Above all, we prioritize safety. While we want our dancers whipping out strings of fouetté turns and series of hops en pointe, what we want more than that is for our dancers to have longevity and undamaged bodies.
Pointe training is a special challenge because it is extremely individual. More so than ballet class. And the risk of injury is heightened. I remind my students often that what we expect our bodies to do in pointe shoes is nothing less than extraordinary. Because of this, we must train in smart and safe ways.
1) Know Your Student’s Body
The natural alignment of their spine down to the shape of their toes—and everything in between—will affect their pointe work. If it affects their pointe work then it affects how we teach them to dance safely in their pointe shoes.
EXAMPLE: A dancer with a low arch and significant hyperextension will probably have some difficulties getting over the pointe shoe. Their hyperextension will want to pull their weight back and their low arch will struggle to reach a steady place on the box. Focused pre-pointe training is definitely required and helpful, but even still these struggles will exist. The dancer will need help in understanding how to achieve safety in pointe shoes and we can only help them do that when we know the nuances of their body.
*NOTE—Generally I feel most body/foot types can learn to dance safely on pointe. There are exceptions, of course. Very shallow arches would put a large amount of stress on the ankle joint which could then creep upwards to the knees, hips, and back. When in doubt, always choose safety over pointe shoes or a student’s personal, yet uninformed, goals.
2) Know Your Student’s Technique
Because pointe feels like an entirely different world than ballet (at the beginning, anyway), it is vital we have a firm grasp on how ballet technique is achieved by our student. It is easy to say “Ballet technique is the same for everyone. We all turn out from our hips and we all lengthen our spine.” But reality says something very different. While it is true ballet technique is the same for each person, it does not necessarily feel the same for each person and, without a doubt, it is achieved in unique ways.
EXAMPLE: A student with deep set hip joints is going to have limited turn out (regardless of how much stretching they do to increase it) and this will cause ballet technique to feel different to them. They will need to approach turn out in a way that makes sense for their body. Ideally a student will have a thorough understanding of how technique lays on them individually before they move to pointe work, but even with this understanding they will require help to transfer this knowledge from ballet to pointe work. If the teacher is not highly aware of these details, pointe training will not go smoothly.
Some technical elements I require for pointe work are:
- Proper and constant use of turn out muscles.
- Weight held over the balls of the feet at all times.
- Highest demi pointe utilized consistently.
- Articulation in the metatarsals firmly accomplished
- Knees supported by quadriceps.
- Back supported by core muscles.
- Arms held from back and shaped in front of the body.
*NOTE—Sickled feet, pronation/supination, locking back in knees, sway backs, etc; these are all items that would instantly keep a student from progressing to pointe (or take a student off pointe). It is important these issues are not present in a dancer’s technique as any one of these could cause severe damage.
3) Know Your Student’s Maturity
Both mental and physical maturity play a huge role in safe pointe training. The ongoing focused attention to the smallest details is not manageable for someone with low maturity. But without this, hyper focus injuries occur. Undue stress on young joints and bones due to a lack of physical maturity will also result in injury. This area is often overlooked. Perhaps we excuse all the times a student comes to class without their hair properly pulled back and say, “Well, pointe shoes will teach them responsibility.” Absolutely not. The maturity must already be there. Perhaps we brush past the young age because the student is so ahead of their class in all the ways we say, “They are more than ready technically so their body can handle it.” Do we really want to take that chance? What harm is there in waiting a year or two? They will be that much that stronger and that much less at risk of injury.
Here are some benchmarks I look for in regards to maturity:
- Does the dancer have consistent (on time) class attendance?
- Does the dancer come prepared for class? (Hair, dress code, etc)
- Does the dancer take care of their body? (Healthy eating, stretching, sleeping patterns)
- Does the dancer understand the work ethic of ballet class?
- If the dancer is a young lady, has she started menstruation? If not, has she had a recent growth spurt that points to menstruation in the near future? If not, is she at least 12 years old? If not, what extraordinary circumstances would cause me to make an allowance for her to begin pointe training? Am I certain this is the safest choice? Am I really certain?
*NOTE—Placing a student on pointe who does not take at least two ballet classes a week (each class over an hour in length) in addition to pointe training does not allow for the proper mental maturity (specific to ballet training) to develop. It also does not offer enough opportunity for technical elements to sink into muscle memory.
With these three fundamentals in place, students will have a safe journey through pointe training. We teachers have a great responsibility on us when it comes to pointe work. Continuing our own education and prioritizing our students’ safety will ensure everyone stays healthy and dancing for years to come.