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Anatomy of pointe work

As dance teachers and dancers of all ages, the main question we always want to know the answer to is, ‘When can I start pointe work?’


There are multiple factors that come into play when deciding whether a student is ready for pointe work. It is important to remember that each student develops at their own rate, this is the same within dance and their abilities. As teachers, we see one student who is physically and maturely ready before their peers. It is important to ensure students are not rushed onto pointe because their peer is ready and that time is taken to ensure the correct technique is in place before progressing preventing long-term damage to their young bodies.


There is a great deal of preparation needed before students progress onto pointe to ensure this is done in a safe manner to prevent any long-term damage to their young and developing bodies.


Early Ballet Shoes


In the early 18th Century ballet shoes were a court-style shoe, which has now progressed into what we know today as a ballet shoe.




Lancret’s portrait of the dancer Camargo c1732




60: Marie-Anne Cupis de Camargo, by Nicolas Lancret. Wallace Collection, London.


During the 1730s Marie Camargo was the first dancer to remove the heel from her court-style shoe, transforming it into a flat ballet shoe. The shoe was still much stiffer than what we know as a traditional ballet slipper today, this was the first step towards creating the traditional ballet slipper that we now have in the 21st Century. In removing the heel from her shoes Marie Camargo enabled herself to be able to perform quick footwork and allegro with speed and agility enabling her to perform more complex combinations of steps. This became what Marie Camargo was known for as a dancer (Samantha Bellerose, 2022).



Marie Carmago (1710-1770) Dancing in flat ballet slippers


Pointe work was first introduced to audiences in the 1800s by Italian Dancer Amelia Brugnoll, by rising to the tips of her toes in the ballet “La Fee et le Chevalier” (The Fairy and the Knight) by Armand Vestris. (The classical girl. 2014).




Later Marie Taglioni inspired by the work of Amelia Brugnoll had done before her continued and took dance classes however it is said that during Marie Taglioni’s early dance training, her dance teacher said “will that hunchback ever learn to dance”. At the time completely unaware that later on Marie would become one of the world's most famous dancers. (Robert Bettmann. 2010).


After being labelled as untalented by her dance teacher in Paris. Marie's father Filippo Taglioni became her dance teacher in 1832 turning her into one of the most talented dancers of her time. Filippo Taglioni created the ballet “La Sylphide” especially for his daughter to show off her talents and what she was capable of as a dancer. Before Marie Taglioni danced on Pointe in “La Sylphide” dancers had only ever gone en pointe to pose but never to attempt to dance, through this Filippo was able to broaden dance vocabulary by using pointe work to express the character of Sylphide. (Robert Bettmann. 2010). Thus the creation of the first pair of pointe shoes for Marie Taglioni to be able to perform and dance en pointe.



What age should students be introduced to pointe work?


Students should be at least 12 years of age before commencing pointe work with at least 6-18 months of pre-pointe training beforehand.


Pre-Pointe training is essential to ensure students can safely progress onto pointe. Ensuring there is enough strength within the abdominals to support themselves as well as ensuring the feet, calves, quadriceps and hamstrings are sufficiently strong.


Students need to be incredibly focused to ensure they are thinking through the movement they need to perform correctly. Students' technique should be secure on demi-pointe before progressing onto pointe.


Another factor which affects when a student is ready for pointe work is hormonal changes and the effect that this has on the student’s bones. During the onset of puberty, the diameter of the bones is increased rapidly and slows down during the later stages of puberty increasing bone strength. (Leiting Xu, Patrick Nicholson, Qungju Wang, Markku Alen, Sulin Cheng. 2009). By the end of puberty bone mass has roughly doubled throughout the skeleton, as well as puberty ‘calcium intake’ is another factor which plays a role in bone formation, puberty is when a child reaches their full bone mass. (Giuseppe Sagge, Giampiero igloo Baroncelli, Silvano Bertelloni. 2022).


Ultimately the deciding factor of when a student is ready to start pointe work is their bone strength and muscularity.


Fit of pointe shoes


When fitting pointe shoes whether for a professional dancer or a beginner student, it is important to prioritise the fit of the shoe rather than the brand. Students more often than not want the most popular brand or that of their friend however this is not always in their best interest. What suits one person's foot will be completely different to what suits someone else this is down to the shape of the box, shank strength, vamp length and style. Students wearing the correct style of pointe shoes which fit their foot in an anatomically correct manner see greater improvement in their technique and become more confident in their own abilities preventing students from pulling back in their shoes to overcompensate for the shoes being too soft or placing extra strain on the ligaments at the front of the ankle from trying to push over as the shoe is to hard for them.




