What is the correct age to start pointe? How do I know if I’m strong enough? Why do I keep getting injuries?
These questions and more will be answered by the Australian Ballet School’s Health and Well-being team during the Pointe Matters program, to be held on September 21st. The School’s physiotherapist, Sarah Way and Classical and Pointe teacher, Irina Konstantinova, will discuss the fundamental physical criteria for early pointe work and the day will include student demonstrations. Fitting specialists from Bloch will also be there to offer selection and fitting advice for beginner pointe students, demonstrate differences between correct and incorrect fit, and offer general support.
Nicholas Psarros, one of two strength and conditioning coaches at the ABS, speaks here to Dance Informa’s Grace Gassin about the program.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Nicholas. Can you tell us a little about the impetus behind Pointe Matters?
“Sure. Over the last ten years, the ABS has been holding an annual day for the general public with presentations from a number of specialists and taking on a range of formats. This year, with our new director, Lisa Pavane, we decided to hone in on pointe work as it is such a strong characteristic of classical ballet and something that a lot of students really aspire to do.
Like the other annual days, Pointe Matters will be run by the Australian Ballet School’s Health and Well-being team. For those who don’t know much about it, the Health and Well-being program at the ABS has essentially evolved over the last 25 years from a gym in which the male students could weight train to a fully-rounded support system run by a team of expert practitioners. During her time as director, Marilyn Rowe really assembled a large team of experts to make sure that all the students are assisted to really achieve their full potential through holistic training in disciplines outside of classical ballet.
The school now has a mix of consultants and employees on staff including a general practitioner and a sports physician, a school psychologist and a counsellor, and two strength and conditioning coaches. We also have a consulting nutritionist and some other specialists who together make up the core of the team. Our services are embedded in the school curriculum so that every member of the student population receives a well-rounded health education, but we also offer practical consultations in the cases of rehabilitation or an injury.”
Pointe Matters is aimed at dance teachers, parents, students and anyone who supports them. What do you hope they will get out of the program?
“I think there are lots of questions that people have about pointe work. As you mentioned, when to start pointe work and how much of it to do are very common concerns. If someone is developing an injury because of their pointe training, we hope that the day will help to illuminate reasons as to why that might be happening or ways to avoid those sorts of injuries altogether.
I think with Bloch making their presentation about shoes and shoe fittings, the day will really re-iterate for the public the importance of a specialised approach. You can’t just buy a pair of pointe shoes from the internet, you do need to be fitted for your needs — those needs will also change as your foot changes shape as you age, so a student will likely need to be re-fitted appropriately at those key points.
I do hope people will discover or reaffirm their existing beliefs that there are many roads to success with pointe work. For some people, that might involve a more physical approach while for others a more artistic or curriculum based approach could work better. We’re opening the doors to the public to say, hey, this is how we do it, and to share anything that is worthwhile with those who are interested. But Pointe Matters is also a skill sharing day and will involve a Q&A. Generally teachers will say ‘Well actually, I’ve had success working in this way, have you found that?’ and we’ll get to have an exchange.”
When I was younger, teachers used to warn that going en pointe too young could harm the development of a child’s foot — is there any truth to that?
“Yes I think so, and in the Pointe Matters program we will be talking about what determines if someone is ready to go en pointe, but it’s definitely about more than just age. There are many physical factors that lead to being able to do pointe work and chief among them is range of mobility in the lower leg, general stability and mobility in the body as well. When prospective students come to the school, we have a physical assessment as you would for any tertiary dance or vocational program to really ensure the students who are auditioning do have that physical compatibility with elite training and to reduce risk and injury because of that training.
If they don’t have those criteria met, it doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to meet them with training, so the idea with the physical assessment is to illuminate those areas of future development for the student. The assessment also offers teachers an objective measuring stick, so the student don’t simply go away with the message ‘Oh, well so-and-so said that I’m too young or I’m too old’ but rather ‘Well in fact I don’t have enough strength in my calves but if I do certain exercises I can improve that,’ so having a third party can be very helpful.”
What are the main sorts of things you are looking for in the physical assessment that might make you screen out a particular candidate for elite training?
“We definitely have a criterion that we follow, so screening out, if necessary, would happen as a result of that process. At the most basic level, if someone doesn’t have enough mobility to rise up to demi pointe, for instance, then they probably aren’t suited to a career in classical ballet or the training. We need to make sure the student is capable of performing the regular tasks of a day in the life of a classical dancer to reduce any further risks or harms to their body.”
As strength and conditioning coach, Nicholas, what are some of the weaknesses you see in students who come in to the ABS program?
“I’d say there are certainly times when I think students have been or are working beyond their requirements and maybe don’t need to work so much. Perhaps they are doing too many dance classes and could do more pilates and more strength training to really assist them and make sure that the training doesn’t hamper their growth and maturation, but enhances it.”
What programs does the ABS hope to organise in the future?
“We would definitely like to do more than one program a year and would love to make it accessible beyond Melbourne. We’ve been having conversations with our stakeholders and now have some really good feedback about the areas in which teachers would like support such as training boys or developing pas de deux curriculum, so hopefully we can addresses those areas in the future.”
By Grace Gassin of Dance Informa.
Photo (top): Courtesy of the Australian Ballet School.