Centerwork: Perfect Timing

March 25, 2012

When I was 12, there was a girl in my class who was not allowed to go on pointe. While the rest of us wrinkled our noses in pain during relevés at the barre, she dutifully rose up in her slippers. The following year, when we advanced to the next level, she stayed behind.

She was devastated, but my teacher was doing her a favor. Starting pointework is serious business, and not just because it’s a time-honored rite of passage. Placing a child on pointe before she’s physically and technically ready can cause serious foot deformities along with a host of other problems later in life. Determining when—and if—a student should start requires more substantial prerequisites than age, desire, and parental expectations. Teachers bear a critical responsibility and need a watchful, educated eye to ensure their students’ health and success.

For one, dance educators need to understand the delicate balance of bone maturation. According to Lisa Apple, DPT, a physical therapist with Seattle Children’s Hospital and a former principal dancer with the Pacific Northwest Ballet, the long bones of the feet start ossifying between the ages of 8 and 14. “If dancers go on pointe before 11 or 12, before their bones are somewhat ossified, they run the risk of growth-plate injuries,” she says. Known as Salter-Harris fractures, these injuries can stunt bone growth or cause improper development.

However, the incentive to begin pointe between ages 11 and 13 is precisely because the foot bones are still malleable. “You need a nice range of motion in the foot and ankle for pointework,” says Apple. “If you don’t take advantage of a little bit of that time before bones fully ossify, then you won’t gain as much range.”

But age is only part of the equation. Teachers must look at a child’s technical readiness, too. Deborah Hess, a senior faculty member with Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto, notes that students without enough technical comprehension and physical strength are prone to both sickling and over-pronating their ankles on demi-pointe—the perfect recipe for injuries and incorrect pointework later on. “I look for secure postural alignment,” says Hess, “that their hips are over their legs, that they can sustain their turnout while rising up and down on demi-pointe, that they have stability in the ankle, and that they have sufficient muscle tone to help them lift up out of the pointe shoe.”

Training intensity is another factor. Indeed, NBS’s youngest students—who are selected by audition at age 11, live onsite, and dance for three hours a day, six days a week—are usually starting pointe by November. But smaller schools, or those with less rigorous schedules, should follow a less accelerated program.

“In America, we generally don’t train kids in pointe every day,” says Kee-Juan Han, director of The Washington School of Ballet. At TWSB, pointe preparation begins in Level 3, where students take two-hour classes three days a week to allow time for additional foot and ankle exercises and careful evaluation. Promotion into Level 3 is based on technical readiness, not age. “If they’re not strong enough for Level 3, we don’t move them up,” says Han.

Level 3 curriculum introduces relevé during fondu, passé, and adagio combinations to strengthen feet and ankles. In January, TWSB students start wearing demi-pointe shoes, which have a hard box but no shank. “It’s difficult to go directly from soft shoes to pointe shoes,” says Han. “Demi-pointe shoes help prepare them for that transition.” They start basic pointe exercises facing the barre around April.

The North Atlanta Dance Academy in Alpharetta, Georgia, takes an even more conservative approach, requiring students to take four to five ballet classes a week and spend an entire year in a special pointe-preparation class before buying pointe shoes.

“Pre-pointe is different than regular technique class in that we spend a lot of time at the barre practicing relevés, concentrating on strengthening the legs and feet,” says NADA teacher Sandra Woollatt-Daniels. “They do a lot of it in bare feet so I can see what their toes are doing.” She watches closely to ensure that in relevé, students distribute their weight between the first and second toes while keeping their toes elongated. She also keeps an eye out for over-pronating or sickling ankles. In addition, students learn about sewing ribbons, pointe shoe maintenance, and foot care.

All three schools incorporate Thera-Band or cross-training exercises at the start of class. “For instance,” says Hess, “we try to move our toes one by one, like we’re playing the piano, to work the meta­tarsal and intrinsic muscles.” Apple also recommends core and hip conditioning for strengthening the turnout muscles, as well as proprioceptive exercises (see some of these here). “Every joint has proprioceptors, which helps them sense where they are in space,” she says. “Dancers need keen proprioception in order to balance, especially in pointe shoes.”

Han stresses that the role of cross-training is to supplement, not replace, ballet training. “You could do a thousand Thera-Band exercises a day, but if you don’t apply the strength you gather from them in ballet class, it’s not going to make a difference.”

Even with intense preparation, some feet are unsuitable for pointework. Students need enough flexibility in their feet and ankles to stand over the platform of their shoes, says Woollatt-Daniels. “You should be able to draw a straight line from the hip, down the leg, and right out the platform of the shoe. If they’re pulled back, their weight isn’t distributed properly.”

While ballet often favors a high arch, dancers with flatter feet can achieve a relative degree of success if they have sufficient ankle mobility. But when combined with a stiff ankle, this kind of foot struggles to stand on pointe. Other structural issues, like knock knees or the presence of extra foot bones such as an accessory navicular (associated with certain types of flat feet) or an os trigonum (located behind the ankle), may make pointework too difficult and painful.

“I don’t give up on them right away,” says Woollatt-Daniels, who’s seen students gain more mobility through stretching and determination. But if a dancer makes no improvement, both she and Han feel it’s best to discourage her from continuing pointe.

Woollatt-Daniels, Hess, and Han all stress that pointe preparation is a slow and careful process. “Everything in today’s culture is about instant gratification,” says Hess, “but pointe training can’t be a quick fix. We need time to develop in a logical and methodical way.”