Part 3 of 3: Ballet - does it have to hurt?
Part 1: Alignment and Core Strength: Read More
The premise of our initial discussion was that with correct and careful training, classical ballet does not have to lead to pain or injury, even at the elite level. In this day and age there is so much information available about safe dance practice, that there should be no excuse for lack of knowledge or understanding when it comes to early training and body safety.
Part 2: Hypermobility and Safe Dance Practice: Read More
Hypermobility refers to the amount of laxity (looseness) in the ligaments that support your joints. Whilst a small amount of hypermobility is an asset for a dancer, early training needs to focus on building strength and stability rather than stretching to extremes. Repetitive extreme stretching can cause permanent damage to joints and result in long term injury. Please take time to be aware and take care when it comes to hypermobile stretching.
Part 3: Pointe Work - When to Start & What to Expect
Many young dancers dream of dancing on the tips of their toes, just like the ballerinas they see depicted in stories, movies, or music boxes. However, what they don't realise is that the journey to beautiful pointe work is often long, tedious, and arduous.
Pointe work is the one area of classical ballet that does hurt. It does bring pain, both short and long term. So if you have a little one who dreams of dancing on her toes, be prepared for the fallout.
Common injuries and ailments as a result of pointe work may include:
=> Short term: bruised toenails, blisters on toes, bleeding blisters on toes, red and swollen joints particularly at the base of the big toe, possible early bunion formation.
=> Long term: bunions, early onset arthritis in the toes, stress fractures in the big toe, tendon inflammation around the big toe joint (sesamoiditis).
The International Association for Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) recommends that dancers who train only once per week, or who are not truly pre-professional, be discouraged from pointe training.(1) Reading through the short and long term list of injuries, I'm sure you can understand why.
Some injuries may be avoided and/or minimised by:
commencing pointe work only after the age of 12 when the bones of the foot have fully developed AND when the dancer is strong enough in their core, legs, knees, ankles and toes.
undertaking pre-pointe training for 6-12 months before commencing pointe work and on a continuing basis;
being professionally fitted for pointe shoes to ensure a good fit;
using tape, gel pads or toe pads, to provide added protection to the feet and toes when doing pointe work;
regular icing of toes following class and/or performances; and
wearing sensible footwear outside of class times.
What is Pre-Pointe Training?
Pre-Pointe training teaches a student to develop strength and mobility specifically in the metatarsals (toes).
Before a student commences pre-pointe training they should have:
good core strength through the deep abdominal muscles, the obliques, and the back;
strong external rotators to sustain their turn out;
lengthened knees with strong muscles around the knee joint;
strong and flexible ankles with good foot alignment - i.e, no sickles.
There are number of exercises that are used to develop strength and mobility through the various regions of the foot and also for each toe. Before rising into a pointe shoe, each toe should have the strength to remain straight in the shoe, so that rather than having crunched or bent toes (as commonly occurs), they look like the image below:
Pre-pointe exercises tend to be simple, but focus on the dancer gaining strength and awareness of their body and its limits. An example of a pre-pointe exercise is: lay a small hand-towel flat on the floor. Starting at one end, use the toes to scrunch up the towel and move it underneath the foot. Keep scrunching until you get to the other end of the towel. Repeat 5x each foot.
Pre-pointe exercises should be done for 10-15 minutes, 3 to 4 times per week.
When Can I Start?
The short answer is: when your teacher tells you.
The physical ability to do pointe work is not just age related. Generally, 12 is the minimum age recommended for pointe work, so that the bones of the foot are allowed to fully develop. However, just because you are 12 does not mean you should automatically be given the all clear to commence pointe training.
Most dance teachers look for things like:
- Proprioceptive awareness: does that dancer understand how to hold their body in correct postural alignment; can the dancer self-correct; does the dancer know when she is sickling in the ankle or does she have to be told?
- Strength: does the dancer have good core strength, are they activating the external rotators without clenching the gluteal muscles, are their knees straight when they rise or releve onto one leg, can they rise comfortably to three-quarter pointe at least 20 times in a row?
- Attitude: does the dancer listen and focus in class; do they take correction well; how long does it take for them to apply and maintain a correction?
Every student is different - every teacher is different - and the best way to work towards your goal is together.
Talk to your dance teacher, ask for feedback, ask for homework, ask for help. That's why your teacher is there - to help you be the best you can be.
I have noticed that each part of this series has concluded with a recommendation to: 'ask your teacher'. Whilst I didn't set out with this intention, it makes complete sense.
Your teacher is the one person who is there doing the ground work with you every single lesson. He or she sees your good days and your bad days, they notice and celebrate your achievements, and nag you about areas to improve.
So - ask your teacher! Ask for information, exercises to do at home, extension options in class. Ask for feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. Ask about areas for improvement and suggestions on what to focus on first. If something is unclear or doesn't feel right, ask more questions until it does make sense to you.
Keep striving to be the best you can be in a safe and positive environment. Never compromise your safety and never compromise your happiness.
My best wishes to all dancers everywhere, for a healthy, joyful and
life-long relationship with the art of classical ballet.
International Association for Dance Medicine & Science, 2009, https://www.iadms.org/page/185