(POINTE TRILOGY 1/3) Sooner, Later, or Never - When to go on Pointe? Evidence and Adult Ballet Reality.

The first love is the deepest: My first pair, about 2 months after starting pointe.

The first love is the deepest: My first pair, about 2 months after starting pointe.

Going on pointe is probably one of the ultimate dreams of a ballerina life! Especially for those of us starting ballet as adults, it might feel like the pinnacle of our work. Plus: The flood of gorgeous pointe shoe pictures in the Instagram adult ballet community. Together with captions that suggest anyone can go on pointe after a year or so, they may give the impression that you, too, can and should as soon as possible. Or that you’re missing out, or way behind, or learning too slow if you’re not up there on three.

So naturally, hard questions come up: When is the time to give it a go? And is pointe work really for everyone? And how do you determine if you’re ready? After all, going on pointe increases the forces placed on a foot by up to 12 times the body weight, and the coordination required is so much higher than regular ballet.

While these questions are tricky to answer already, the typical scenario of an adult ballerina doesn’t make it easier. Often, you might be in a drop-in class setting, possibly with different teachers. There are no supportive resources like PTs, nor detailed assessments of our foot and core strength etc. Some studios might simply want to fill their pointe classes, and let anyone take it. So in the end, most of us need to make the call ourselves, after careful weighing and an honest consideration of your current abilities. In the best case, this would happen together with the advice of a teacher who has seen you in class for a while.

First things first: WHY go on pointe?

So let’s take a step back.

The decision whether you’re ready to go on pointe should be made with three things in mind:

1) Avoiding injuries: Is your technique, motor control/neural coordination, posture/alignment, physical resilience, and strength at a point that you will be free of pain and not harm your body when on pointe?

2) Timing/Class availability: Do you have enough skill and is there a pointe class at a level that will enable you to progress nicely and have a good learning experience? It doesn’t mean it will always go up and smooth, but going on pointe should not become an exercise in clenching your teeth, worrying, and feeling like crap over long periods of time.

3) Necessity! Let’s, in all dreaming, not forget that dancing on pointe puts a huge athletic demand on the body. It’s the realm of professional dance. It makes sense to do it if you want to perform on stage and/or if you want to seriously explore new movement skills. But, in either case, you need to be ready to commit a significant amount of time to cross-train and take extra care of your body.

My own going-on-pointe experience.

I never had the intention of going on pointe. I mean, I never really had the intention of doing ballet, I kind of ended up there after stints in hiphop and pole dance. So I was just happy to do ballet. It actually never occurred to me that people who started doing ballet as adults could go on pointe. I thought this was more something only for professional dancers, and for ambitious recreational adult dancers who had done ballet since or while they were a child.

But then, towards the end of my second year or doing ballet, suddenly, out of nowhere, I started getting courious about pointe work. It was like I felt it in my whole body, that it was ready to play with something new! At the same time, by pure coincidence, one of my teachers said she would start teaching a beginner pointe class two months later. I asked her if she thought I was fit to join, and she gladly confirmed. It was a match!

So - what contributed to the feeling of readiness? Looking back, here is what I think:

  • A lot of classes! Here is a quick break-down of how I ramped up my training frequency over the first two years:

    YEAR 1: I went from taking class once in two weeks over the first few months, to three times per week over the following months, to five times per week towards the end of that first year

    YEAR 2: Consistently five classes per week throughout

  • NOT being obsessed with wanting to go on pointe. I wasn’t in a rush, there was no pressure to do it, neither from the studio environment, nor from myself.

  • The availability of an absolute beginner pointe class that was suited to my skill level, and a teacher that had seen me in a regular class for a few months.

  • My general movement-oriented lifestyle; I was consistently doing additional strength work, floor barre, and my whole life has always been quite athletic

  • Generally a good overall alignment of my body; I had been getting body work (Rolfing and Visceral Osteopathy) regularly for years.

  • A healthy body weight and lean physique that was a good fit for my body and for ballet.

  • Enough plantarflexion (=pointing/arch) to get over the box in second position

So all that said, looking back, do I still think that it was a good timing? I am not sure. I do notice that I carried certain technical issues from demi-pointe to pointe work - like how I step on a straight leg, carriage of the arms and upper back activity. So it probably wouldn’t have hurt to wait a bit longer with pointe and invest more time into fixing these technical issues on demi-pointe first. But, I wasn’t really aware of it, and that’s the thing when you do ballet as an adult with different teachers, no one is responsible for calling you out and take you through a structured curriculum. So I think while it may not have been ideal, now it is what it is, and I now have regular classes AND point work to fix the bad habits ;-)

That brings us to: What do the experts say about when, and if at all, someone should go on pointe?

What the experts say.

