Theatre Thoughts: Get to the Pointe

There was an article in The Stage last week, warning about the dangers of young ballet dancers starting pointe work too early, and I'm glad that this issue is finally receiving coverage.

Pointe shoes have an almost mythical lure for dancers - in an image search online for 'ballet', 'dancer', 'ballerina' etc. pointe shoes are dominant.

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I understand it, I really do: I trained as a dancer myself, and when I was younger the thought of finally being able to hover effortlessly on the tips of my toes was what I dreamed of. I remember, aged about six or seven, stuffing wadded toilet paper and cotton wool into the toes of my mums old pointe shoes to fill up space and make them fit so that I could heave myself up by gripping onto the windowsill, chair back or bedhead, listening to the Swan Lake music on repeat, pretending I was a Prima Ballerina. (Please note, this is definitely not safe, and certainly not recommended or condoned in any way!)

But, it is dangerous, make no mistake about that. It is painful and arduous, and takes muscle strength way beyond what most people can achieve in an hours lesson once each week. I've seen this from both sides. I worked for years in different dance shops; I drew on learning from my first ever Saturday job fitting children's school shoes for a high-street chain, knowledge from my own experience as a dancer, I went on courses and training workshops, and devoured articles about foot anatomy, exercises, nutrition - anything that helped me be better at my job.

The dance shop in the small town I grew up in only stocked one brand of pointe shoes, as they specialised in fancy-dress and costumes. They didn't fit the shoes - you simply went in and asked for a pair of pointe shoes in a size five, or whatever, and they gave them to you. You could try them on if you wanted to, but they didn't even ask if you were a dancer, let alone whether you were ready for pointe work. It can take anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour to fit a first pair of pointe shoes, and it is a process that thoroughly deserves the time taken.

My first Saturday job was in a high-street shoe shop that had a children's section. On the children's floor, you began as an 'ungraded' fitter, unable to fit shoes yourself but just observing the supervisor. After a couple of weeks I took a test on foot development in children and became a 'C-Fitter' which allowed me to measure feet and fit plimsolls. This went on, going up to an 'A*', with tests and assessments throughout the process. Yes it was often frustrating, especially as this was 'just' a weekend job and I was studying for AS-Levels at the time. However it stood me in amazing stead when another dance shop opened in town, this one run by an ex-professional dancer; I blagged myself a job there instead, and she began teaching me to fit pointe shoes.

Image stolen from the Facebook page of a friend of mine!

For years afterwards I worked off-and-on in dance shops. I have seen all sorts of feet, and all standards of dancers. I have fit complete beginners and dancers with international ballet companies, and once had to explain to a Principal from a Russian company, through her translator, why the shoes she was requesting were not faulty, but that they were not right for her feet. I have had letters and emails from parents and teachers commending me, and have even received cash tips once or twice!

Correctly fitted pointe shoes are absolutely essential. Badly fitted shoes can cause all sorts of damage, from the obvious broken toes and twisted ankles, to things like back-ache and migraines, as the feet are literally the root of your body and if they are out of alignment, everything else goes wrong from the bottom up.

But, going back to the statement at the start of this blog - starting pointe work too early doesn't have all that much to do with age. It's a factor, of course, but it's not everything. Too early can mean before a dancer has developed the correct technique, the essential control and the bone structure and musculature necessary to support their whole body weight on the tips of their toes. The youngest I've fit was an eight-year old girl who had special dispensation from a leading ballet company; the oldest was an eighty-five year old woman who had been taking adult classes.

I can't remember how many dancers I've fit for their first pair of pointe shoes. Hundreds probably. And I don't remember how many of them I looked at and thought "You are not ready for pointe work." Reasons ranged from inability to find the full platform of the shoe, indicating, perhaps, that their muscles and technique are not yet developed enough, to students not knowing the positions or movement associated with simple instructions such as 'First Position' or 'PliĆ©'. 

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But whose responsibility is it to tell this to a student?

