The day that your class of young dancers learns they're going on pointe can be just as exciting for you as it is for them. It's gratifying to be able to announce that their—and your—hard work has led them to this milestone moment. But what if there's one student who's not as ready as her peers? The one who's not yet strong enough physically or technically, or whose foot structure may make pointework extra-challenging or dangerous? Having to deliver disappointing news is never easy, but there are ways to make the conversation positive and motivating.
Set the Stage
Lay out clear guidelines well in advance about what dancers need to achieve in order to get their pointe shoes. Students who know the technical and strength requirements needed for pointework will understand for themselves why they may not be ready. Pam Levy, director of Steps Youth Programs in New York City, says she and her faculty emphasize pointe readiness for at least a year prior to the level in which students receive their shoes, making sure they see what they're working towards, and why. "If a student appears to be falling behind during the preparation part of the process, we can take them aside and let them know what they need to work on and what their goals should be," Levy says. "That way, they have some control over the situation and can make sure they're ready at the right time."
Pointe students at The Washington School of Ballet
Kelsey Arrington-Ashford, Courtesy TWB
The Washington School of Ballet in DC also follows a very specific process before students start pointe in Level 3. With pointework in mind, the dancers' progress is tracked leading up to that year. Specific benchmarks (such as strong core engagement and the ability to maintain turnout and straight legs in relevé) are indicated to families in written evaluations and meetings.
"Occasionally, a student who needs more time to build those key elements will repeat Level 2 to ensure the prerequisite strength and technique," says Monica Stephenson, head of TWSB's Southeast Campus. "We do our best to work preemptively, versus a student reaching Level 3 and not being able to go on pointe with their class."
Those preparatory measures include referring those dancers who may have a flexibility or strength concern to a physical therapist for extra help, and an annual pointe readiness seminar for parents and students. "That way, families have a basis of understanding when the faculty does meet with them on any area of concern," Stephenson explains.
Steps Youth Programs instructor Gretchen Gunther teachers a beginning pointe class.
Alexandra Fung, Courtesy Steps on Broadway
When a student clearly is not ready to go on pointe, it's best to alert the parents first. Jody Schissler, director of Skye Ballet Center in Herndon, Virginia, says that it is important that all involved understand the decision and its reasons. Schissler strives to reassure parents that the decision to keep their child off pointe is not made frivolously and centers on safety.
"I emphasize that I have the student's best interest in mind, that we want to avoid long-term injuries, and that our intention is for them to ultimately have a positive experience, not a frightening one," says Schissler. "I also convey that I speak often with my own mentors for guidance and follow the medical understanding about what's safe or not safe."
Levy agrees that positive communication is critical. "Parents generally understand, when you reach out to them, that you do truly care about the safety of their dancer. And if you're genuine about that, they'll be pretty responsive. It's when they're not given full information and are just told their child can't do something that you'll get more pushback."
Still, a student can feel demoralized to learn they're not up to speed with their classmates. Make sure they know your decision is not a value judgment and that you will continue to work with and support them. "I tell them my own personal story: I was that kid," says Schissler. "I was the last one in my class to go on pointe. And what's funny is that I was the only one who went on to have a dance career! So I share that everyone has their own path and everyone gets their time eventually."
Jody Schissler (center) poses with her pointe students at Skye Ballet Center.
Jan Hanus, Courtesy Skye Ballet Center
The Gray Area
Is it ever worth putting a child on pointe whose feet may not be anatomically suited for pointework? In some cases, yes—as long as they are physically ready in other ways. Again, consistent and clear communication is imperative so that they understand that their foot structure may make pointework more challenging. Levy and Schissler both have had students whose foot and ankle structure made getting fully over the shoe box difficult, but say they were able to provide a safe experience through careful, individual attention and modified exercises. "If there's a real danger to their body, I won't allow it. But if I know starting pointe would mean a lot to them and they just won't progress as fast as their cohort, I will," says Levy.
Schissler remembers a student for whom she knew pointework would be especially challenging and painful. She explained to the child's mother how difficult it would be due to the shape of her daughter's feet. "We agreed that we'd put her on pointe, but were going to be very cautious and that she may never come off the barre. I think she only ever did plié in parallel and push over." The dancer eventually quit ballet, but Schissler says it was a happy departure. "Just to have had that moment, in pointe shoes, was really special," she says. "Kids just want honesty, communication, and to be reassured they're doing well."