“Do You Do Toe?…” – The Biggest Misconceptions About Pointe Work

“…For the love of the art, we find a way. We make it work, and develop a thick skin…By no means should worst-case scenarios deter young dancers…from taking the next step in their growth as artists.”

This year I have the pleasure of preparing four of my dance students for pointe work. Every Monday, we gather for 45 minutes to practice the “bread and butter” of pre-pointe – Theraband exercises. Now that we are nearing the halfway point(e) of our dance year, tensions and questions have mounted regarding pointe and its intricacies. So, let me take this opportunity to clarify some of the classic tall tales of pointe work.

Da boots.
Da boots.

If I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me “do you do toe?”, I would be a wealthier chick for sure. No disrespect at all, but I would like to clarify for any non-ballet readers, that “doing toe” is not a phrase that is ever used in the dance world. I do understand the confusion, since the toes are most definitely involved in the process, but when discussing the matter with dancers stick to the word pointe. While on topic, please also note the ‘e’ at the end of the word.

Aside from the name confusion though, the art of dancing en pointe has gained a gory reputation in the general media. Nearly every classic ballet film portrays the turmoil of pointe work. Center Stage, for example – Jody Sawyer takes it upon herself to have a late night private studio session in the dark, furiously practicing bourrées back and forth across the studio (“Flutter Jody! Flutter!!”). Upon removing her shoes, she reveals her feet – bloody, with a blister on practically every digit. Then, of course, there’s the more current ballet horror film, Black Swan – Natalie Portman’s hopelessly innocent character, Nina, decides to practice fouettés in her bedroom (Of course. Who doesn’t do that?) before auditioning the following morning for the role of the black swan. A few turns in, a grotesque crack is heard, and she falls to the floor in a heap. Upon further examination, she realizes she has completely split her big toenail in half – lovely. Even in the current melodrama Flesh and Bone, courtesy of the Starz network, Sarah Hay’s character, Claire, reveals a similarly tragic broken toenail. She bites her tongue at the pain, lets a few small tears surface, and boldly packages her toe back up in her pointe shoe, proceeding through her major company audition.

“If I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me ‘do you do toe?’, I would be a wealthier chick for sure.”

Photo Courtesy of Keith Alan Sprouse
Toe defense. Photo Courtesy of Keith Alan Sprouse

I’ve had many a blister or toenail disaster of my own, but by no means is this kind of thing happening every time a pointe shoe is laced up. These challenges present themselves frequently, yes, but the tricks of the trade are abundant nowadays, and the injuries of pointe work don’t quite plague us as much as they used to. Even when they do, for the love of the art, we find a way. We make it work, and develop a thick skin (quite literally – calluses). By no means should worst-case scenarios deter young dancers (and their parents) from taking the next step in their growth as artists.

Although pointe work is a serious undertaking, it should not be avoided in fear of a bounty of foot issues. Yes, it is hard on the body, but the strength that is gained can be extremely valuable. A dancer who has done a significant amount of pointe work not only has strong feet, but also strength and awareness throughout the entire body. In the most advanced stages of the art form, the dancer should feel as though they don’t even have pointe shoes on, but, rather, that the shoes are a natural extension of the foot. With this unique form of movement and bodily awareness available, the resulting choreographic options are many. Not only does pointe create an additional challenge for the ballerina, but it also adds an effect of beauty that is unlike anything else that meets the eye.

The Point(e) Of It All

“It is…a literal balancing act, as we create glimmers of perfection poised on the edge of a pointe shoe box.”

The art of pointe work is a beautiful and merciless one. It is both a great honor and a great responsibility when pointe shoes are bestowed upon a dancer. However, there can be many misconceptions and questions. How? When? Why???!

My feet stealing the show...
My feet stealing the show…

It is sometimes thought that these shoes are the only footwear option for a ballet dancer, serving as permanent fixtures on the ends of the toes. Not true. We all have to start somewhere, but the pointe shoe is not the smartest place to begin. Although the epitome of classical ballet is pointe work, the art form is by no means diminished in the absence of these gorgeous shoes. They are meant to add strength, height, length, and further supernatural awe to movement. The beauty of ballet is increased tenfold in a pointe shoe. A relevé is not simply a relevé, but rather an elevated height achieved by shockingly balancing on one’s toes. A pirouette is no longer stifled by the friction of a technique shoe against Marley, but rather aided in number and quality by the small, delicate balance point of a pointe shoe tip. Every line is smoothed, lengthened, and further finessed. And balance becomes a whole other “ball game”. A somewhat simple feat when supported by the strength of five metatarsals working together, balancing en pointe is another story entirely when limited to a couple of toes and the strength of one’s ankle and calf. Refining one’s balance and limiting the wobbles of a pointe shoe, is a never-ending job (when you hit a good balance en pointe in the studio, take the opportunity to wave your arms and/or scream loudly for someone to look because it might not happen again for a while).

Stepping up to pointe...(pardon the floppy wrist) Ballet Theatre of Maryland 2012
Stepping up to pointe…
Ballet Theatre of Maryland 2012

The beauty and challenge these shoes add is obvious, but how do you get to that point(e) in your training? When are you ready? Some are handed a pair of pointe shoes when they hit a certain level or reach a certain age. But pointe candidates should be delegated with care. Although one who has mastered a reasonable portion of the ballet curriculum and language may think they’re well-prepared for pointe work, it is not to be taken lightly. Everyone’s timeline, in this case, is unique. There is no need to rush. Pointe work requires a high level of strength and discipline, and starting too early can harm the body, making it more prone to injury. Frustration is understandable, but it is better to begin fully prepared for this challenge.