A study carried out by ‘Stephen J Pearson’ of ‘Footwear in Classical Ballet' talks about the relationship between the way dance shoes fit and the amount of pressure placed upon the bone structure of the foot. He advises that “where pointe shoes are to be, it may be advisable to first utilize demi-pointe shoes” This helps students to build the correct strength within their feet and understand the feeling of the shoe before working on pointe. (Stephen J Pearson, 2012). A demi-pointe shoe is stiffer than a standard ballet shoe aiding in strengthening the muscles within the feet to prepare them correctly in preparation for pointe work. “Dancers who wore demi-pointe shoes before starting pointe were found to be less likely to sustain a ballet-related injury or a lower leg, ankle or foot injury”(Stephen J Pearson 2012).


The anatomical structure of the feet.


When looking at the anatomical structure of the feet it is first important to understand exactly how many bones are in each foot. At En Pointe Theatre Arts our students are taught this right from the very beginning in our Tiny Ballet Classes at the early age of 3 years old. It is important to understand there are 28 bones in each foot and the role each one plays in dance this is especially important as students reach the standard required to commence pointe work.


The 28 bones of the feet are:

  • 2 Sesamoids (sesame seeds)

  • 5 Metartarsals

  • 7 Tarsal Bones

  • 14 Phalanges



(Sparccsm. 2017)


Sesamoid bones play a vital role for dancers whether working on flat, Demi-pointe or performing pointe work. The sesamoid bones are located at the base of the big toe and are often forgotten about. They play an important part in weight load and distribution. The sesamoid bones also work to help flex and extend the big toe as well as the surrounding toes making them vital for dancers. (American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons. 2023) Due to their size, it is easy for them to get injured due to improper care being taken over alignment and incorrectly fitting shoes. The sesamoid bones may also become inflamed through increased activity levels or an increase in difficulty of an activity without the proper preparation can cause ‘sesamoiditis’. (Marie Schlund & Alex Mckanna. 2021)


Why is correct articulation of the feet important in dance?


Right from the youngest of dancers at ages 2 and 3, we start to think about the way we use our feet. In this age group, we think about plantar flexion and dorsiflexion (pointing and flexing) whilst sitting on the floor maintaining correct postural alignment with the legs stretched out in front of us this in turn increases hamstring flexibility. The young dancer thinks about pointing and flexing their feet as the child gets slightly older we can talk to them about the idea of their feet pushing through water to add some resistance to the movement or even by placing a soft squishy object in front of their feet and asking them to pointe their foot into it. It is important to remember at this stage the point should come from the stretching of the arch and ankle and to avoid curling the toes placing excessive strain on the phalanges (toes).


As students reach the graded syllabus within the Royal Academy of Dance Ballet work students are slowly introduced to the same idea standing up with battement tendus devant, a la seconde and derriere. The same imagery of pushing through water may be used as with the younger students or we may also use the idea of pushing through sticky toffee or caramel on the floor to add extra resistance. Students need to understand correct articulation to help avoid injuries when landing from a jump as well as in preparation for commencing pre-pointe work and continuing onto pointe work later in their training. (Clippinger, K,2007)


Let’s take a look at some correctly and incorrectly fitted pointe shoes and assess the problems which may occur from incorrectly fitted shoes.


Incorrectly fitted shoes




Looking at this pair of pointe shoes the potential problems they may cause are:

  • Sesamoiditis is an inflammation of the sesamoid bones caused by the box being too narrow as well as the vamp pulling the dancer back off of the shoes

  • Bunions or hallux vagus caused by pointe shoes with a box that is too tight as seen in the images or an incorrect placement within the shoe often seen when pointe shoes are too wide and sinking occurs

  • The dancer is also being pulled back off of the box of her pointe shoes potentially caused by a shank that is too hard for her causing the shoes to break too low down rather than conforming to the dancer’s natural arch placing excessive pressure on her achilles tendon which in the long term is a potential cause of achillies tendonitis.


Now let’s take a look at some correctly fitted pointe shoes.

Correctly fitted pointe shoes







(Photos courtesy of Pointe Perfection Swindon)


Pointe shoes which have been fitted correctly will aid dancers’ ability to dance en pointe.

