When is a Dancer Really Ready for Pointe Work?

"Dance isn't just about fancy footwork. It requires grace, discipline, and major muscles." 

       Ask almost any young ballerina to tell you about her goals and dreams, and she will talk to you about pointe shoes.  Young dancers dream of the shiny satin shoes and crisscrossed ribbons and repeatedly ask when they can buy their first pair.

            Dancers around the world are told that twelve is the magic age for being able to begin pointe work.  In a 2004 study of dance institutions, researchers found that 96% of the participating schools used age as a criterion for pointe readiness, and the majority of the schools used the 12 year of age rule. (1)

            Many believe the age of 12 has been chosen as the deciding factor because of a scientific or medically based reason, but this is not the case.  Twelve-year-old girls are still developing, and their bones are still growing.  The bones in the feet ossify, or harden, earlier than those in the leg, which may offer some reassurance, but at 12 years of age, they are also still growing. (3)  It is also important to remember that individuals develop at different rates, and although similarities between 12 year-old bodies exist, no two bodies are the same.  The age of 12 has been chosen because it assumes the dancer began structured ballet classes at the age of 8 and has been studying consistently for four years.  This age guideline also assumes that the student is at a level that requires four ballet classes a week and has developed the necessary strength and neuromuscular control required for pointe work.

            Since every school is different, and there are few other universally accepted guidelines for beginning pointe work, it seems to be an area in which dance and exercise science experts can and should work together to promote dancer health.  No studies have been done to determine if beginning pointe training too early is connected to injuries; however,  when one considers the fact that dancing en pointe places a force equivalent to twelve times the dancer's body weight on her feet, it seems logical to assume that a dancer whose body is not ready or trained to handle that force will be injured.  Additionally, students who are not ready may struggle and develop bad habits, grow frustrated, lose self-confidence and/or quit dancing.

            A survey of dance schools and criteria used for assessing pointe readiness found that 73% of institutions with no company affiliations made decisions about pointe readiness without the assistance of a health or exercise professional while almost 50% of schools with a company affiliation consulted a health professional. (1)

            In 2010, health professionals from The Harkness Center for Dance Injuries developed criteria that could be used to assess point readiness.   These criteria assess balance, proprioception, leg and ankle strength and control, core strength and control and neuromuscular control.  The authors recommended that these criteria be used in conjunction with other information gathered on age, years of training, level of training and injuries and the dance educator’s observations to determine pointe readiness. (2)

            Hiring an exercise science professional to conduct pre-pointe evaluations in dance institutions is a way to make the procedure objective, identify areas of weakness or imbalances, begin to develop universally accepted guidelines for pointe readiness and contribute to the health of dancers and the longevity of their careers.

            For information on having pre-pointe assessments conducted at your school or studio, please contact me at thehealthydancer@gmail.com.

(1) Helldobler, R., Hess, R., Meck, C. & Roh, J. (2004). Pre-pointe evaluation components used by dance schools. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, 8(2), 37-42.
(2)Richardson, M., Liederbach, M. & Sandow, E. (2010). Functional criteria for assessing pointe-readiness. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, 14(3), 82-8.
(3)Weiss, D., Rist, R.A. & Grossman, G. (2009). When can I start pointe work?  Guidelines for initiating pointe training. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, 13(3), 90-2.