Adults on Pointe: How to Start and Progress Like a Child

Work hard, but play even harder: How to overcome pointe fear. (Hint: Always follow the emergency exit signs :-D)

Work hard, but play even harder: How to overcome pointe fear. (Hint: Always follow the emergency exit signs :-D)

Taking pointe classes is one thing - but what can you do so your first one is off for a good start? And how do you progress systematically, and transition from barre to center with confidence?

We have covered how pointe work is like a competitive sports, far outside of human movement patterns - it requires a high skill level, a body that is well prepared, and regular extra care. Now, that you have green light and/or decided to go for it - what can you do to prepare for your first class? And if you have been at it for a while, how can you boost your progress? How can you model the steady development on pointe that is typical for teenage girls?

Spoiler alert: It’s NOT just about strength, so this article won’t just feed you with feet strengthening exercises. Simply because: Especially for adults learning pointe, there are other very important factors for for successful pointe progress. Actually, two more. Ha. Now you’re wondering what they are. Ok. So I’ll give you all three now, and then in the following, we will expand, discuss, and look at exercises/habits/best practices for each one. So here they are, in a nutshell, the three components of pointe progress boosting when you start as an adult:

  1. Adapting feet to pointe shoes

  2. Foot strength, mobility, and coordination

  3. Overcoming the fear of dancing on pointe, especially off the barre

Let’s dive in!

1) Letting Your Feet Adapt to Pointe Shoes

Pointe shoes are amazing for what they are supposed to do. At the same time, to be able to do that - support your body weight on the tips of your toes - they need to be quite a challenge for your feet. Remember that maybe for the first time in your life, you are wearing hard-shell shoes that have no right and left. In essence, even with pointe shoes that are a perfect fit for you, you run around in foot-squeezing, anatomy-disregarding, and articulation-inhibiting boxes. While you still need to do all the things that you are doing in soft shoes! And, in the case of adults, the feet are fully grown and bones fully formed. So there is not much give and take!

But, as with everything, the body is adaptable and resilient. And if you go smart about it, you can build a great foot-pointe shoe relationship. As with any great relationship, it’s good to not rush it, and to consciously keep working at it. So what can one do to support the process?

  • Get your shoes well in advance of your first pointe class and start walking in them at home. Not on pointe - wear them like house shoes. Start with a few minutes at a time, and gradually increase every day. This way you will build resilience at the pressure points between foot and shoe. Try a bit demi-pointe work. In theory, if you know what you are doing, you can also get up on pointe as well in order to start desensitizing your toes - but there is also a point to wait with that until you had your first classes.

  • Floore barre exercises in pointe shoes: This is a great way of working the foot in the shoe, i.e. pointing, demi-pointing, and dorsi-flexing without your bodyweight on the shoe. My fav one is a simple Theraband-pointing exercise in pointe shoes. Very humbling!

  • Once you have started classes and have progressed a bit, start doing barre in pointe shoes. You don’t have to do anything on pointe - the idea is just to work everything against the much higher resistance of the pointe shoe: tendues, pointing, even standing on flat will challenge your balance so much more. I just want to add that I wouldn’t recommend taking all of your classes/barres in pointe shoes - I agree with all the teachers who see a long-term benefit in doing barre in your regular soft shoes, to really work and feel full articulation of your foot. But if you are taking 3-5 classes per week, there is probably no harm in doing 1-2 barres in pointe shoes.

2) Strengthening, Mobilizing, and Differentiating Your Feet

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about pointe work is: that you need super strong feet. And that is true. But in reality, dancing on your toes requires a completely different coordination of your feet (actually of your whole body, but in this article, I want to keep the focus on the feet). For example, your toes, usually used as a bunch in everyday life and to some extent, also in your regular soft shoes, now have the job of pushing your whole body weight up, and that requires them to be much better innervated (=more nerve connections to the brain), and capable of new movement skills. I would even go as far to say, they need to be differentiated one by one. So preparing and supporting pointe work is not only about the total strength generated by your foot and toes, but also about increasing movement quality of the different components of the foot.

So what is a budding pointe ballerina to do?

  • Strength work: Since the vast majority of dancing on pointe is some sort of variation of being on pointe on two legs, coming on and down from pointe, and stepping on pointe - this needs to be reflected in any kind of strengthening work. This should include slow- and faster paced releves on two legs, later on one leg as well. Releves both from plie as well as straight legs, and from demi-pointe. The key is proper execution - so you need to work with a mirror, and have a teacher see and correct your work as often as possible. The key is frequency: In order to see progress, you need to be on pointe at least three times a week, and get enough repetitions. So if you are taking one pointe class per week, you could add your releves after that class, and, for instance, do half an hour of releve work after your regular classes at least another two times per week. If you can’t use a studio/barre/mirror, even holding on to a wall or counter works. If you don’t have a mirror, record yourself from the front and side to check for any sickeling and other issues.

