When can I start pointe work? – is a question that dance teachers often struggle to answer when asked it by their students. Is it as simple as a single age or a certain amount of time spent in ballet training? Approaches to when students might begin pointe work have changed considerably since the 1920s and 1930s when children as young as four or five years old were put en pointe.
But even back then concerns were raised about this practice. An article in 1931 by Doreen Cleare in The Dancer from BBO warns of the danger of faulty technique and pushing children into pointe work too soon. She flagged up the need for careful preliminary strengthening of the muscles of the foot and that the whole leg needs to be turned out and not the foot alone. Some 30 years later the author of Anatomy and Ballet, Celia Sparger (1965, p 74) also draws attention to the perils of early pointe work saying that although the danger is recognised it was still possible at that time to buy pointe shoes for a six-year old. She also stressed that pointe work is the end result of a slow and gradual training of the whole body and that the moment when a student is ready for pointe work is different for different children.
Thankfully, today’s guidelines (2009) from IADMS (International Association for Dance Medicine & Science) recommend that pointe work is not started before the age of 12, and then only after careful evaluation of the student’s physical development, alignment and strength and flexibility of her feet. Where the student is anatomically sound and has the required core stability, is taking a minimum of two ballet classes per week and has been training for sufficient time and is considered to be truly pre-professional then pointe work may commence. So clearly a very different approach to putting students en point in the early 20th Century.
Tests to assess pointe readiness
A very useful tool for dance teachers considering putting students en pointe is Richardson & Liederbach’s Functional Criteria for Assessing Pointe Readiness published recently as a teacher resource by IADMS. The authors draw attention to the difficulties of using age alone as the criteria and put forward three tests to help teachers to assess the dancer’s ability to maintain neutral alignment and centre of mass over their base of support when doing complex movement. This is clearly what the dancer needs to be able to do when dancing en pointe.
Topple Test: this test focuses on the ability of the dancer to control her vertical trunk and landing of a single pirouette en dehors from 4th with the working ro gesture leg in full retiré. In this test you are looking for the ability to control the ‘toppling effect’.
Airplane Test: this test is demanding requiring four out of five pliés performed in a forward airplane position (trunk pitched forward parallel to floor, one leg extended to the back and the pelvis square to the floor, arms out to sides parallel to floor) to maintain neutral lower extremity alignment – knees over the centre of the foot; maintaining a level pelvis, the foot, back and head in one line and no foot pronation (rolling in). As the dancer does the plié the arms are lowered so that the finger tips touch the floor beside the toes of the supporting leg. You can see from the second page of the paper below the airplane start and finish position. I will put the paper on a link at the bottom of the third test so you can read the two-page paper in full.
Single-leg Sauté Test: this consists of 16 (yes 16) consecutive single-leg sauté jumps. Again it is about maintaining a neutral pelvis with an upright, stable trunk and neutral lower extremity alignment. A toe-heel landing each time and a full extended knee and pointed foot when in the air. The pass criterion is defined as requiring at least 8 of the 16 jumps being properly executed.
As the authors point out, no single test or screening for pointe readiness is foolproof but having seen a wonderful lecture given by one of the authors, Megan Richardson about these tests at the one of the IADMS conferences, I can say that the anatomical demands were clear and really demonstrated the level of control and ability required by dancers looking to begin pointe work.
Download the paper: Functional Criteria for Assessing Pointe Readiness – I fully recommend that you download and read it if you teach students doing or wanting to progress to pointe work.
Don’t forget you can explore various dance teaching issues by taking short online CPD for Dance Teachers courses.