Successful dance instructors progress young dancers slowly and methodically. They help each individual develop at an appropriate pace. This is in the best interest of the developing child. It is also in the best interest of the company as it helps to produce the strongest and most skilled dancers.
Very young dancers have a few hurdles to overcome in early training. Children generally have loose joints, their ligaments allow a lot of movement and their muscles have not yet developed the skill of helping to stabilize or respond to small movements. This leaves the joints of young dancers at risk of injury, and if not properly developed can lead to poor form and earlier drop out at later stages.
A common question that parents of young dancers ask is “When is it safe for a ballerina to transition to en pointe?”
Because of a young ballerina’s increased risk for injuries, this decision requires thoughtful consideration. It takes several years to develop the strength and control that’s needed to learn proper form for safe en pointe dancing. It is important to recognize that many successful professional ballerinas did not begin training en pointe until age sixteen, and this did not negatively impact their careers.
With wide variation in child development and body maturation, many experts believe that formal ballet training cannot begin until at least 8 years of age. The early years of dancing should emphasize the enjoyment of the activity while building foundational skills and learning terminology. Like many other sports, burnout in dancing occurs when the activity is no longer fun for the ballerina.
Rather than focusing on an age to begin training in any sport or physical activity, the physical and mental readiness of the child is most important. There are many risks associated with starting to train en pointe too early. A young child’s strength, mobility and coordination are all very immature, which leads to a higher risk of physical injury. Because of these physical challenges it is difficult for young ballerinas to master sophisticated techniques. With early injuries and frustrations, dancers may develop lower self-esteem and in some cases become anxious or discouraged.
There is no one person best qualified to make this decision about a young dancer. Deciding when to transition to en pointe requires a team approach and may take some time. The dance instructor, a sports medicine physician, parents and most importantly the ballerina, should work together to evaluate all aspects of readiness.
Here are some commonalities of ballerinas who transition successfully to en pointe. They:
• are on a pre-professional track.
• take two or more ballet classes per week.
• have at least three years of classical ballet training.
• can achieve and maintain proper posture and alignment of the hips, knees and ankles.
• can recognize when the body is in proper alignment.
• have strong core strength.
• have enough leg strength and range of motion.
The great George Balanchine, ballet choreographer once said, “There is no reason to get a young dancer up on full pointe if she cannot do anything when she gets there!” Focusing on foundational training and strengthening can do so much to improve the success and reduce injuries in young ballerinas. When these are present, a ballerina can enjoy many healthy years of dancing.
Dr. Jane S. Chung is a physician on the sports medicine team at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children. She is board-certified in Pediatric Medicine and Sports Medicine. Dr. Chung specializes in concussion management, return-to-play decisions and non-operative management of musculoskeletal injuries in young and growing athletes. She has a particular interest in problems affecting female athletes. Dr. Chung completed her medical degree at St. George’s University School of Medicine; her internship and pediatric residency training at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, Children’s Hospital; and a fellowship in Pediatric Sports Medicine at the Case Medical Center, University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.