The Teacher: in a class with maybe twelve students, ten are ready to begin pointe work. What about the other two who are not ready and may now leave the class or the school, leading to a loss of income to the teacher. One customer recounted the story of a teacher who, after the girl had bought pointe shoes, was told she was not ready and made to sit out of the pointe-work section of the class. This, to me, is so wrong. The girl in question wasn't ready, in fact - she had very weak feet. But, cutting her out of half an hour of an hours lesson will not prepare her at all - in my opinion she should have been allowed to take part in the pointe sections wearing soft-blocks or flat shoes, and the teacher should have shown her exercises in order to strengthen her feet and ankles. I spent half an hour showing her some simple exercises for this purpose, and several months later the family returned to tell me that she was now joining in with the pointe class.
This is an extreme example - I'm certain that many teachers would take the nurturing route, but not being allowed pointe shoes when the rest of your friends are is still a galling prospect, and one that many teachers don't want to risk. It's somehow accepted that, at a certain grade or age, girls get pointe shoes, despite maybe not being fully prepared for the work.

The Parent: oh I've seen it all, from stereotypical 'Dance Moms' to those who don't even really know what it is that their child gets up to on a Saturday afternoon. All sorts have their good and bad points - those who take an active interest often ask insightful and relevant questions, but may also try and offer advice based on internet reading or what another parents daughter has had. Disinterested parents usually just let you get on with it, but won't know pertinent information given the situation. But, most parents, wherever they fall, will ask a variant on the question of whether their child is ready for pointe work, especially once it has been explained how badly fitting shoes can cause widespread damage.
But, as with the teacher, parents don't want to disappoint their children, who are usually over-excited at the thought of getting pointe shoes, and will usually decide that the teacher, or the fitter, knows best.

The Dancer: it's a hard one, really, especially as the average age for a dancer to start pointe work is between twelve and fifteen, so they're so used to being told 'what is best' for them. But, the dancer knows their own body and will know if something feels wrong. Pointe shoes hurt, they really do, but I have seen girls crying or staggering, even just standing holding onto a barre. This is not right at all. I used to say that discomfort was normal, pain was not. If, when trying on shoes, the dancer is not enjoying the process or the feeling, then they're not ready and they have the right to say something.
But how many fourteen year old girls would admit to it, when the rest of their class, their friends, are all buying their own shoes? Who would want to feel as though they were inferior (they're not!) or being left behind? So many girls stop dancing altogether after a couple of months of pointe classes, dismayed at the difficulty, and that is such a shame. Surely waiting a while and becoming more prepared, both physically and psychologically, would be better all round.

The Fitter: on the one hand, if a fitter sees that a dancer is not ready for pointe work, surely they ought to refuse to sell the shoes? After all, you are selling something that could potentially injure the purchaser. But it's tricky: on the commercial side, dance shops are a business and denying the customer the shoes will result in losing a sale. The customer may be offended and not come back in future so you have lost potential sales as well. On the well-being side, refusing a fit may mean that the customer simply goes to another shop where the fitting standards might not be so high, and the student may end up with an even more unsuitable pair. And on the relationship side, saying no in the shop undermines the authority of the teacher who has told them that they are ready - and believe me, you do not want to piss off a ballet teacher.
I would always err on the side of caution and fit the shoes as best as I could. Maybe five times in total I've been unable to (but this was usually because of exceptionally wide or narrow feet), and advised the customer to try elsewhere. But where I've felt that the student was unprepared for pointe work, I would advise them to speak with their teacher for strengthening exercises, and, if I wasn't particularly busy, I'd show them a couple of basic ones myself.

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One of the better solutions I came across was a teacher who ran pointe classes separately to the main syllabus lessons. She would select students who were ready, regardless of age or grade, and they would take a class on a different day, as well as their regular lessons. I know this is not perfect - the extra costs to parents, the time commitments to students, the need for the teacher to perhaps hire a studio for another night, etc. But it meant that there wasn't the pressure for a whole class to go onto pointe straight after their Grade Five exams, and that students could take the class when they and the teacher felt that they were prepared.

Gosh, this has been a bit of a rant hasn't it? But it's something I love, and have been involved with for so long, so it's only natural that I have a lot of opinions about it! I may write again about this, as it's made me remember why I was so passionate about fitting pointe shoes in the first place.

Keep Dancing! But dance safely!


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