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 Post subject: Starting Pointe Work: Tuk's Articles
PostPosted: Tue Sep 05, 2000 11:09 pm 
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david slade has begun a series of well-researched articles on this subject. here is part one. (lugo's article, on a similar subject, can be found at )<P><I><B>please see this thread for a lively discussion of both articles:</B></I><BR> <A HREF="http://www.criticaldance.com/ubb/Forum7/HTML/000111.html" TARGET=_blank>http://www.criticaldance.com/ubb/Forum7/HTML/000111.html</A> <P>oops! discussion thread temprarily deleted by dum-dum here! i'm trying to bring it back! Image sorry!<BR><p>[This message has been edited by grace (edited September 06, 2000).]

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 Post subject: Re: Starting Pointe Work: Tuk's Articles
PostPosted: Tue Sep 05, 2000 11:20 pm 
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(c) david slade, london, 2000<P> <BLOCKQUOTE><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial">quote:</font><HR>Introduction<P>This is the first of a series of articles based on my own experience and study of teaching pointe work to beginners. They began in response to a number of related inquires on the Internet and, as I wanted to bring them together into a detailed consideration of the subject, I thought it best to present it as a part work. I hope that it will be found both interesting and informative. Part of my intention is to stimulate informed debate about issues relating to dance technique and so I look forward to any feedback that may result.<P>Problems Before Starting Out<P>Going onto pointe is seen as something of a rite of passage for the young female ballet dancer. It can be a time both of excitement and apprehension, when a commitment is made to a new level of technique and where the point shoe has an almost symbolic status. It is also one of those critical stages when it is important for the teacher to ask what expectations are being set up in the mind of the young dancer and to what extent these have a practical chance of fulfilment. It requires knowledge and patience, but also a willingness to confront the potential problems that arise when a student is about to start out on pointe.<P>The student may have physical or technical problems that make pointe work potentially hazardous. However, they and quite possibly also their parents expect them to take this step along with their contemporaries. This can lead to complaints about fairness when one pupil and not another is being allowed to go on pointe. In extreme cases it is not uncommon for threats to leave and go to another school where it is claimed all the girls are put on pointe to be made. This pressurises not just the school but puts teaching staff in the invidious position of making choices that may put them in conflict with the financial interests of their employer.<P>In my opinion the best recourse is to give an honest and open explanation of what pointe work entails and of both the strengths and weaknesses of the individual pupil in this regard. Also for the teachers in a school there needs to be an agreed policy that will support their considered judgement of the suitability of any pupil to undertake this aspect of training. Hopefully these will instil in both pupils and their parents confidence in the care and consideration with which this aspect of balletic technique is taught at the school.<P>Suitability For Pointe Work<P>A great deal has been written concerning when it is best to commence pointe work. I do not want to get caught in an argument over numbers but just to outline what I feel are some of the requirements before a pupil is allowed onto her toes. These are based on the two essential factors of physical and technical development.<P>The first concern has to be bone development. Many pupils who undertake pointe work are at an age when they are still undergoing growth spurts. If this is the case then it may be best for them to see a doctor and have their feet x-rayed and see if the tips of their toes have turned from cartilage to bone (Barringer & Schlesinger, 1998, 76). If this has not happened then they should consider delaying going onto pointe. (I have witnessed what I can only describe as the horror story of girls as young as seven being put on pointe with no regard to the potential damage it can do to the bones of their feet.)<P>Pointe work should not be looked on as a separate technique, but as an extension of the one the pupil already possess. It makes sense that much of the groundwork for going on pointe should have been prepared for during the early training. As the balletic technique gets stronger and the dancer works on both correctly aligning and strengthening her body then pointe work, even if it has to be delayed, will be less stressful and much less likely to cause an injury. The whole technique needs to be advanced enough to ensure that the dancer can maintain both her posture and placement whilst on her toes. I would argue that a strong demi pointe (three quarter pointe in Cecchetti parlance) with a high degree of lateral and medial stability around the feet and ankles should be a pre-requisite for even considering pointe work.