The long road to the pointe shoe – a guide for eager dancers and worried parents
Submitted by Julia Wilkinson Manley, CCD Artistic Director
For many classically trained dancers, wearing pointe shoes is the ultimate goal. But for many, it just can’t come soon enough. I’ve been pondering the frustrations behind methodical (slow) balletic training, so here are some tips for eager young dancers and for parents who have no idea where, when, or why to start.
NOTE: Learning dance of all types is extremely important and fulfilling. I am focusing this article on classical ballet training not because it is more important, but because the ultimate conversation I would like to open up is about the importance of methodical training as it relates to pointe work. At CCD we believe in providing dancers of all aspirations the tools they need to evolve in the art form as it unfolds for them individually.
The first 3-4 years of training is the most important time in a dancer’s classical ballet education, second only to years 4-7. The foundation that is set during this time will last a lifetime, whether it’s good or bad. As you’re choosing a school in which to enroll your young dancer, equate the importance of this time to learning to read. A positive, imaginative, vibrant environment in which the young learner is given simple, but correct information is critical.
- Give the biographies of the teachers a read-through. Ideally, the faculty members have degrees in dance or experience as a professional dancer. If the teacher is a junior faculty member, try to understand what organizational oversight/support or pedagogical training they have.
- Understand what is important to the dance school. Know their values. Make sure these values are in line with the kind of education you want to provide for your child.
- Fun. Fun is a hard one for me, but I will again tie this into reading. Learning to read is HARD, but the payoff is an endless world of adventure. Ballet is the same way. Careful that “fun” doesn’t translate into a lack of correctness and foundation. A good beginner ballet class for children should have lots of movement invention and creativity (aka “fun”) while also incorporating correct classical terminology, structure for how to properly and safely place the spine and knees, and textural ideas that will eventually evolve into clean and safe ballet technique. And…just because I have to say this…hard work and real knowledge are fun and rewarding, but it takes time to get there.
The intermediate dancer
For the classical dancer who has been training for several years, the intermediate years can sometimes prove difficult, confusing, and slow. Why? Well, let’s break it down.
- The devil is in the details, as they say. The intermediate years are spent giving precise and detailed training, on top of a solid foundation, through repetition and slow, methodical work.
- Every movement they do, every detail they learn, is building towards pointe work (and at CCD this also refers to many of our male identifying students, as we believe training en pointe is beneficial for all classically trained dancers). I think of these details like how a 3-D printer would build a house – layer after refined layer. And, of course, you want a really solidly-built house!
- It’s confusing because these dancers are learning A LOT! Hopefully, dancers are learning physical awareness, anatomy/kinesiology, minute details of épaulement (movement of the head, neck, and shoulders) and body positions, French vocabulary galore, physics of pushing off and landing on the floor, and much, much more. In fact, they are learning how to learn. And because dancers are also trained to make what they do appear effortless, it often comes as a big surprise that it’s actually pretty darn difficult.
And finally, pointe work
To go en pointe safely and effectively, an advanced dancer must be strong and have “good technique.” But “good technique” is relative, in some cases. To me, good technique implies a detailed understanding of ballet terminology, consistency of approach to one’s work, and a thorough understanding and use of proper musculature. I shall now let my Ballet Nerd show, so as to describe what “proper musculature” is to a dancer…
- Consistent use of the deep rotators to actively hold one’s turnout
- Knees that are consistently aligned over the second toe
- Consistent use of the abdominal structure to both hold the pelvis in a neutral position and support the spine
- An understanding of how to freely move the femur without disturbing the pelvis
- Strong, consistently held ankles and ridiculously strong feet and TOES
Did you catch how many times I used consistent/consistently? This is what takes the most time – building a reliable and consistent structure, which can ultimately allow the physical form to experience freedom in its art.
At CCD, we train our dancers for at least one year in Pre-Pointe before they progress into Beginning Pointe. Dancers in Beginning Pointe at CCD are most often 11-13 years old.