  • Ensuring correct alignment within the shoe

  • Shank in a straight line perpendicular to the floor

  • Light pressure holding the foot in the correct alignment within the box

  • The dancer can push completely over the box so their foot is not being pulled back by the shoes

  • Box wide enough for the dancer without sinking creating a feeling of weightlessness

The importance of correctly fitted pointe shoes


It is important as mentioned earlier dancers are fitted in a brand and style of shoe which suits their foot shape. There are over 200 different styles of pointe shoes on the market and not any one shoe will suit all dancers and their needs from a pointe shoe. A professional dancer is not going to need as much support from a shoe as a beginner just starting pointe. A student with a lower arch will not need as hard of a shank as a dancer with a higher arch all shoes are made on a different last and in different shapes, widths and sizes even the shape or length of your toes can change the style of shoe you may need. There are a variety of vamps available from high to low to avoid being held back on pointe or pushing over too far. This is why we believe at En Pointe Theatre Arts all students should have a professional fitting and get their shoes checked by their teacher before sewing any ribbons or elastics to ensure the shoes fit correctly and suit the dancer. Remember shoes may fit differently in class than when in a shop as your feet will be warm so may have shrunk or swelled depending on the individual. Everyone’s body is unique as such so are their feet.


Students pointe shoes will change as they get older due to an increase in foot strength and also the shape of the feet alter once pointe work has been performed due to an increase in muscles around the metatarsals and arch of the foot some students may find they need a stronger shank if their foot becomes more flexible whilst others may want a softer shank to allow for faster footwork whilst maintaining an excellent amount of articulation through the shoes.


(School of American Ballet)


Written by Danielle Emms. 13th September 2023. Thanks to the education received from the Philip Cutts School of Dance and Sports Medicine on En Pointe Safety and Performance.


Citations


Alastair, Macaulay. The Changing histories of three historic dancing woman of the early eighteenth century: Hester Santlow, Marie Salle, and Marie-Anne Cupis de Camargo. https://www.alastairmacaulay.com/all-essays/m6fpgn6xdhcwebsgtn79pptvixnf03/. March 2020



Bloch, ”Pointe Shoe Anatomy." http://www.bloch.com.au/content/32-pointe-shoe-anatomy/. Bloch Australia. Web. 25 July 2017


Clippinger, K. The Ankle and Food, Dance Anatomy and Kineiology. Human Kinetics. 2007

Edmund, Fairfax. Eighteenth Century Dance Shoes, https://eighteenthcenturyballet.com/2020/10/18/eighteenth-century-dance-shoes/. 18th October 2020.

Leiting Xu, Patrick Nicholson, Qinglu Wang, Markku Alen, Suling Chung. Bone and Muscle Development During Puberty in Girls: A 7 year Longitudinal Study. https://asbmr.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1359/jbmr.090405#:~:text=In%20comparison%20with%20muscle%2C%20bone,slows%20down%20in%20later%20puberty/ 27th April 2009


Marie Schlund and Alex Mckanna, The Function of the Sesamoid Bones. ITASCA foot and ankle. https://www.itascafootandankle.com/blog/item/147-the-function-of-the-sesamoid-bones.html/. 8th February 2021


Robert, Bettmann. Marie Taglioni: The Instant Ballerina. https://www.dance-enthusiast.com/features/barefootnotes/view/Marie-Taglioni-The-Instant-Ballerina-2010-03-23/. 23rd March 2010


Saggese G, Baroncelli GI, Bertelloni S. Puberty and bone development. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11987898/. 16th March 2022


Samantha, Bellerose, A Short & Interesting History on how the ballet shoe was invented. https://danceparent101.com/a-short-interesting-history-on-how-the-ballet-shoe-was-invented/. 2022.

School of American Ballet. Artistic Programs, https://sab.org/artistic-programs/


Stephen, J Pearson. Footwear in Classical Ballet: A Study of pressure, distribution and related foot injury in the adolescent dancer, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1089313X1201600201/. 1st June 2012


The classical girl, 10 Odd facts about pointe shoes, https://www.theclassicalgirl.com/10-odd-facts-pointe-shoes/. 17th November 2014


Sparccsm, “Sesamoiditis”. Sparcc. https://sparcctucson.com/2017/07/18/sesamoiditis/. 18th July 2017









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