<P>An approach I like to take in my own teaching is to make my students aware of how a particular exercise prepares them for the future. The aim is to help them see their class work as part of a process that leads on to working on pointe. In this sense they are learning to go on pointe from the moment they start basic rises up to and beyond when they tie their first pair of pointe shoes onto their feet.<P>A technical and physical requirement is that the dancers foot should be capable of bringing the inside anklebone and the upper joint of the big toe in to line with the leg with the toes properly extended so that the weight can be correctly placed through the foot. Where the dancers feet will not achieve this alignment it may well be that her ankle joints lack this necessary degree of mobility. Assessing the degree of flexibility is important as age and body development will determine, to some extent, the amount of improvement that can be made. The following should only be done with the greatest of care:<P>Sit the dancer down with her legs straight and parallel and no shoes on her feet. Then supporting the foot under the heel, or place a small piece of padding beneath it, gently press down on the instep. (I must emphasise the word GENTLY. This is not an attempt to increase the range of movement of the foot, but merely to assess the amount that is already present.) If she shows a good degree of flexibility then the inability to correctly align the foot is likely to do with a lack of use of the correct muscle groups. If, however, she has a restricted range of movement then this can be more of a problem.<P>Increasing the flexibility of the ankle should not be done in a forceful manner, by for instance sticking the foot under a piece of furniture or in some apparatus. Rather stretching should be both gentle and progressive. It must be remember this is a very vulnerable joint that carries a lot of weight and damaging it will actually restrict its range of movement.<P>Conversely where a very high arch is present then there is the possibility that the foot may require more time to strengthen up before it is placed on pointe. Where there is any room for doubt then it is always best to erron the side of caution as whilst a high arches often give a beautiful line to the foot it tends to encourage the dancer to stand on her shoes rather than her feet. (This is a problem I would like to come back to in a later article.)<P>The Tendu Action<P>Whilst there are several exercises for improving flexibility and strength in the dancer's foot first priority should be given to ensuring that full benefit is being derived from the tendu action. This uses resistance against the floor to strengthen the muscle groups that point the foot and, to a certain extent, limbers the ankle joint, increasing its range of movement. Because of this I believe that the importance of a correct action in tendus cannot be over emphasised. This is well summed up by Howse as follows:<P>"Failure to teach a proper battement tendu will prevent the forefoot muscles from becoming strong, as the intrinsic muscles do not work in an incorrect tendu. As the child tries to point the foot better, she will reinforce the effort with the long toe flexors which, if unopposed by an effective intrinsic muscles combination, will lead to flexion of the toes. A correct tendu, in which the stretch extends out of the tips of the toes, will encourage the intrinsics to work strongly."<BR>(Howse, 1987, 58)<P>One thing I must add at this stage is that I am aware that there is a significant difference between what follows and the approach taken at the School of American Ballet. Presently I am reading Suki Schorer's book Balanchine Technique (1999, London: Dance Books) in which she describes in detail how the foot is used both in the tendu action and on pointe. As my knowledge of this particular technique is limited I am not in a position to discuss its efficacy. My description of the use of the foot is based on my own experience, although I hope that some time in the future I will get a chance to study at first hand the methodology Ms Schorer describes.<P>Starting from first or fifth position it is essential to ensure that from the outset the placement is correct. As the leg slowly starts to tendu there should be a feeling of the weight lifting up and over the supporting leg. The working leg should feel like it is stretching all the way from the hip joint to the ankle as if to keep the heel on the floor as far as possible without displacing the pelvis. (Tendu, which comes from the French verb étendre, to stretch, involves the whole leg and not just the foot.) The line of the dancers pelvis should not tilt and they need to maintain the degree of turnout they started with on both the working and supporting leg.