Pain Free Pointe Work
Ballet has been gently, beautifully and steadfastly evolving for over four decades with increasing knowledge of injury prevention bringing decreasing pain levels to the dancers. Dancing on pointe started at a slightly later date as ballet was initially only danced by men performing both male and female roles and perhaps they were too wimpy or canny to start this trend. It’s conception lies at the feet, or should I say toes, of an Italian dancer. In 1832 Marie Taglioni danced La Sylphide en pointe and her shoes were nothing more than satin slippers with leather soles and she had cunningly darned the sides and all across the toes to help the shoes hold her weight and retain their shape. It MUST have been painful!
Over the years however the pointe shoe has undergone an amazing revolution into today’s sleek, beautiful and functional design. A whole market of accessories for wearing in pointe shoes ranging from toe pouches, silicone pieces and padding to the old standby - lambs wool help ease potentially painful toes and feet and even the revolutionary satin ribbons with elastic inserts are an innovation in comfortability and practicality.
Each decade has seen improvements to not only the shoes but the training and today I endorse, with great confidence, the current research which concurs that if a young dancer is being taught by an experienced and highly skilful classical ballet teacher, has had her shoes fitted professionally and possesses high levels of strength, control and mobility before commencing pointe class they shouldn’t be experiencing pain on pointe.
At The Dance Centre Peregian Springs we insist on Pre Pointe classes, a Pointe Assessment Test and often a follow up visit to our excellent in-house Dance Physiotherapists from Synergy before the go ahead is given to purchase that bittersweet first pair of pointe shoes. This gives the student the very best chance of working on pointe with confidence, strength and control. Having already instilled a deep understanding of the articulation of the foot the initial rising and lowering from pointe at the barre should come easily and pain free.
I like to check that our student’s shoes have been fitted by an experienced pointe shoe fitter preferably at a shop with an ongoing wide range of makes and styles. Shoes that are too narrow can cause painful and often infected ingrown toenails and if the box is incorrect in length it can cause bunions which are hard to cure. Bruised toenails, which can become so painful that they need to be surgically removed are caused when the shoe is either too wide and/or too soft. Fitting is paramount and should be coupled with informed parents who will know that even after a short interval of time shoes that are too soft or even a smidgen too small have to be discarded. Growth spurts tend to be expensive in terms of always having well fitting pointe shoes.
A good pointe shoe fitter will ensure that the student also buys the correct accessories for their new pointe shoes to prevent pain. Unequal toe lengths that could be potentially painful need padding, spaces between toes that would formerly have incurred blisters need silicone spacers and toe pouches and other forms of padding can be very beneficial. Once perfectly fitted shoes and accessories are in place the student still experiencing pain needs to consider whether technical issues are the cause.
Foot articulation is the key to achieving correct pain free technique on pointe and should ideally form the major component for pre pointe and beginner pointe classes for many months. With poor articulation toes can start to claw in the shoe which will cause blisters and even posterior impingement of the ankle. Heels that lower to the floor too heavily can cause bruising and shin issues. A beginner should only be on pointe for short time intervals at the barre and must resist keeping the pointe shoes on for too long and/or trying out steps way beyond the simple rises and articulation exercises they are being taught.
As well as possessing the correct technique before the first pointe class it is also important for the student to understand all about foot care and maintenance. Keeping toenails properly and regularly cut will prevent ingrown or split toe nails. Washing and scrupulously drying feet helps prevent blisters, cracks between the toes and fungal infections.
Breaking in new shoes BEFORE wearing them in pointe class will help prevent blisters and stop the shoes from breaking in the middle of the shank. Gently with your hands or using a light hammer soften the shank in the demi pointe area so that you can rise onto pointe correctly and very slightly soften underneath the heel so that the shank sits right into the arch area when en pointe. Also slightly soften the areas around the sides of the box if they are too stiff and unyielding.
To dance pain free your pointe shoes should be specifically chosen for the pointe work you are doing. Beginner pointe class will focus on barre work and require a softer shoe to assist articulating the foot correctly. When progressing to more relevé work and centre work a stronger shoe will be required.
After class always remove any pouches or padding as they will be damp and will soften the pointe shoe box causing toe nail problems and /or blisters as the foot starts to push down too far in the shoe. Living in our humid conditions means drying out the shoes and accessories between each class to prevent fungal problems and most importantly (on the wallet) prolonging the life of the shoe. Toe pouches and padding should be washed at least once a week.
After class feet need recovery time and if possible time to breath without any shoes on. I used to rush into the shower straight after rehearsal or performances of Swan Lake and alternately spray my feet with icy cold then hot water for a quick refreshing recovery. Footwear after pointe class or performance must be unrestricting and comfortable. After a long full day of classes and a lot of pointe work it is a good idea to do a series of Kneip baths: Prepare two buckets - one with hot water and the other with cold water, sit down and alternately place both feet for around two minutes first in the hot then the cold bucket, five changes are sufficient and always start and end with the hot water. If you have swollen or tired feet try soaking them in Epsom salts. Blisters MUST be attended to immediately with antiseptic creams and gel plasters, however, PREVENTION is better than CURE so once you know which toes are susceptible to corns, blisters and callouses it is best to tape them every class. The second toes on each of my feet hardly saw the light of day for twenty years dancing in the corps de ballet and as a soloist. It is infinitely preferable to prepare the toes for pointe shoes before each class and rehearsal than to tend to painful bloody blisters. Elevating your feet and legs is a must at the end of a long day to prevent swollen, painful feet and legs the next day,
Always have your own spiky ball for under the arches and foot roller to hand after class to prevent cramps and tight muscles and learn to massage feet and toes using pressure points/reﬂexology to aid circulation and cramping.
Remember if you are working correctly as a result of great training and your feet are strong you shouldn’t be experiencing pain.