  • Foot mobilizing work can be really simple: Start by rolling out the foot with a tennis ball, then passively stretch into pointe and demi-pointe/turn/bend/twist in all directions, separate and stretch your toes. Add the same kind of all-direction work actively, i.e. without your hands.

  • Differeniating/innervating work: The piano exercise is great for building neural connections and mapping your toes separately in your brain. I also like to do a few repeitions of toe abduction, as this a a movement skill and quality that is often under-developed (and can even lead to foot issues) - the article that I am linking below shows it done with a hair elastic, which is a great idea, or you can just wrap a Theraband around your big toe and abduct against it. I would also like to include Theraband-pointing exercises here, because they are more than strengthening exercises: You can really work on the quality of pointing, not only on the brute force (although that is the goal, too!): Can you push down the band with straight toes? (Btw - I am a proponent for curling your toes when pointing - but for the purpose of building your toes for pointe work, the focus would be on keeping them straight when pushing into the band.) Can you keep the toes next to each other (without overlapping) when pushing? Other exercises would include doming and the hand towel exercise. You can find many of them and more in this illustrated article, or just Google the key words.

3) Overcoming Fear

Maybe that is actually the biggest challenge for people learning pointe as adults: It’s scary to be up that high, on such a small base of support. Because you’re taller than the average child, and the taller you stand, the lower you can fall, right? Humor aside, I think it is one of the biggest factor that keeps adults from reaching child-like skill levels, even generally. It’s not that their brains are not capable of it, or that their bodies can’t take it - it’s simply fear of falling, and of embarassment!

Now here is the thing. There is this mentality of “just going for it”, i.e. pushing through the fear and just doing it. While it sounds very heroic and makes for great stories, it might not lead to the best possible learning outcome.

Because let’s remember what fear is: A very natural response of your brain to unknown and potentially risky situations. It’s a protective mechanism - in our case, protecting you from going nuts, breaking bones, and embarassing yourself in front of others. The perceived riskiness is not an inherent trait of the situation - it’s based on your brain’s evaluation of the situation.

Now, the problem with just pushing through this fear is that your body is in a stress response. Even if it’s a mild one - the body shuts down certain functions and armors up to deal with the threat of being and moving on pointe. This, in turn, means that you will tense up more than you should, and that the neurotransmitter cocktail in your brain is not very conducive for learning. While it might feel like an accomplishment, pushing through the fear mainly just got you through the fear!

So - how to deal with that? I think that you need to break down any scary move into digestable components. Which can mean:

  • Slow it down

  • Decrease the amplitude of the movement

  • Separate it into smaller pieces

This might not always, actually very rarely, be possible during your go-to pointe class, because the exercises will have a certain shape and pace. So I think it’s essential to work on your own. I would say it’s more play than work, you can do it quite unstructured. The brain loves play, that’s when it learns best! So let’s say you’re scared of doing piqué turn diagonals on pointe. The break down would be: 1. Simply stepping on pointe right in front of you. 2. Stepping into a piqué with other leg in coup de pied. 3. Stepping into a piqué with the other leg in retire. (Maybe add the ronde de jambe to second if you are learning the piqué as a step to the side) 4. Doing several of the previous along a diagonal. 5. Stepping into a piqué retiré and adding an 1/8 of a turn. And then, subsequently adding more of a turn until you get to a full one, and then doing several of these in a row. And you can start all of this at the barre, or in front of a wall, if you don’t feel comfortable in the center yet. You can do all of this very slow. And very small. And then increase the pace and range of motion. This is not about a specific number of repetitions - do whatever you need to be as comfortable as possible. Be happy about miniscule progress, applaud yourself mentally (or really if you want). Keep feeling, sensing what you need to feel good. The brain loves self-acceptance and self-support when learning!

So, in summary - you need extra time, outside of your regular classes, in order to progress smoothly and consistently on pointe. And don’t forget that improvement and confidence also comes from repetitions, experience, and time - so the longer you are at it, the more comfortable you will become on pointe. Sounds simple, but it’s easy to forget after a maybe frustrating class! Pointe work is high-end work, and just attempting to learn and get better is quite the achievement. Keep going and enjoying!

Where are you on your pointe work journey? Which of the three areas comes most easy to you, and which challenges you the most?