Mrs. Cumpston

Ready for Pointe

pointe shoes

One question we are often asked as ballet teachers is “When is it appropriate for my daughter to go on pointe?”

Dancing on pointe is one of the most exciting achievements that an intermediate ballet student looks forward to - so naturally, there is a lot of anticipation among students and parents for the day when students are allowed to begin dancing on pointe! However, putting a dancer on pointe too young or too soon can cause lasting damage to their feet and ankles.  So when is the best time for a dancer to begin dancing on pointe?

Though this may not be exactly what you wanted to hear, there is not a simple answer to this question! There are many, many factors that need to be taken into careful consideration when determining the readiness of a dancer for pointe work. For instance, many parents ask if there is certain age when students are allowed to begin dancing on pointe. Age does certainly play a role; however, because children develop at different rates and have varying amounts of training at a particular age, it is not appropriate for all dancers to begin at the same age. Generally, dancers begin pointe training between ages 11-14.

Perhaps the most crucial factor in determining if a dancer is ready to begin pointe work is strength and flexibility coupled with solid technical training in classical ballet. In The Pointe Book (a wonderful resource if you are looking for more information by the way!), Barringer and Schlesinger write,

“The real pointe is the foot itself and not the shoe, which is only a covering. To meet the unique demands of pointe dancing, the foot has to be strong, supple, and as sensitive as the hand.”

Before a dancer can begin working on pointe, her ankle must gain enough flexibility to stand upright on pointe. Likewise, the foot and ankle must gain considerable strength in order to safely initiate the pointe work. At many schools, including our own here at Ballet 5:8, students are required to attend a “pre-pointe” class for at least a year before applying to begin pointe. The focus of this class is to prepare the young dancer for pointe by executing specific exercises that increase crucial strength and flexibility of the foot and ankle.

A dancer must also participate in regular training and have a good sense of their technique before starting their work on pointe. In Anatomy and Ballet, Celia Sparger writes

“The ability to do pointe work is the end result of slow and gradual training of the whole body, back, hips, thighs, legs, feet, general coordination of movement, and the placing of the body, so that weight is lifted upwards off the feet . . .”

Good technique gained from attending regular classes is so crucial for dancers wanting to advance to pointe work! Technique class trains a dancers body how to do the steps correctly, so that their body is already strong and prepared to do the same movements on pointe.

At Ballet 5:8 School of the Arts, we strongly believe in preparing our dancers and making sure that each student begins their pointe training at an appropriate time for that individual. Along with our pre-pointe class, dancers must pass a pre-pointe test, which assesses their overall strength, flexibility, and technique. If dancers haven't fully developed the needed proficiencies to safely begin pointe work, their instructor will recommend taking the pre-pointe class for another year.

The wonderful news is that if a dancer does have good ankle flexibility, over all strength and a good understanding of ballet technique, the transition to working on pointe can be a safe and exciting one! Though it is sometimes difficult for dancers to wait until they are fully ready to begin training on pointe, the wait is well worth the positive experience it leads to.

This post's author, Mrs. Lauren Ader-Cumpston, served as the Ballet Mistress for the Ballet 5:8 professional company from 2012-2017 and is the Founding Director of Ballet 5:8 School of the Arts's Conservatory Program.

The Importance of the Perfect Fit

Not too long ago, there were very few options for a dancer when looking for a pair of pointe shoes. There were only a few brands and a few styles available. Many professional ballerinas have their pointe shoes custom made to fit their feet, however for the student and the dancer on a tight budget this is not possible or realistic! Thankfully, there is much more variety in the brands and styles of shoes that you can buy today.

Why does this matter so much?

If pointe shoes are not correctly fitted to the foot, it is likely that the dancer will experience some sort of injury. Pointe shoes should be fit snugly and according to the individual shape of the foot. It is very important for dancers who are purchasing their first pair of pointe shoes to go to a store that can help to fit the dancer’s individual foot. It is also a good idea to have the student’s ballet teacher check the shoes before they are worn in class to make sure they are a good fit.

The modern pointe shoe can be changed in size in several different ways in order to achieve a good fit. I will briefly explain the different parts of the shoe and how they affect the fit. However, please keep in mind that this is only a brief overview! Parents and students should seek help from teachers and experienced pointe shoe fitters when buying a pair of pointe shoes for the first time - please do not try to do this by yourself!

Overall width and length:

Each style is offered in varying widths and lengths. It is important to find the correct width and length of shoe because if the shoe is too big, the shoe will not offer enough support on pointe and the toes will “jam” down into the shoe. If the shoe is too narrow and too short can irritate the Achilles tendon and the pressure on the joints of the toes can cause inflammation and discomfort.

The Vamp:

The vamp is the length of the shoe that covers the toes and should correspond to the length of the toes. Dancers with short toes should look for a shoe with a shorter vamp, and vice versa. Ideally the vamp should completely cover the second joint of the first toe. If a dancer with long toes attempts to wear a shoe with a short vamp – it is likely that their foot will not be well supported at the front and will “fall out” of the shoe. Likewise, if a dancer with short toes wears a shoe with a long vamp, they will be restricted in the movement from half pointe to full pointe and may not be able to go all the way up on their shoes.

The shape of the box:

The box (the part of the shoe that encases the toes) is offered in many different shapes and varieties on a gradient from a “square” box to a “tapered” box. In general dancers with toes that are all the same length should look for a more-square box and dancers with toes that gradually decrease in length should look for more tapered box. If the shape of the box does not correspond with the shape of the foot, the toes will either have too much space, and thus jam down into the shoe, or the toes will not have enough room and there will be too much pressure against the other toes and the sides of the shoe.

The Profile:

The profile, or the height of the shoe when placed flat on the floor, should correspond with the height of the foot when standing flat on the floor. As a general rule, a dancer should not be able to slide more than one finger between her foot and the top of the shoe when standing with her feet flat on the floor. If the profile is too high, there will be too much space in the shoe and the dancers foot will slide and jam down into the shoe. If the profile is too small this will also cause the dancer a great deal of discomfort.

These are just some of the basics, but hopefully you leave this post feeling a little more informed about how pointe shoes can be fit to keep the dancer safe and injury free!

This post's author, Mrs. Lauren Ader-Cumpston, served as the Ballet Mistress for the Ballet 5:8 professional company from 2012-2017 and is the Founding Director of Ballet 5:8 School of the Arts's Conservatory Program.