Most young girls who do ballet cannot wait for their ballet pointe work to begin. They look upon their first pair of pointe shoes as special as they feel that they have finally made it as a dancer.
However, it is not long before the reality of painful feet and frustrating exercises sets in and those once precious point shoes become a reminder of how difficult pointe work really is.
When Should One Start With Ballet Pointe Work?
There is no easy answer to this question as it varies for each individual student.
Factors that should be taken into account are as follows:
- Age? As a rule, I don’t like to put anyone on pointe until they are at least 12 years of age. The child should also have gone through puberty.
- It is also dependant on how long the dancer has trained. It is important to have a good strong technique and understanding of basic posture and alignment. Strong demi-pointe work is also necessary.
- It is vitally important to go onto ballet pointe work with intelligence, especially at the start of pointe work. It is important to work slowly and carefully in the beginning, no matter how badly you want to show off to your friends. Doing things before you are ready for them can damage the still soft bones in the feet.
- Look at the shape of the foot. Unfortunately, there is little one can do to change the shape of the foot, but some shapes will take more time to strengthen than others, as explained below.
What Is The Ideal Shape Of The Foot For Ballet Pointe Work?
For a strong secure alignment of the foot and ankle en pointe, it is necessary to transmit the weight of the body in a straight line down the leg and into the foot and toes.
This works best when there is a reasonably high arch, or instep, on the inside of the foot, as this arch can direct the weight of the body in a line to the toes.
If there is too little arch, the young dancer will find it hard to ‘get up’ on pointe. Then again if there is too much arch, the dancer may have an unstable ankle without strong muscles to support the foot.
If the toes are very long, and especially if the second toe is longer than the first toe, the dancer will have a new set of problems.
Ideally, the toes should be fairly short and square looking to help support the weight of the body. If the dancer has ‘knuckles’ on all her toes, her feet will generally be strong enough for pointe work.
Each type of foot has its own problems, so we will need to look closely at the anatomy of the foot in order to understand it more clearly.
In the photo above you can see the three different types of feet.
The first foot on the left is strongly knit with little or no arch.
The middle foot has a high arch beginning in the ankle joint with a long forefoot. This foot needs lots of strengthening.
The foot on the right has a high arch in which tarsal bones are prominent and an arch appears in the forefoot.
Anatomy Of The Foot And Ankle
There are 26 bones in the foot.
Some are very small (like the ones in the toes) and some are larger and important for weight-bearing (like the talus and the calcaneus).
The shin bones form the ankle joint with the talus. You can find your ankle joint where the prominent ankle bone at the front of the foot (often used for the frappe position) and the ankle bone at the back of the foot, meet with the talus bone in the middle.
Now underneath this bone is the calcaneus, or heel bone, which is very easy to feel.
The calcaneus is the largest bone in the foot. There are 5 bones at the top of the foot that help to transfer the weight of the body forwards. These are called the navicular, cuboid, and 3 cuneiform bones.
These are important for the dancer because the shape that they form and the strength of the supporting ligaments and tendons can give a variety of different arches of the foot.
Continuing forwards, there are 5 metatarsal bones that each lead to a toe. The metatarsal bones are long and narrow, however, we know that in response to pointe work, they can thicken and shorten in response to the pressure of maximum weight-bearing, which is another reason why it is so important to NOT start pointe work too soon.
These 5 metatarsal bones help continue the shape of the arch that began at the top of the foot.
Hence you might have heard your teacher say to ‘use the metatarsals,’ or ‘go more through the metatarsal arch.’
The metatarsals each have a joint with a toe and it is this joint that gives us the high demi-pointe platform.
Apart from the big toe, each of the other toes has 3 digits (called phalanges) that give access to a wide range of motion for the foot.
Working The Foot Correctly
No matter what shape of foot or arch of the foot each dancer has, it is very important to work the foot properly and strongly.
The foot has to take the weight of your whole body when it lands from a jump or a releve and it can only do this effectively if the supporting muscles, tendons, and ligaments are strong.
