a complicated one for a number of reasons. First, there has not yet been extensive research to prove that beginning pointe work earlier than 11 is damaging. Second, chronological age and biological age can differ significantly. "Age 12 could be a maturation of age 9 or age 15 depending on the person," says Megan Richardson, clinical specialist at NYU Langone Health's Harkness Center for Dance Injuries.

"When people say you cannot do pointe work before 11, there's a big argument depending on what system," says Valentina Kozlova, former Bolshoi Ballet and New York City Ballet principal dancer and director of the Valentina Kozlova Dance Conservatory of New York. At the Vaganova Ballet Academy, children start pointe work around 10 or 11 years old. But there is a catch: In Russian institutions where Vaganova is taught, young girls are carefully chosen based on their physiques. Once accepted, they train steadily every day with highly qualified teachers to achieve their goal of becoming professional ballet dancers.

Russian dancers who settle in America often continue to teach a version of the Vaganova method in private schools. But in the U.S., ballet schools cater to a broad range of body types and goals. Most children do ballet as recreation. Only a few pursue their training with the level of dedication required of true Vaganova formation. "Here, one day they come and the next they don't," says Kozlova. "With inconsistency, it is very hard to put a body on pointe."

Without a codified curriculum, teachers tend to assess pointe readiness functionally, says Richardson: "I like the way her foot points; I like the line of her tendu; I like the way she holds her torso."

Some teachers develop their own indicators over time. "I look at frappé, that they are not wiggling their supporting side, and the coordination of fondu is very important, coming down between the rise and the plié," says Cynthia Harvey, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York City. "In dégagé, I personally like that the toes are united, and that they feel the toes on the way down."

The problem of relying on subjective assessment is that not all teachers are equally experienced or particular. Staff at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries suggests three objective tests teachers can use in conjunction with their subjective assessments. "It gives them a check box. Yes or no. It's black or white," says Richardson. "If the students don't pass these tests, teachers can say, 'Let's look at this again after some more training.' "

One of Harkness's tests asks students to perform at least four out of five pliés in a horizontal "airplane" position while maintaining neutral alignment of the lower body. Pictured: Kylie Williams of Ballet Academy East demonstrating the Airplane Test, photo by Jayme Thornton.

However, even if a 9- or 10-year-old passes these tests, it does not automatically mean they are ready. Pointe work increases the forces placed on a foot by up to 12 times their body weight and prepubescent bones are more vulnerable to injury. "Is a 9-year-old more at risk for premature growth plate closure than an 11-year-old? Yes, possibly. That's the bottom line," says Dr. Selina Shah, a sports medicine physician who treats dancers in Walnut Creek, California.

In 2017, Shah published the first reported case of premature growth plate closure from dancing on pointe in a 13-year-old who had begun pointe work at age 10, resulting in a visibly shortened second toe. "It may be more common than we realize," Shah says. "I don't think it is something to worry about, but I do think it is something to be aware of."

Shah is not inclined to give an age for beginning pointe. Rather, she says, it is about evaluating a combination of factors. "It depends on their technique, strength, postural control, flexibility, maturity to handle corrections and listen to what the teacher is saying," she says. "It also depends on how the introductory pointe class will be structured."

It's one thing for a young student to do slow rises on pointe facing the barre, learning how to roll through the foot and control coming down for 10 minutes at the end of class. Dancing on pointe is another thing altogether. When American Ballet Theatre soloist Skylar Brandt went on pointe at 9 1/2 years old, Kozlova built up her strength very cautiously. "I was dying to do more," Brandt recalls. "It was almost torturous to take them off after only 10 minutes." Yet Brandt thinks her progression was well-managed: She has never had foot or ankle injuries, and is comfortable in her custom-made Capezio pointe shoes.

As a student, Skylar Brandt couldn't wait to do more pointework. Today, she's grateful her progression was slow and steady. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy ABT.

Today, there is growing concern that the competition circuit and social media encourage "baby ballerinas." We've all watched, awestruck, YouTube videos of 9/10/11-year-olds performing variations like "Black Swan" or "Grand Pas." It is extraordinary that they can do it. But aside from asking whether it is appropriate or not, we need to think of the hours of repetitive loading on those young bones: How old were they when they started pointe, and how many hours do they spend rehearsing?

Saveliev understands the role that YAGP and other such competitions play in encouraging young prodigies to push further and therefore the responsibility they bear to call for restraint. "We exist to give a platform for the students to show themselves off," she says. "We don't want to stop them. We just want them to have a second to breathe, to take some more time, perfecting steps and quality."

Kids and their parents can be impatient. "The most common complaint that I hear from teachers is when they explain to a student they are not ready to go on pointe and the student leaves for another studio where they will be placed on pointe," says Sarah Haslock-Johnson, a continued professional development tutor for RAD who teaches a module on introducing pointe work. In her experience, if the parent is educated about the pointe process, they are more likely to support the teacher's decision. But there are other ways to feed a child's ambition, like enrolling them in extra classes.

"I always say that you have years to be in a pair of pointe shoes and the urgency to accomplish this at such a young age is completely unnecessary," says Haslock-Johnson. Ballet dancers have their whole career to spend on pointe. It's best to get the foundations right.

The Conversation
News
Courtesy Ritzel

Capezio, Bloch, So Dança, Gaynor Minden.

At the top of the line, dancers have plenty of quality footwear options to choose from, and in most metropolitan areas, stores to go try them on. But for many of North America's most economically disadvantaged dance students, there has often been just one option for purchasing footwear in person: Payless ShoeSource.

Keep reading... Show less
Trending
Jayme Thornton

When Sonya Tayeh saw Moulin Rouge! for the first time, on opening night at a movie theater in Detroit, she remembers not only being inspired by the story, but noticing the way it was filmed.

"What struck me the most was the pace, and the erratic feeling it had," she says. The camera's quick shifts and angles reminded her of bodies in motion. "I was like, 'What is this movie? This is so insane and marvelous and excessive,' " she says. "And excessive is I think how I approach dance. I enjoy the challenge of swiftness, and the pushing of the body. I love piling on a lot of vocabulary and seeing what comes out."

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Robbie Fairchild in a still from In This Life, directed by Bat-Sheva Guez. Photo courtesy Michelle Tabnick PR

Back when Robbie Fairchild graced the cover of the May 2018 issue of Dance Magazine, he mentioned an idea for a short dance film he was toying around with. That idea has now come to fruition: In This Life, starring Fairchild and directed by dance filmmaker Bat-Sheva Guez, is being screened at this year's Dance on Camera Festival.

While the film itself covers heavy material—specifically, how we deal with grief and loss—the making of it was anything but: "It was really weird to have so much fun filming a piece about grief!" Fairchild laughs. We caught up with him, Guez and Christopher Wheeldon (one of In This Life's five choreographers) to find out what went into creating the 11-minute short film.

Keep reading... Show less
The Creative Process
Terry Notary in a movement capture suit during the filming of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Photo by Sigtor Kildal, Courtesy Notary

When Hollywood needs to build a fantasy world populated with extraordinary creatures, they call Terry Notary.

The former gymnast and circus performer got his start in film in 2000 when Ron Howard asked him to teach the actors how to move like Whos for How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Notary has since served as a movement choreographer, stunt coordinator and performer via motion capture technology for everything from the Planet of the Apes series to The Hobbit trilogy, Avatar, Avengers: Endgame and this summer's The Lion King.

Since opening the Industry Dance Academy with his wife, Rhonda, and partners Maia and Richard Suckle, Notary also offers movement workshops for actors in Los Angeles.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox