When can a student go on pointe?
I have been asked this question many, many times in my career as a dance educator. Parents are either eager to see their child achieve the ultimate ideal of grace and perfection, or are reluctant to encourage an endeavor which requires extreme dedication, unwavering perseverance and some physical pain.
The truth is, there is not one right answer to suffice everyone. Not every student will go on pointe at the same time. Depending on the quality and quantity of technique classes a student participates in, their specific musculature, and maturity level, some students are ready at 11 while others aren't ready until 14 or later.
To understand the rigors of pointe work, I ask parents to imagine trying to walk through a swimming pool with flippers on. This analogy seems odd but often when a student goes on pointe, they may feel stifled by their pointe shoes and unable to complete movements that once seemed possible. It can be utterly frustrating with the excitement of getting those first pair of shoes and then realizing that they do not automatically make you a perfect ballerina. Pointe work is indeed challenging but can be a wholly rewarding experience.
Dancers can benefit from pointe work even if they do not wish to pursue a professional ballet career. Advanced students with proper training, motivation and musculature can study pointe to augment their dance education. Students of ballet are technically trained dancers studying and performing a fine art that has been around since the 1600's. Participating in the fine arts is a rare pursuit in this day-and-age and classically trained artists possess unique qualities which can be utilized in a number of settings. College and/or scholarship applications and resumes will be enhanced by the inclusion of such pursuits as they imply a strong work ethic, fierce determination and focused discipline.
Pre-professional ballet students will find that mastering pointe work correctly and at the proper stage in their development will increase their chances of being hired by a professional company and will prolong their dance careers by avoiding injuries.
So, what do I look for in determining whether a student is ready for pointe? First and foremost, I would not consider any student for pointe who does not take at least 3-4 proper hour-and-a-half ballet technique classes per week. The student must also have studied classical ballet for at least 3 years with an approved instructor.
Secondly, I look at the student's muscle development and monitor their placement and alignment while in class. If they cannot consistently balance in releve on one foot or the ankles quiver while at the barre, then they have not yet attained the muscle control or coordination required for pointe work. Around the age of 9-11, the cartilage growth plates begin to harden in the feet and therefore it is not advisable to begin pointe prior to this phase of growth. Pre-pointe exercises done on flat may be started around age 9-10 to prepare for the future inclusion of pointe work. Ankle flexibility and the articulation of the foot when pointed are also taken into consideration. Students with low arches/flat feet or inflexible ankles would have a tremendously difficult time rising en pointe and attaining proper form.
Third, I assess the commitment and emotional maturity of the student. Since pointe work requires additional study, it may not be appropriate for students who cannot commit to at least 3-4 classes per week. Without this minimum number of technique classes to build up and maintain proper form, a dancer might sustain severe injuries attempting to dance on pointe.
Ultimately a student will be placed on pointe when they are physically and emotionally ready. There is not one formula that every dancer fits into and therefore as dance educators, we must look at each student individually. Putting large groups or entire classes on pointe for the convenience of scheduling is not a recommended practice. With dedicated study and knowledgeable and individually tailored instruction, ballet dancers will find that the dream of dancing on pointe is quite attainable!
Erika Lindblom - Dance Instructor, Lake Norman Performing Arts