Starting pointe work is an extremely exciting period for any young dancer or adult ballerina. However there are many steps before slipping on that first pair of pointe shoes and I thought it would be helpful to give parents and students an insight into this next step from the ballet teachers perspective – especially because students require our blessing before going anywhere near pointe shoes.
Pointe shoes are a privilege, a responsibility and a right of passage for a ballerina.
My own pointe journey…
Firstly, let me share my own pointe journey. When I was 12 years-old my ballet teacher told my entire class that they could go out and buy pointe shoes. Yes, it was as simple as that. It didn’t matter that we were all different ages and that our technique was at very different stages.
The problem with the start of my pointe journey is the fact that it SHOULDN’T have been as simple as that. I don’t blame my ballet teacher. She was a wonderful, caring lady who taught me well. However our awareness and knowledge of safe dance practise and pre-pointe assessment these days is far greater and it’s irresponsible if we don’t use that knowledge.
So when I came home and told Mum I was allowed to purchase pointe shoes, she actually questioned the simplicity of this process. Mum did some of her own research and then asked for a second opinion from my private coach who was a company member with Queensland Ballet at the time.
They both decided I wouldn’t go up en pointe until six months after my peers. Despite having a beautiful arch, my private coach wanted a little extra time to strengthen the flexibility in my feet. Whilst I respected their decision, I was furious at both of them. All I wanted was to go en pointe with the rest of my peers.
What Mum did was (and still is) VERY uncommon. It’s more likely I come across parents who say, ‘Why can’t my daughter go en pointe yet? You’re holding her back and making her feel left out!’ I’ve never had someone tell me, ‘She won’t be going en pointe yet.’
Just because an entire class is the acceptable age for pointe work, doesn’t mean they should all be allowed en pointe.
In my current 13-14 years group of ballet students, three out of fifteen are not en pointe. However they are still participating in pointe class (with their flat shoes on) to develop further strength and technique.
Two of these students desperately want pointe shoes, but they are relatively new to ballet. I’ve asked them to attend the pointe class (wearing flats) and prove to me through hard work, consistency and dedication that they deserve pointe shoes. When I feel they’re ready, I’ll send them off for a pre-pointe assessment where I’ll lease with the physiotherapist about the decision to go en pointe.
The third student only attends ballet once a week (which in my rule book isn’t enough for pointe work) and despite having exceptionally strong classical ballet technique has no desire to wear pointe shoes. She simply wants to develop her foot strength with pointe exercises.
Side note; pointe exercises are FABULOUS for building strength and core stability even if you never intend on wearing pointe shoes. I have many adults do my adult beginner pointe class without pointe shoes to build important strength around the foot and ankle to prevent injury.
Like I said, everyones pointe journey is personal and unique.
As a teacher, it’s a very difficult decision to hold students back. Especially because such a choice can have such a mental impact on their confidence and motivation within the class setting. I don’t hold students back to punish them. I hold students back to ensure they don’t hurt themselves. You only get one set of feet and you don’t want to damage them.
All teachers are different and thoughts around when a student should start pointe work varies from studio to studio and what’s acceptable in one country might not be acceptable in another. For example, there are some countries that start girls en pointe as early as seven and eight years of age! This is unheard of and wildly unacceptable in Australia.
My personal belief is that students (who attend a local recreational studio) should not start pointe work until they are at least 12 years of age. Preferably 13. This is the most common train of thought amongst teachers in Australia and the UK.
The exact age a student can start pointe work is a tricky one, because sometimes a student falls through the cracks – meaning her entire class is about to turn 13 years-old, but the student is only 11 years-old. In this case I allow them to start their pointe journey with their peers IF they’ve passed their pre-pointe assessment with a professional, IF they have fantastic technique, IF they have enough strength and core stability and IF they are responsible and patient.
Again, you can see how this process is very personalised and should not be approached with a one size fits all model.
Patience is absolutely imperative for pointe work!
A pointe class can be very frustrating for students who are struggling with the immense amount of strength pointe work requires. For example, during a pointe class I will keep the weaker students at the barre whilst slowly introducing stronger students to centre exercises. This division is almost unavoidable because you want to challenge and keep your stronger students moving forward whilst ensuring the safety and continual progress of the weaker students.
By describing each group as ‘stronger’ and ‘weaker’ I am NOT saying one group has poor technique and the other excellent technique. Sometimes a student presents absolutely stunning classical technique in their flats (amazing legs, feet and artistry!) but pop a pair of pointe shoes on them and they struggle to control a simple rise due to their incredibly flexible feet. In fact, I never use these terms during a class as I’m highly sensitive to the students feelings about their performance in class.
As a student, it can be incredibly disheartening watching your peers in the centre whilst you’re doing rises and relevés at the barre, but with patience comes the desired outcome – strong technique that will enable the student to perform more complex movement in the future SAFELY.
Lack of progress ultimately falls on the student…
During the week, a teacher only has a limited amount of time with their students. This is at odds with pointe work which requires repetition, consistency and persistence. I will often set homework during the term for students to complete at home. This can be as simple as walking around the house in their pointe shoes (to become familiar with the feeling and mould the shoe) or more complex homework like completing my Pre-Pointe Exercises (in their bare feet and then again in pointe shoes).
It’s always obvious who has done their homework and the reward is progress. To be honest, those students who are getting increasingly frustrated about not being able to leave the barre and don’t do their homework only have themselves to blame. I’ll tell these students that I cannot come home with them and force them to do the extra work. Motivation has to come from within – otherwise they mustn’t want it that much and aren’t allowed to get upset over not progressing further. As I mentioned at the start, pointe shoes are a privilege and responsibility.
The only time a lack of progress does NOT fall on the student is if they are anatomically not built for pointe work. Unfortunately there are some students whose hips, legs and/or foot structure (eg. flat feet) do not allow them to progress much further than barre exercises. This can be very unfortunate, however it’s a hard fact much like a tennis player with short legs or a jockey who is too tall. There’s simply not much you can do about it!
The combination of strong classical ballet technique and anatomical knowledge becomes increasingly more important when students begin pointe work. I used to make pre-pointe assessments optional for students who I could see lacked strength, however these days I make them mandatory for all students. A pre-pointe assessment can take place with a physiotherapist or chiropractor. Most teachers have one particular person or place they like to send students and I especially like the clinics who send me a report.
A professional who performs the pre-pointe assessment will clearly detail any weak spots and give you exercises to strengthen them. They will also give you the green light or decide a follow up appointment is necessary before any pointe work commences.
At the end of the day…
If you’re starting your pointe journey you need to remember that the words patience and persistence are going to come up often. The allure of pretty pointe shoes quickly dissipates within five minutes during your first pointe class, but if you understand that elevating your craft to the next level requires REAL WORK then you’ll be prepared.
If you feel like you’re behind everyone and your teacher is not letting you off the barre – trust them and trust the process. Use this feeling as fuel to practise and do your homework. I recommend keeping a dance journal and writing down all your strengths followed by a plan of attack to tackle your weaknesses. No one said this was going to be easy and nor should it!
I am constantly updating my rules and regulations around pointe work. I am constantly learning, researching and exploring different exercises inspired by the latest information to teach pointe work at a high standard. It’s very easy to spot a teacher who does this and one who doesn’t. If you suspect your teacher isn’t as passionate about the safety and wellbeing of students then I probably wouldn’t start pointe work with them. I’d either stay happy practising in flat shoes or find a teacher with an enthusiasm for quality teaching.
Best of luck on your pointe journey and don’t be afraid to reach out and connect in the Balanced Ballerinas private Facebook group full of fellow parents and students with questions and answers!