 

“The beauty of ballet is increased tenfold in a pointe shoe.”

En pointe... Ballet Theatre of Maryland's Swan Lake 2014
En pointe…
Ballet Theatre of Maryland’s Swan Lake 2014

I remember what a joy it was once I began pointe. The challenge further ignited my passion for dance. All I wanted was to learn and practice everything I could. I would race to put my pointe shoes on for class and then suffer through blisters, so I was the last to take them off. After a while the novelty began to wear off though and certain exercises started to feel monotonous. I wanted to learn more, and I couldn’t get it fast enough. But the strength gained from basic, repeated exercises is nothing to scoff at. It is now something I seek (a valuable pointe class, back to basics, can benefit any dancer). Pointe class can feel like the cruelest of torture-going back to the barre and redoing every intricacy of movement with a wooden block strapped to your foot is not pleasant, quite obviously-but it is a medicine that every dancer needs, fuel for what is to come.

Despite the beauty and despite position and experience, the challenge of pointe work never diminishes. It is like a fantastic game to be played every day-a literal balancing act, as we create glimmers of perfection poised on the edge of a pointe shoe box. Even the wrong attitude can make you fall more quickly. But when it’s right, it’s right. Your feet may be trapped and confined, throbbing and exhausted, but with the height and the balance comes freedom. We constantly dare to do what others cannot. It is an unattainable perfection that we seek, but isn’t that what makes it so intoxicating?…

 

Try Bourréeing In My Blochs

Pilates class last week: Everyone’s feet were barefoot or sock clad, but as I took a close look at mine during the roll up series, I instantly worried someone nearby might be offended. They’re callused to the max, have pink blister scars all over them, and the bunions just scream ballerina, don’t they? I would say my feet have really been around the block (or actually, they’ve been in Blochs…no joke, I wear Alphas). Our feet really do see a lot of the action in the studio and on the stage, but I don’t just want to address them-I want to address our bodies. What is unusual about the career path of a professional dancer is how all-inclusive the job is. You don’t just punch out on the time clock and you’re off the hook for the weekend-you have to take care. Sometimes though, no matter how much Epsom salt you bathe in, no matter how much toe tape you put on, no matter how diligent you are, things happen.

An array of feet I've shared the stage with-Ballet Austin Summer Intensive 2010
An array of feet I’ve shared the stage with-Ballet Austin Summer Intensive 2010

Like any athletic endeavor, you have your normal, run of the mill, dance aches and pains. You can honestly develop or contract just about anything in the dance studio. There are the times you aggressively bruise or “Marley burn” yourself. There are the times you bruise, and then break, and then proceed to lose a toenail. (Oh, P.S. for those of you who don’t have a ballet background, you are still expected to dance on that bruised, cracked, or possibly nonexistent toenail) There are the times you push a little too hard during adagio, and you pull a muscle. There are the times you wear your pointe shoes for eight hours in a row and you develop a nice, juicy blister. And for silly individuals like myself, there are the times you rip a huge piece of skin off the bottom of your toe because duct tape really is tough stuff, and you’re just moving too quick and probably shouldn’t have industrial strength tape on your toes to begin with (true story).

We all have our horror stories. Just about every time you step into the studio, whether you’re taking class for fun or you’re in the midst of tech week rehearsals, you’ll usually come away with new problems. This is not a nine to five. You have a 24/7 responsibility to yourself. You need to treat yourself like a freakin’ temple if you’re going to succeed and really give yourself a shot.

“…don’t judge until you’ve bourréed in my pointe shoes…until you’ve been in my skin, and you know what I feel when I move.”

Photo Credit Victor Smith
Photo Credit Victor Smith

Conversely, there are events that you cannot work around. Bruises fade. Toenails? You can grow another one of those. A sore muscle can be subdued. A blister can be bandaged (and grit your teeth because you still have to wear your pointe shoes-this is the big leagues) and will heal. And no matter how big a gash you put in the bottom of your big toe, your skin will grow back! But what do you do when it’s serious? (I’m sorry if you’re confused, but dancing on half a toenail is NOT serious-it’s a right of passage)

There are so many extremely serious things we can do to ourselves on the job…sprains, fractures, breaks, ruptures, concussions. Are you sure you really like dancing? Because last time I checked, we’re continuously putting ourselves on the front lines for injury. And injury is a huge game changer. You might just need to R.I.C.E. for a week, or it may end your career. But we all fight. We schedule P.T. appointments, we get ourselves adjusted at the chiropractor, we get surgery, and we rock a walking boot like it’s a Manolo. Because this isn’t a nine to five. You want to be in that studio with every fiber of your being, and you’ll do anything to get there.

I want to finish this week by offering a reminder/suggestion-be kind to one another. Everyone shares those daily dance world struggles, but it’s the tough stuff that you bear on your own. Although our careers are all about the judgment factor, don’t judge until you’ve bourréed in my pointe shoes…until you’ve been in my skin, and you know what I feel when I move. Because you never know what struggles someone has been through to be dancing. We all share J.O.D. It’s a beautiful and terrifying concept. Dance is a talent we are blessed with, but it’s something that can be taken away at any time. So appreciate. Enjoy yourself. Live. Enjoy your dancing like it’s the last dance you’ll ever do.