By Liesl Ferreira
Just an image of pointe shoes evokes the elegance and grace of ballet. A dancer’s first pair is a rite of passage, from little girl to serious ballerina. But the risk of injuries to her feet can be serious as well, and increases if pointe work is started too young, before she is ready either physically or technically.
As someone whose feet throb after five minutes in heels, I became fascinated with the feet beneath the pink satin. I interviewed Diablo Ballet dancer Jennifer Friel Dille about her experience en pointe. Her eloquent answers to my sometimes silly questions reminded me of what I had forgotten while naively focusing on the frightening aspect of foot injuries: there is an element of sacrifice to all artistic pursuits. Ballerinas dance through their pain driven by passion. Personally, I’m grateful they do.
Q: How old were you when you got your first pair of pointe shoes?
A: I was nine years old when I got my first pair of pointe shoes, which is extremely young. I was in a dance class with girls that were a year or two older than me but it was still pretty young to be dancing en pointe.
Q: How did beginning pointe work change how you felt about yourself as a dancer (or even as a person)?
A: When I began pointe work I was really excited about advancement and growing up. I’m sure it wasn’t pretty at the time, but it felt like I was on the path to becoming a ballerina.
Q: I have read about certain criteria teachers use to determine pointe readiness: age, strength, technique, discipline, etc. How did your teacher determine you were ready for your first pair of pointe shoes? Did you feel ready yourself when you started dancing in them? Did you experience pain initially, or was the transition smooth?
A: My teacher determined pointe readiness by strength, flexibility, experience, level in the school, and the number of classes attended weekly. As I mentioned, I was pretty young but I certainly thought I was ready. I was SO EXCITED to get my first pair of pointe shoes. I definitely wore them around the house and did relevé’s in the kitchen. I think that I did all of the things they tell you NOT to do before you start taking pointe class. I did feel a little discomfort when I got a blister or bruised toenail, but overall the transition was pretty smooth. I don’t think that pointe work is inherently painful. I’ve always loved working en pointe.
Q: It was easy to find information on the many risks of starting pointe at a young age, but what are some benefits to beginning early? (As an outsider, it would seem like all young dancers should wait as long as possible to begin pointe work to ensure the long term health of their feet, yet this does not always seem to happen. I am wondering why anyone would ever rush into it.)
A: I think one of the benefits of starting early is gaining ankle and foot strength. Also, taking classes en pointe is a completely different animal than taking class in ballet slippers–turns are different, balance is more difficult because the platform of the shoe makes an unstable surface even when standing. Jumping in pointe shoes is difficult because you have to push off the floor harder than in ballet slippers. It makes sense to get used to the difficulty of working in pointe shoes if you are going to be performing in pointe shoes instead of ballet slippers.
Q: Do you think if the physical sacrifices dancers make for their art were more publicized, it would boost interest in ballet? Or might it detract from the magic?
A: That is a difficult question! I think that many people already recognize the sacrifices dancers make. There are so many movies and TV programs that show the rough side of the ballet world. I often get questions from non-dancers about injuries and eating disorders and pointe work. In that case, I think we are like most any other high level athletes. We work hard in a physical way and demand a lot of our bodies. But the magic of the art of dance is what makes ballet different. I think that we need both. I would love it if people recognized the hard physical work that dancers do but also realize that making our movement look effortless is magical and separates us as an art.
Q: Are there lasting effects to a dancer’s feet after her career is over? Do you worry about this?
A: Every dancer’s experience will be slightly different. Some foot damage may start as a genetic abnormality, but is exacerbated by pointe work (or ballet in general)–bunions may be such an example. I know dancers, who have had corrective surgery for foot injuries after they stop dancing. I have already come to terms with the fact that my feet will never be pretty. I have some pretty crazy calluses. Personally, though, I worry just as much about my back or my hips or my knees as I do about my feet.
Q: What kind of shoes do you wear when you are not dancing? (I cannot imagine you would ever want to wear high heels!)
A: Oh boy. When I’m traveling to or from the studio I usually wear supportive sneakers. I like to wear flip flops around the apartment. But if I’m getting dressed up to go out, I wear high heels. Guilty as charged. 🙂
Q: From some of the photos I’ve seen of dancers’ feet, I would guess that a ballerina who spends a great deal of time en pointe would have feet that were hardened and accustomed to being in that particular shape. And therefore, it might be difficult for her to transition easily from pointe to demi pointe work. Is this at all true? What portion of a typical day of training do you spend en pointe? What about when you first started pointe work as a girl?
A: What an interesting question. In my personal experience, these days professional dancers have to perform in so many different kinds of ballets (in ballet slippers, in bare feet, in socks, in pointe shoes). You have to be able to transition back and forth. For instance, in Diablo Ballet’s last performance. I performed in pointe shoes for La Covacha and in socks for Flight of the Dodo. On a more basic level, when dancing en pointe you still have to work through your demi pointe anyway so the transition for a professional dancer isn’t too difficult.
How long I spend en pointe each day depends on which ballets I’m cast in. If I’m rehearsing for a ballet that requires pointe shoes all day, I could be in shoes for 5 hours or so. If I’m performing I could be in and out of pointe shoes for 8 hours.
When I first started pointe work I had two one hour pointe classes a week. I also had a great teacher in my teenage years that made us wear “soft” pointe shoes for every ballet class. In her class our feet got used to the platform and the shaping of the feet in the shoes without going onto pointe in class.
Q: Are there certain ballets that are notoriously hard on the feet?
A: I’m not sure how my fellow dancers would answer this question, but in my memory, performing in the corps de ballet of the long classical ballets was hardest (Swan Lake and Giselle). In those ballets, the corps dances very hard and in complete unison, then they stop and stand completely still for entire minutes at a time. Imagine jumping and hopping and pointing your feet as hard as possible and then standing without moving. The cramping was unbelievable.
Otherwise, I think it’s more personal. I remember some ballets being hard on my feet because I had a bruised toenail, a painful corn, or a terrible blister. That was circumstance rather than the ballet itself.
A: I do have a love/hate relationship with my pointe shoes. I love to dance en pointe. It allows a certain freedom that dancing on demi-pointe doesn’t. I love turning on a good pair of pointe shoes. But it is a lifelong quest to find the perfect pair of shoes. Pointe shoes are handmade and each one is a little different. Most of us have a favorite “maker” for our shoes. But even shoes made by the same person can vary quite a bit. It doesn’t take much to throw you off balance when you are on the narrow tip of your toes. Sometimes favorite makers pass away, or stop making shoes and the search starts all over again. Good shoes can make a show go well or make a show feel shaky or “off”. It can be frustrating but I still love dancing in pointe shoes!
Click here to meet Diablo Ballet’s Jennifer Friel Dille. Jennifer will be performing at the April 12th and 13th Hillbarn Theatre performances and May 3rd & 4th Inside the Dancer’s Studio. Click here for information.
Liesl Ferreira is a native of the Bay Area who developed a passionate interest in the arts while living in Paris for more than a decade. She believes that the arts belong everywhere, in every life, and that the ability to express our humanity, or be touched by an expression of this humanity, is inherent in us all. She devotes her life to her family, photography, and Iyengar Yoga. Liesl is a wonderful volunteer with Diablo Ballet.