-By Jessica Tupa
When I was a little girl and engrossed in Ballet, I dreamt, like most little budding ballerinas, of dancing en pointe (in point shoes). Once I got my shoes, I would be tall and graceful, and my dancing would be perfection. Or so I thought…of course, I was strong enough; of course, it was a great idea to put me en pointe immediately! What were we all waiting for anyway? Ah, the delusions of being 10…in my mind, I could not imagine what possible reason there was for me and my entire class to have to wait another year, or in some cases two – an eternity – to go up on our shoes. How could anything that we all wanted so badly be a bad idea?
Here is why it could be a bad idea: to be blunt, pointe shoes are not that great for a person’s body. Shocking, I know. While ballet is actually, when taught correctly, quite good for a person’s body, pointe shoes can be much more difficult to handle (or footle), requiring a much greater amount of core strength, general physical development, body awareness, self esteem, determination, and maturity. OK, does that describe your child? Be honest.
Now, I’m not trying to be harsh. I’m actually providing you with a way to temper what could be unrealistic expectations held by your young ballerina for pointe shoes. Please let me elaborate. Ballet, as you most likely know, is good for us because it builds core strength and overall strength (as it requires both to be done well); it increases body awareness, flexibility and coordination; it helps with proper alignment; and it even builds cardio support. Ballet is an art that builds self-discipline and mental endurance. It can even help you to move more gracefully and to feel soothed while doing so. These are all healthy benefits that one can experience, whether young or more mature, by taking a ballet class with a good teacher who will teach class geared to improve technique while protecting the bodies of their students and keeping in mind each student’s natural limitations.
What is pointe good for? It’s pretty. Yup, I’m sorry to say that it is almost entirely aesthetic. Remember we are dealing with the visual art of dance here and a Classical art form at that. Pointe dancing shows off the grace, strength, coordination, and balance of the dancer and her partner. Way back in 1832 when the first pointe dancer, Marie Taglioni, donned her first pair pointe shoes for La Sylphide, she did it to be more ethereal, more lovely, more ”feminine” and to show off her skills and strength as a famous ballerina. (Please note that up until this time ballet dancers did not dance en pointe but acrobats did tricks on them.) Does this mean pointe is bad? Of course NOT. It just needs to be approached carefully and practically.
When I was a little girl, my ballet teacher Miss Jan, the director of what was then Ballet Tacoma, showed us her feet and told us the story of why they were so crooked and gnarled. She did this, not to gross us out, but to give us a good reason to wait a little to go en pointe. When Miss Jan was little doctors didn’t know what they knew when I was little (I’m not ancient but it was a couple of decades ago). And now doctors know more than ever about bones and feet. We now know that our feet may not stop growing until we are way into our adulthood and the bones in our feet take at least ten to twelve years to fuse together and be prepared to sustain the weight of our whole body balanced on the tips of our toes. If a dancer goes on pointe too early she is in danger of bending the bones in her feet, possibly permanently, as was the case with my beloved Ballet Mistress Miss Jan and so many dancers of her era. Even once the bones are correctly fused in the foot, the rest of the body must be able to support pointe work with-out negative repercussions. What repercussions you ask? If a dancer does not have proper core strength, foot and leg strength and proper alignment, then pointe work will intensify any problems with technique that already need work. In other words it can make bad habits worse and in really bad cases cause injury, create muscle imbalance and worsen alignment. It can stop a developing dancer in her tracks if she’s not ready for it.
This brings us to the mental challenges of going on pointe. Pointe work is hard. Ballet is hard but pointe work is really, really hard. It looks easy when it’s done well, but a lot of difficult work is required before a dancer can make pointe work look effortless. Dancing on the tips of one’s toes can also be painful and requires a certain mental and emotional toughness. It also requires maturity, self awareness and excellent body awareness to determine if pain being experienced by the dancer is “work” pain or “injury” pain. This can be tricky and a mistake here can damage feet or self esteem, or both.
In conclusion, please understand my intention is not to discourage young ballet dancers from going on pointe shoes, but to encourage taking this big step when ready and not before. A child’s ballet teacher is the best person to determine when this time comes and it is good if they err on the side of caution. As a dancer and stilter, I fully support pushing oneself to one’s fullest potential, physically and mentally. It is important to remember that we can only reach our potential, in whatever our field, by being smart and courageous. As a parent, one way that you can advocate for your child, is to help them to understand why they might need to wait for pointe shoes. By waiting, you can help to ensure that when your child is truly ready to move to pointe shoes, that experience will be exciting and magical. In the long run, waiting will be worth it.