An Interview with Dr. Lisa M. Schoene
How do you evaluate dancers for pointe readiness?
“I look at the dancer’s ability to point her feet and to balance in a one-footed pose such as a passé. I have her do some jumps to learn more about her strength, placement and balance while moving. To assess strength in her hips and core, I see if she can perform a plank (holding the back straight in a push-up position, resting on elbows) and lower her legs together from a raised position, lying on her back. If she can’t perform these exercises, with her abdomen in, her core strength needs to be addressed before I would recommend pointework.”
Should a doctor be consulted before my daughter begins pointe?
“If you know a specialist in dance, and pointework in particular, he or she might be able to provide valuable information. Without this expertise, a doctor is unlikely to understand what is entailed in pointe readiness or dancing on pointe. The most important person to talk with is the dance teacher. Find out his or her criteria for readiness, and how dancers are evaluated. If you feel you need more information, ask for a referral to a dance specialist.”
What is the best age to start pointe?
“There isn’t an exact age; readiness is individual to the dancer. Generally, though, the most common age is between 11 and 13. Before age 11 or 12, children are less likely to be neurologically, structurally and mechanically capable of the concentration, proprioception (awareness of the body in space) and strength needed for pointework. Emotional maturity is also important, because they need a solid sense of responsibility to care for their bodies and use pointe shoes correctly. After age 14 or so, it can be more difficult to get started, because the feet may not have made the necessary adaptations that occur during ballet training, from constant stretching and strengthening. Many dancers do begin successfully in their teens, though, and even adults can begin pointe with proper training.”
Are pain and damage to the feet inevitable with pointe work?
“Dancers do have to get used to some discomfort from the snugness of pointe shoes and the pressure of carrying the body’s weight on the toes. They should not, however, have to suffer significant pain or have their feet deformed. Excellent fitting is essential for keeping the feet healthy. Properly fitted shoes keep feet supported to avoid sinking or knuckling (crumpling at the toe joints) into the toe box, and should minimize abrasion and blistering (from the shoe rubbing against the foot). Don’t over-pad the toes because thick pads can interfere with the fit and with the dancer’s control. I like lamb’s wool better than most pads, because it is soft and gentle, it can be molded to fit the contours, nooks and crannies of the toes and to make up for differences in toes’ lengths, and it leads to less troublesome wetness than synthetic materials. Dancers should keep their shoes dry and avoid squashing, and they must replace worn-out shoes promptly. In old or misshapen shoes, dancers are more likely to sink, knuckle, sickle (roll inward at the ankle on pointe) or wing (roll outward).”
What should we watch out for during pointe training?
“If your daughter is complaining of pain in her foot or leg, or has bad blisters, damage to the toenails or redness, swelling or bruising on her feet, she may be having trouble with her shoes or technique. You should be concerned if she becomes unwilling to go to class; pointework is challenging, but it should be fun if the class is progressing at the right pace with proper technique, in a supportive environment. If you observe class, watch for sickling, winging, forced turnout and over-pronation (rolling toward the big toe on flat), all of which can lead to injury. On pointe, her body should form a straight, vertical line.”
How should my daughter take care of her body?
“Young dancers might not understand what an important investment it is to take care of themselves, but I know dancers in their 30s and 40s whose bodies are in wonderful shape because they care for them every day. Encourage your daughter to get plenty of sleep, eat a healthy and nutritious diet and stay hydrated. She should warm up before class and stretch after class. She should avoid forcing her turnout (pushing her toes outward so that they are no longer in line with her knees); this can lead to serious knee and hip problems as well as bunions and other foot and ankle injuries from over-pronation. Finally, encourage her to do special exercises for the feet and ankles, to augment the work she does in class.”