George Balanchine, one of the most famous ballet masters of the 20th century has been reported to have said that there is no reason to get a young dancer up on full pointe if she cannot do anything when she gets there!
Being awarded the license to dance ‘en Pointe’ is one of the biggest rites of passage for a dance student. However, pointe work is a lot more difficult than appears and can be quite dangerous for young girls if their feet are not strong enough, if there is insufficient range of movement in the ankle or feet, or if they lack the technical ability to control the rest of their body while dancing.
The Pre- Pointe Assessment process is a very valuable means of measuring the readiness of each dancer and what need to be improved in order to become fully prepared for pointe work.
1. When should students prepare for pointe work?
It is recommended that pointe work preparations should actually begin at least 1 year before the student is fitted for pointe shoes. For this reason it is also a good idea to have a students first Pre-Pointe Assessment a year before they are due to start on pointe, to assess what areas need to be specifically improved, so that the dancers can correct all of these essential elements. This can help prevent the frustration, issues and injuries that commonly occur when students start en pointe such as:
- Not being able rise up fully onto the pointe shoe box
- Keeping knees relaxed and bent en pointe
- Inability to maintain turnout en pointe
- Pain at the back of the ankle
- Falling off pointe
- Poor control of the spine and pelvis
- Blisters and bunions
2. How do I know if I am ready for pointe?
The decision to go onto pointe is often difficult. Many factors must be taken into account; including the dancer’s ballet technique, alignment (hip, knee, ankle, foot), specific strength and mobility of the feet and ankles, turnout, quality of trunk, abdominal and pelvic control, proprioceptive skills, stage of bony development as well as frequency of dance training. While it is recommended that students take at least 3 ballet classes a week for at least 1 year before starting en pointe many may do less and this also needs to be taken into account.
Students should undergo an individualised assessment, either done by their dance teacher or a physiotherapist who specialises in working with dancers. If you’re already en pointe, this process is also a great learning experience to highlight any areas that need attention, or to improve aspects of technique and prevent injury.
3. How old should I be before starting pointe?
This varies for each dancer. At around 12 years of age (depending on how fast you have grown) the growth plates in your foot bones that are soft as a child begin to harden, and thus, there is less chance of disturbing the growth plates and creating long term damage to the feet. However, this definitely does not suggest that all 12 year old dancers are pointe ready. The last epiphysis in the foot closes at an average age of 16-18 years of age and is just one of the many factors that must be taken into account before progressing onto pointe.
Unfortunately, if you are serious about a dance career, waiting until 16-18 years can be too late to ‘catch up’ to other dancers who may have started en pointe years earlier. Many articles discuss waiting until the bones are 75% fused, approximately at the age of 11 – 12 years, however, this stage of bony fusion varies for each dancer and some may need to wait for further development before beginning pointe work.
4. Should I get an X-ray before beginning en pointe?
Some believe girls should be x-rayed before beginning pointe to check if their feet growth plates have fused. At Leading Edge we generally feel that in most cases this is unnecessary and a larger importance should be placed on developing the required strength in the feet to avoid placing excessive strain on the bones. Being able to control feet outside of a pointe shoe is vital in order to control your feet inside of one.
5. What exercises can I do to work towards being ready for pointe?
Each dancer will have differing areas of weakness which they will need to work on. Some helpful exercises which are commonly used include single leg calf raises, calf and pointe stretching, and theraband resistance work; aiming to improve the articulation of the foot, to allow a smooth movement up onto, and lowering from pointe.
One of the biggest causes of injuries when students start en pointe is this lack of articulation through the forefoot, which can often be seen most when performing tendus barefooted.
Turnout and core control are other areas that often need specific attention and training before beginning en pointe and your physiotherapist will be able to advise you on this.
6. What are the risks of being put en pointe too early?
You have probably seen horrifying pictures of dancers with bunions, deformed toes and blisters from starting pointe either too early, without the required strength to maintain foot control en pointe or having shoes that fit incorrectly. Correct preparation and constant revision of basic technique en pointe can help avoid most or all of these issues.
Dancers with hypermobile (extra flexible) feet and ankles are particularly at risk if placed on pointe too early. These dancers have the suppleness to achieve a beautiful pointe position and thus are more likely to be selected for ballet generally, however they often lack the required strength and postural control to work safely on pointe. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the child with inflexible feet and ankles is also at risk. Attempting pointe work without the pointe range can place excessive stresses on the foot and ankle, leg, pelvic girdle and trunk.
Some common injuries that can occur from not articulating and strengthening the feet correctly:
- Achilles Tendinopathy
- Flexor Hallucis Longus Tendinopathy
- Ankle Sprains
- Pain Across the Front of the Foot or ankle
- Posterior Impingement
- Stress Fractures
Injuries from weakness or imbalances around the hips and back include:
- Lumbar Stress Fractures
- Tight Hip Flexors
- Anterior Hip Impingement
- Snapping Hip Syndrome
- Groin Strains
The Pre-Pointe Assessment itself
The 1 hr Pre Pointe assessment reviews and monitors the following to ensure a safe progression onto pointe:
- Classical Ballet Technique
- Foot and Ankle Flexibility and Strength
- Postural Control
- Core Stability
- Turnout Range and Strength
- Stage of physical development
The findings obtained from these sessions will ensure the dancer is adequately prepared for pointe work as well as improving their dance technique in general. The rehabilitation provided will compliment the dancers training thus producing an all round stronger performer.
By the end of the assessment, dancers and parents will have a good perception of what is required in order to be able to progress onto pointe. The dancer will receive a specific individualised home exercise program to work on between appointments.
Generally dancers will require 2 – 5 appointments subject to level of strength, flexibility and stage of development.
Once all of the requirements have been accomplished, your physio in alliance with your dance teacher, will give you approval to purchase your first pair of pointe shoes.
If you are a dancer wanting to begin en pointe or already are en pointe and wish to improve your performance and prevent injury ask Leading Edge for a Pre-Pointe or Dance Physical Screening Assessment and we’d be delighted to help you.