<P>The heel leaves the floor pulled up by the action of the calf muscles, the superficial gastrocnemius and deep soleus (Blakey, 1992, 28-29). Across the ankle joint, which acts as a fulcrum, this creates a pushing action into the ball of the foot. When it reaches the point where the toes are still fully on the floor but the ankle is fully extended it is important to make sure that both sides of the superficial calf muscle are being used and that the line is straight, avoiding either a sickled of fished foot. Both cause the gastrocnemius to be wrongly used and can damage the Achilles tendon.<P>At this point a strong stretch should be felt across the top of the instep and the front of the ankle. It is here that the ankle is being most strongly limbered.<P>Having reached maximum plantar flexion at the ankle joint the toes can be stretched out whilst trying to feel the extension through the arches on both sides of the foot. Feeling is very important to the whole of this movement, as the action needs to be established in a way that can be repeated in class without having to constantly think about all these little stages or with the dancer looking down at her foot and leg. The entire action then reverses as the leg returns to the closed position. (A more detailed description of this action, including excellent illustrations, can be found in Joan Lawson's book Teaching Young Dancers Muscular Co-ordination In Classical Ballet, 67- 69.)<P>The use of physiotherapy elastic (which is available under a variety of trade names) should be seen as an adjunct rather than an alternative to the correct use of the foot in the battement tendu. It follows that when using such a piece of apparatus the action of the foot should conform to that described above.<P>The Problem Of Rolling<P>Earlier I mentioned the importance of stability in the feet and ankles with regard to pointe work. One obvious technical fault in this regard is rolling. Rolling occurs when the foot pronates (rolls towards its outer aspect) or supinates (rolls towards its inner aspect). Howse and Hancock outline four possible causes for this:<P>1. Weak intrinsic muscles of the feet and lower leg.<BR>2. Over turning the foot.<BR>3. Incorrect placement.<BR>4. Not adjusting to a raked stage.<BR>(Howse & Hancock, 1992, 186)<P>Clearly it is important to get the basic things right first, such as correct placement and use of turn out. However, carrying on from what has already been discussed with reference to the tendu action, it is the first of these factors that I would like to consider in detail.<P>Whilst the tendu action described above helps to strengthen the intrinsic muscles it is not uncommon to see other exercises used that involve lifting the arch of the foot. Such exercise should be done with the toes extended, not curled, if the correct muscle groups are to be activated. (The old chestnut of crunching up loo paper with the toes appears to be pretty ineffective.) The following comes from a seminar given earlier this year by Shirley Hancock. (I should emphasise that any mistakes in its setting are my own.)<P>Sit on the floor with the knees bent and the body leaning slightly back supported by the arms. A folded towel is placed so that the toes can press down flat on top of it. The arch of the foot is then gathered, thinking of using both the medial (inside) and lateral (outside) aspects of the longitudinal arch. The heels lift off the floor as the arch is progressively raised to its maximum and held for a short period before relaxing to the floor. This can be done up to 10 times in succession, starting with only as many as the dancer feels able to do. Once again quality is more important than quantity<P>In severe cases of weakness of the intrinsic muscles a physiotherapist may use faradic footbaths.<P>An exercise such as the one described above should be used as exactly that, an exercise. Whilst the intrinsic muscles help to support the arch it is not advisable to engage them in this way in class as this can become habitual to a dancers technique. Deliberately lifting the arch pushes the weight back and restricts the demi-plié. (Shirley Hancock described how a dancers foot should lengthen as the plié movement occurs and, having experimented with this in class, it is remarkable how much deeper this simple correction allows a dancer to descend in their demi-plié.) If a dancer comes to rely on this active lifting of the arch to stabilise themselves on one leg then serious problems can occur when landing from a step like a grand jeté. The impact on landing that would normally be absorbed by the controlled use of a fondu has to dissipate through the rest of the dancers body placing them at grave risk of injury.