The International Association of Dance Medicine & Science (IADMS) is kind of the recommending body of the dance world, and has issued guidelines for when to start pointe training. But even here, there are no quantative recommendations. The guidelines were written with pre-teens in mind, so if we take out the growth aspects, the IADMS recommendations can roughly be summarized as follows:

  • You can start pointe work after four years of regular ballet work IF at least two ballet classes per week in a pre-professional environment

  • Pointe work should be discouraged if classes are only once per week, and if the dancer is not in a true pre-professional environment

  • Pointe work should NOT be started if there is not enough plantarflexion (pointing) to stand on pointe, if lower leg alignment is off, and if legs and trunk are weak (in which case the beginning of pointe work should be delayed)

Other than that, from my research, it seems that every school/teacher/clinic develops their own assessments. For example, the Washington University Orthopedics has a set of criteria that includes specific movements that a pre-pointe student need to master before going on pointe: Pushing up from flat to demi-pointe on a straight leg with the other leg in a passé; doing 16 relevés in center without stopping; holding a passé balance. Some postural criteria are also mentioned, like being able to dance with a straight torso (no pelvic tilt), being able to point the foot in all steps at barre/center, holding turnout from flat to demi-point, correct demi-plié. Normal body weight is also required, just as general health. Some teachers have developed actual combinations to check whether their students are ready.

There is interesting research done by the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, published in a paper called “Functional criteria for assessing pointe-readiness“. Basically, the researchers investigated if certain functional tests were correlated with teachers’ assessment of students’ pointe readiness. The three tests that showed such correlation were:

  1. Airplane test (single-leg plié with free leg in arabesque and trunk in line)

  2. Topple test (essentially a clean single pirouette en dehors from 4th to 4th position)

  3. Sauté test (performing 16 jumps with proper alignment and properly pointed foot)

However, it must be kept in mind that the study did not have any predictive value towards later performance or injury rate - it basically just said that performance in these three movements were consistent with teachers’ evaluation.

So - how do you decide?

So let’s get back to you: How do you know whether it’s the right time, and you’re a good candidate for starting pointe work?

I do think that with some common sense and a bit of biomechanical considerations, and taking some ideas from the above expert criteria and assessments, you can make an informed and intelligent decision. Even without PTs, clinics and formal assessments.

Which also implies: I think that listening to your body is important. I also think that teachers who see you in class regularly and take an interest in your progress can help you make a good call.

For example: If you are overweight, if you are taking class once to twice a week and have an otherwise sedentary lifestyle (i.e. mainly sitting or standing full-time work), if you have whole-body alignment issues, if you don’t have at least 90° plantar flexion (ankle range in pointing), if you’re struggling with doing barre exercises on demi-pointe - maybe it would make more sense to wait a bit longer and do more strengthening, ROM (=range of motion) work and get body work to clear up any issues. Some conditions might be even call for not going on pointe at all - like severe scoliosis, large leg length differences, a very small ankle ROM in pointing i.e. anything that would structurally prevent you from being properly aligned on pointe. [Here is an interesting fact: According to a one study, professional ballerinas have, on average, 113° of ankle plantarflexion - whereas the average in the general population is 48°!! This is just to say that pointe work requires more extreme physical qualities compared to what we experience in regular ballet, or any kind of other athletic activity.]

If, on the other hand, you’ve been taking class several times per week consistently for a few years, if you feel secure in single-leg demi-pointe patterns like balances, relevés, and turns, you’re generally athletic and strong, if you’re willing and have the time to put in some extra bodycare work, AND your teacher(s) give(s) it a go, it’s likely that you will have a good experience. And then, once you’re on pointe, keep monitoring: How do you feel about it? Are you progressing well? Are you pain-free? Are you getting on pointe properly, over the box, do your ankles feel secure? Are you able to absorb corrections quickly? Is the class taking you through a proper basic progression?

I think the key is not to rush it, and to become aware of any pressures and influences, from both outside and inside, that may impact your decision.

But while the Instagram pointe pictures might be seductive, I am also happy to see a lot of awareness and careful consideration around this topic. When I asked some fellow ballerinas on Instagram, many reported that they waited despite having green light from their teachers/studios. Some said they wished they would have waited a bit longer, which also shows careful reflection of their learning. Let’s not forget that there are even professional ballerinas who started pointe several years later than their peers.

Can you live a happy life without pointe work?

Personally, I don’t think that pointe work is necessary to have a great ballet experience. There is so much beauty in dancing on demi-pointe, and sometimes the huge time and energy invested in proper pointe work might be way better invested, with much more beautiful outcomes, in regular demi-pointe work for a longer time. Or, in some cases, maybe forever. I remember a conversation I had with a fellow adult student: She had always dreamed of going on pointe, finally did it, but a few months in decided that it wasn’t worth it. The amount of time and work she would have to invest in order to get really good would be excessive. Her feet just didn’t have the range, and she decided her time was much better spent in soft shoes and regular classes. I was honestly impressed by this maturity and still applaud her for the tough call she made. She is still dancing very happily!

Sometimes, learning ballet may also mean to re-assess your biggest dream and to give yourself a bit more time and care before realizing it. Yes, anything is possible, and yes, you can totally go for your dreams. But this can mean doing things differently than others, and at a different pace. Some can get on pointe safely in a short amount of time. Others may need longer. And some may choose to not do it at all, and still become amazing and technically skilled dancers. I am excited for you in any case, because dreams come in all shapes and shoes!

*****

In addition to the resources in the links, here are two other good overviews:

A summary of some of the studies mentioned, and additional references: “When to go on Pointe“ by V. Lin, MD

A playlist of videos that show examples of the three functional assessements (Airplane, Topple, and Sauté tests): Pointe Readiness Protocol Tests

Are you on pointe? How did you decide? Or are you considering? What has been your experiences with the transition to pointe? Did you feel supported and properly instructed? Did you get help with how to choose, prepare, and break in your first pair of pointe shoes?