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.

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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,

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"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "

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Dear Editor,

I've just read Emma Sandall's piece on hyperextension and the 180-degree position. It's intelligent, interesting, well-written. But there are a few mistakes and some misleading remarks. I can't resist writing the following.

1. If Guillem says Fonteyn said would have lifted her leg higher if she could, then that's what Guillem says.

But she's wrong. Keith Money's book "Margot Assoluta" (published in 2000) includes a photo of Fonteyn in rehearsal doing a seconde almost to shoulder-height: she told Money "I can get the leg that high—but it ruins the line." Fonteyn wanted level hips, something crucial to many ideas of placement but not discussed by Sandall.

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