<P>As described by Howse and Hancock rolling can also be due to weaknesses of the muscle groups on the medial (inner) or lateral (outer) aspects of the lower leg. These are the muscle groups that control the sideways stability of the ankle, a frequent weakness in student dancers. Whilst many exercises are given to strengthen the ankles, very little mention is made of these smaller but vital muscle groups.<P>Their function is to stabilise the foot when walking over uneven ground. The ankle is not a simple hinge joint, as it has to allow the leg to adapt to the environmental demands. (The same is partly true of the knee. These complexities in the joints of the leg are one reason engineers have found it so difficult to produce a bipedal robot capable of walking over uneven ground.) In the flat surface of the dance studio they help to maintain the alignment of the foot, especially when the dancer is balanced on one leg. Their action tends to be reflex, if the ankle moves one way the opposite muscle contracts to stabilise the joint. Because of this balance is not a passive state, but an active movement, constantly making fine adjustments. The more technically skilful a dancer becomes the smaller and less obvious these adjustments become, to the point where they may almost seem to not occur. (In a fundamental way this is analogous to homeostasis, a feature of all living systems, which regulate their body functions across a range rather then being totally static, for example body temperature.)<P>To strengthen these muscle groups a balance (wobble) board can be used, as it strongly activates this reflex action. A Sit Fit, which is manufactured by the German physiotherapy supplier Sissel, is also a popular alternative. With my own students I use an adapted version of the yoga asana Virabhadrasana 3, as I don't have access to enough equipment for the whole class. This exercise is done as follows:<P>Start facing the bar with the feet parallel and far enough away so the dancer is able to go into a forward stretch whilst resting the hands of their outstretched arms on the barre. Lift one leg up so it is at the same level as the body into the T position. Then release the barre and open the arms to a flat second position. The eye line should be held straight down at the floor. The idea is to hold the body and legs still, making all the fine adjustments of balance around the ankle with the muscles of the lower leg. The foot itself should be correctly held on the floor and not used to grip with the arch and toes.<P>After a few seconds balance becomes progressively harder but, with persistence and patience, it does seem to help in finding these important muscle groups. This is an exercise I also like to do with them when they start in pointe shoes, as they tend to find the built up sole effects their lateral stability after years of training in flat ballet pumps.<P>Conclusion<P>From the outset I have seen these articles as part of a process of generating discussion as well as disseminating information. I look forward to reading any response that they will generate and hope to integrate the ideas that flow from it into the final part of the series.<P>Having dealt with some of the initial problems that occur before starting the process of teaching pointe work I would like to go on in the next article to considering the pointe shoe itself. This will start by considering how it functions as a support the dancers foot when correctly aligned on pointe. For this purpose some reference will also be made to its structure. Then the process of purchasing correctly fitting shoes will be described. Finally some description will be made of the preparation required on the new shoe before it is first worn in class.<P>Acknowledgements<P>Having attended a seminar she gave for the Cecchetti Centres Easter Course 2000 I should state my indebtedness to Shirley Hancock ONC, MCSP, SRP. The information she gave on this occasion has been invaluable in both my own teaching and the preparation of this article. I only hope that I have passed it on with the clarity and accuracy with which she presented it on that occasion.<P>Bibliography<P>The following were used in the production of this article. Once all the parts have been completed I will be posting a comprehensive list of all the resources that have been of use. However once again I would like to state that any inaccuracies that appear in the text are my own.<P>Blakey, Paul (1992) The Muscle Book, Stafford: Bibliotek Books<P>Grieg, Valerie (1994) Inside Ballet Technique, London: Dance Books<P>Howse, Justin & Shirley Hancock (1992) Dance Technique and Injury Prevention (second edition), London: A & C Black Ltd<P>Howse, Justin (1987) "The Young Ballet Dancer" in Ryan, Allan J, and Robert E. Stephens editors The Healthy Dancer Dance Medicine for Dancers, London: Dance Books Ltd<P>Lawson, Joan (1975) Teaching Young Dancers Muscular Co-ordination In Classical Ballet, London: A & C Black<P>Schorer, Suki (1999) Balanchine Technique, London: Dance Books<HR></BLOCKQUOTE><BR>

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