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Fit feet.

Keeping feet fit for dance is not always easy. Feet change shape with age, congenital inheritance, or injury or as a result of dangerous choreography. The fit of pointe shoes, especially, can cause problems if the shoe is too big or too small, as feet change.

Contrary to general belief, Marie Taglioni (1804-1884) was the most popular, but not the first, to dance on pointe. In 1778, Cecilia Castellini, in Milan, performing a ballet by Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1809) received the first known written review and compliments on her "flexible points." Earlier reports credit two German sisters as the first to dance on pointe. Considering the soft shoes worn at the time, with only darning to provide some stiffening, these ballerinas must have had fit feet -- strong and flexible. Pavlova's feet were so flexible and her arch so high that she had to wear a metal support in her right shoe.


Although Cinderella's glass slipper was undoubtedly too big to stay on her foot during her fast exit, it was uniquely hers and won her a kingdom. A pointe shoe, however, that is too long, too wide, or hangs off the heel is dangerous should it move when a dancer is on or off pointe. (No matter what your mother says about buying shoes a little wider for comfort or to have space for growth, save that advice for street shoes. See Personal You, June 1995, "If the Shoe Fits ..."). You can safely wiggle your toes a bit in ballet shoes, but not in pointe shoes. If the toes look bumpy on the top or side of the vamp, the shoes are too tight. No more than 1/4 inch should be allowed in shoes for the feet of a young dancer during a growth spurt.

Manufacturers can be accommodating. If a dancer, ready for pointe work and over twelve years old, requires a very large or small size, it can be custom made for her. Shoes for large feet like those created for Ekatherina Sobechanskaya (Larry Ree, star of The Trockadero Gloxinia Ballet Company in the 1970s), were size 8-1/2.

Male Russian Cossacks dance on their square-toed boots, and some teachers still encourage males to do pointe work at the barre to build strength, provided there is no buckling of the toes at the metatarsals -- the short lateral bones at the head of the toes. Dancers who curl the toes inward and push into the floor thinking that they are improving their arch are doing damage to the foot and toes, which should be kept straight and pointing downward. Anatole Vilzak, who taught many generations of dancers, is remembered for doing echappes in soft ballet shoes facing the barre at the same time as his pupils. (Don't try this unless you are an adult, trained dancer with strong feet. If you are an adult beginner or former dancer who wants to go on pointe, the same rules apply -- at least three classes a week must be taken and pointe work assumed at your own pace and risk).


Feet too young for pointe shoes are another matter. Pointe work should not be attempted by a young dancer until the feet and legs are strong on demi-pointe in soft ballet shoes. That usually requires three or four years of technique classes, or daily classes for at least two years. If the teacher, not the parent, recommends pointe work, it will be incorporated at the end of technique class, beginning at the barre with eleve and releve movements with correct abaisse execution and eventually with combinations using releves sur les pointes in fifth position, echappes, bourrees, and passe pique movements.

On pointe, when the feet are properly placed in a straight line from pointe-to-ankle-to-knee-to-hip and the body is lifted off the toes using the leg muscles, the student is strong enough not to injure the foot, ankle, back, or knee. A test for readiness for pointe work is that the student is able to hold a passe on demi-pointe for about forty-five seconds facing the barre, without a wobble, supporting knee straight, hips square, and light hands on the barre. Then a properly fitted shoe with a supporting shank (it's not a hard vamp that characterizes a pointe shoe) may be recommended by the teacher. Under no circumstances should the student begin to wear a pointe or pointe-like shoe before this strength is achieved.


"Never, never," says Louis Galli, D.P.M., "permit a child to wear a pointe shoe, or even one that resembles a pointe shoe, until the bones of the foot are sufficiently ossified (hardened) and the supporting muscles of the leg, thigh, hip, and trunk are strong. Bones ossify at different times gradually, from the center outwards. The epiphyses are layers of cartilage -- solid, resilient tissue, present in a bone that has not completed its growth. In the long bones of the leg, forefoot, and toes that bear the weight for pointe work, the shaft ossifies first and the epiphyses remain connected to the shaft only by cartilage until the early teens. Ossification may not begin until the age of fourteen in some cases. Muscles must compensate for this fact to protect the pressure of body weight on the still-growing feet and toes from malformation and permanent injury. You can only go on pointe when you're ready to go on pointe."

Regardless of the age at which a student begins to take dance lessons -- and eight years is the age at which ossification permits safe beginning study -- the child should not be put on pointe before the age of ten, provided that the muscular strength has been established. Statistically, eleven or twelve years of age is the usual time selected for pointe work if alignment and strength requirements have been met and the student is not overweight.

"During growth spurts." says Galli, "when weight distribution, the center of gravity, and the proportions of the body change, muscle development may not necessarily be keeping up with the bone growth. The student should limit pointe work during those spurts, depending upon the student's age, muscular strength, and development. She may continue to go to class using soft shoes and begin additional exercises to stretch and strengthen the thigh and calf muscles."

In the European academies, the system selects eight- or ten-year-olds with the most suitable bodies for dance, and the study is state supported. During the years eight to twelve, children are at the developmental stage at which they are most ready to accept corrections and are anxious to please the teacher. For that reason, good early training is crucial to the correct alignment of the body and the development of a muscular structure that is strong and properly placed. Prepointe training includes checking the students' bare-leg muscles and feet to be sure they are not clenching or gripping the toes. Socks, not tights, are worn in the early classes, and shoes are held on the feet with elastics, not ribbons, for easy removal when the teacher corrects the student's demi-pointe position.


"Reasonable parents." says psychiatrist Judith R.F. Kupersmith, M.D., "will accept reasonable explanations concerning a young dancer's physical readiness, or lack of it, for pointe work." This presumes that the teacher is sufficiently experienced to be able to provide a reasonable explanation to a parent who measures progress by the age at which a student wears pointe shoes; who compares her child to others of the same age; or who disregards a teacher's warnings of possible injury and takes her budding ballerina elsewhere to study where the standards are lower and the economic considerations higher. A teacher would be wise, in today's litigious society, to protect herself and her studio with a warning of possible injury.

"There was a time in China, as late as 1936," continues Kupersmith, "when the practice of binding girls' feet to prevent their natural growth was common among the middle and upper classes. Foot binding caused deformities, and a woman's feet became useless. It served a social function, however, by indicating that their men were prosperous enough to support a doll-like woman with undeveloped feet. The bound-foot mentality also had a sexual component -- small feet and small steps were considered very feminine, just as stiletto heels are considered sexy in the fashion market. "All this translates today in a different way -- wanting a child to perform in a manner older than her age, which gives a mixed message to child and audience. Routines, costumes, and even shoes that are not age-appropriate shorten the childhood period by giving the young student no sense of reward for growth and can be emotionally damaging.

"Parents often feel that they can get a head start for their child by beginning the study of dance at an age too young for their physical capacity where they don't yet have the mental ability to concentrate or understand correct execution of movements. Such parents often evaluate progress by the number of advanced steps performed instead of evaluating the mastery of basic principles and proper execution. Every parent wants a youngster to be her best, but that all takes its natural time. You can't rush Mother Nature."

Louis Galli, D.P.M., is attending podiatrist at Mt. Sinai Hospital and is in private practice in New York City. He has been a consultant to dancers in ballet companies and on Broadway for more than twenty years.

Judith R. F. Kupersmith, M.D.,. a former member of New York City Ballet, founded the first psychiatric clinic for performing artists at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, and has taught psychiatry at several universities.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:ballet dancers and pointe work
Author:Horosko, Marian
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 1997
Previous Article:Broadway's siren call.
Next Article:Modern Rhapsody.

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