Sometimes if you are lucky enough to have a pretty foot with a high arch you can make your foot look lovely with very little effort when you point it.
Although you may win admiration for the shape of the foot, this is normally a weak foot as it has not been required to really work the muscles strongly. Consequently, the ankle is often weak and the dancer may easily fall off point causing a nasty sprained ankle.
Although a foot with less of an arch is not so appealing to see on pointe, it is a safer and stronger foot with fewer problems, and certainly will not go through pointe shoes at the same rate as the highly arched foot.
Whatever shape of your foot and toes you have, you cannot change the basic anatomical structure of your foot. You can however dramatically affect how well you use the foot and this goes back to performing battements tendus and glisses with sufficient pressure on the floor to properly work the muscles of the foot and ankle.
We all know that it is possible to get away with just pointing the foot and doing glisses that look all right, but working this way does not give the muscles a sufficient workload to make a difference to their strength.
The more pressure you push into and along the floor when doing tendus and glisses the better. Muscles work best when they have to work against resistance, so pressing the foot properly along and into the floor, using every part of the foot will be very effective. This is the same principle as when you are landing from jumps; use the foot correctly to support the pressure of landing and your landings will be softer and more controlled.
Metatarsal Arch Exercise
Another simple exercise that is a favorite of mine is a metatarsal arch exercise. You can do this best if. you take your shoes off to start with so you can feel the muscles underneath the foot working.
Keeping all the toes on the floor, and the heel bone on the floor, lift up the middle of the foot by contracting the muscles under the arch. Hold this for several seconds and check that you are not clawing the toes into the floor. As with all exercises to improve strength, the more repetitions the better. You should sim to start with about 50 a day for each foot and then increase the amount.
Once you have mastered how to do this, the beauty of the exercise is that you can do it at any time in any place, knowing that with each repetition you are gaining more strength.
Other helpful exercises to strengthen the foot in preparation for pointe work are:
- Ankle circles work the calf muscles. This helps to keep the alignment of the foot and ankle when standing en pointe.
- Balance on one leg with your eyes closed. This will help improve. your perception of where your balance is, and work the foot and calf muscles strongly at the same time. You can make this exercise harder by standing on a cushion and then trying to find your balance, and you can even try on demi-pointe.
- Exercises to strengthen the toe muscles, especially if the second toe is very long. Hook a piece of wide elastic around each toe in turn and push down slowly against the elastic, without curling up your toes. Keep them elongated.
- Gripping a tissue with your toes and pulling it in towards you with straight toes not scrunched toes.
- Dome your feet (as explained above) by keeping your toes flat and long on the floor as you try to lift your arch away from the floor.
A properly fitted pair of pointe shoes is essential. YOu should always go to an expert to have. your shoes fitted and have the correct shoe for your personal shape of foot.
Properly attached ribbons that are well tied and do not cut off any ankle movement. Never tie your ribbons at the. back of the foot as this restricts the movement of the Achilles tendon. Ask your teacher to check that you are tying your ribbons correctly. The latest craze with my students is the elasticated ribbons, but unfortunately, these do stretch and offer very little support for your ankle.
Good foot care is essential. Prepare your feet for pointe work by rubbing surgical spirits into the toes to harden the skin. Keep your toenails short and properly trimmed. Keep your feet clean and if there is any broken skin, keep them as dry as possible after class, as damp sweaty feet are a breeding ground for bacteria.
If a dancer has bunions, get them sorted. An operation may be necessary, otherwise dancing with bunions on pointe can be very painful.
A good foot massage is great before a class. Teach your pupils to give each other massages before class. You won’t believe the benefits, and the foot will be supple and ready to dance.
Place the thumbs on top of the ankle and the fingers underneath and gently work down towards the toes a few times. It is the feeling of kneading play dough. Bend the foot in half with the thumbs still on top and the fingers under the balls of the foot. Lengthen all the baby toes out, and gently twist. Do not do this to the big toe.
Look after your feet, They have a lifetime of walking to do long after you have hung up your pointe shoes for the last time. Ballet Pointe Work is very stressful for feet, so take care of them well.