Most people, even those who train as dancers, understand that human feet were made to support weight on the bottom of the soles of the feet, and not directly on the toes. This does not deter young Ballerinas from dreaming of the day that they will be fitted for their very first pair of pointe shoes, and with many beginning dancers training from an early age, the wait can seem daunting. However, there are three critical components to determining pointe readiness, and all three need to be confidently completed in order to safely introduce pointe training. Proper levels of training and strength need to be attained, dancers and parents need to be fully aware of the safety protocols to be followed in order to safely train en pointe, and regardless of when these milestones are reached proper physical development must have fully occurred.
The ability to balance on the tips of the toes is a skill that has less to do with the toes themselves, than it does with distribution of weight and condition of the muscles in the rest of the body. In order for a dancer to stand on pointe without damage, they must have enough training to be able to distribute their weight properly, have well conditioned core muscles, and must build gradually into dancing fully en pointe over the course of a year or longer. Holding the spine in proper alignment, lifting weight out of the pelvic girdle, and fully straightening the knees and ankles must be skills that are mastered prior to the introduction of pointe shoes and must be in continual focus as dancers train en pointe. When the spine bears weight correctly, the risk of disc herniations in the lumbar region can be avoided. It is unlikely that a dancer will reach the level of strength and training required for pointe work unless they are participating in a minimum of 4 hours of ballet class a week for a minimum of 2 years.
Since the bones in children’s feet are predominantly made of soft cartilage, dancing in pointe shoes is unable to safely occur for children under 12 regardless of strength and training regardless of strength and training. Children’s feet are soft, and the growth plates are wide, which puts the child at a high risk for permanent bone, muscle and soft tissue damage due to the downward drive of weight into the foot should pointe shoes be introduced prematurely. Responsible and well-trained Ballet instructors delay pointe placement until the after onset of puberty to prevent the well understood risks to a young dancer’s body. By the time a female has reached close to her full height, and the bones have filled with calcium, there is a largely decreased chance for permanent damage to the bone, muscle and soft tissue.
When a dancer has reached the level of growth, strength and technical skill required for pointe work, they may still have some personal anatomical challenges they must learn how to work through in order to protect their bodies from injury. For example, having flat feet, a low instep, toes that taper at an angle, poor ankle flexibility and poor hamstring flexibility can all affect how challenging or effortless pointe work is for a dancer, and proper understanding of these challenges can greatly reduce the risk of injury.
Although dancers and their parents may be eager to begin pointe work as soon as possible, it is critical to maintain the perspective that dancers don’t lose any time by waiting until they are fully ready to begin pointe work. They are, in fact, better off in the long run.