The art of dancing en pointe is something that many little girls in ballet class work towards. It is a typical sign that you are now one of the “big girls.” However, the excitement of getting to this milestone can sometimes cause premature entry into the world of pointe shoes.
Pointe shoes are a much harder version of ballet slippers, which usually are just comprised of canvas or soft leather and some elastic. The basic parts of a pointe shoe are the box and the shank. The box is the front of the shoe towards the toes. The part of the box where the tips of the toes are located is perfectly flat and shaped like a square so that the dancer can more easily balance. The box is made of layers of very tightly packed paper and fabric that is glued and becomes very stiff when dry. Some newer brands of pointe shoe have a box made of layers of plastic and rubber.
The shank is the part of the pointe shoe that would be considered the sole of the shoe. It is meant to provide stiffness to support the arch of the foot when bearing weight on the tips of the toes. The shank is typically comprised of layers of a variety of leather, cardstock, plastic, or glued burlap. Generally, the shape of a box varies in different brands or styles within a brand. Some boxes are narrow, some are wide and very square for enhanced balance, and some are tapered to accommodate a wider foot that has a more narrow toe shape.
Because of the rigidity of pointe shoes, there is a breaking in process. This varies from dancer to dancer based on their preferences. Some of these things can include hitting the shoes against the floor, stepping on the box, hammering the box, closing them in a door, cutting parts of the shank out, wetting parts of the shoe, scoring the exterior surface of the sole with scissors or a knife. Once the shoes are ready, there is another ritual of deciding how to protect the toes. These techniques vary from using taping methods, use of lamb’s wool, gel pads, or even just paper towels.
The question is, how are you to know when you are ready to dance en pointe? Quite a few things go into evaluating pointe readiness. Factors include age, anatomy, alignment and flexibility, strength, postural control and frequency/duration of lessons. These are things that a good dance instructor/institute can evaluate.
A physician or physical therapist can also assess pointe readiness for a dancer. The thing that is usually evaluated is age. This is a tricky situation, as complete hardening of some of the bones in the foot don’t always happen until ages 18-20. A dancer that is looking to have a professional career cannot wait until age 18-20 to start dancing en pointe since that is typically the age that a professional career begins. It seems like most dance schools are trying to get girls that exhibit good alignment and strength to a pointe shoe fitting by age 11 or 12.
The anatomy, alignment and strength are the biggest factors in pointe readiness. Anatomy of the foot makes quite an impact on shoe type. Forefoot shape can determine what kind of box will work best for you. The peasant foot type is, anatomically, at the most advantage since the toes in this forefoot shape are even straight across causing even weight distribution. Dancers with flat feet tend to not have enough flexibility in the ankle to give them full ability to rise onto the toe box of the shoe. And while dancers with high arches look beautiful, they can be more prone to injury since a high arched foot is more rigid and has less shock absorption.
Alignment and anatomy of foot and ankle are the big determining factors whether pointe work will ever be for you. These are things that cannot be changed. Strength and flexibility can be gained.
A nice and easy quick way to determine if the ankle has enough motion for pointe work is the pencil test. To do this test, you lay a pencil or other straight hard object, such a pen or ruler, on the bottom of the shin bone while the dancer points their foot. The pencil should be able to lie flush with the skin from tip to tip. This test is to ensure that the dancer has 180 degrees of ankle plantar flexion. If this range of motion is unattainable then the dancer will not be able to get onto the box of her pointe shoe, making pointe work very difficult, if not incredibly dangerous.
As the images display, I pass the pencil test, which is good, but my lack of pointe work has my feet left with weakness causing some difficulty in maintaining a great position in my pointe shoe. Luckily for me, this is something that can be improved. If you are a dancer that is curious about starting pointe work, come visit your friendly dance injury specialist at PhysioDC.