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Pointe technique is the part of classical ballet technique that concerns pointe work, in which a ballet dancer supports all body weight on the tips of fully extended feet. A dancer is said to be en pointe when the dancer's body is supported in this manner, and a fully extended vertical foot is said to be en pointe when touching the floor, even when not bearing weight. Pointe work is performed while wearing pointe shoes, which employ structural reinforcing to distribute the dancer's weight load throughout the foot, thus reducing the load on the toes enough to enable the dancer to support all body weight on fully vertical feet.
Pointe technique resulted from a desire for female dancers to appear weightless and sylph-like. Although both men and women are capable of pointe work, it is most often performed by women. Typically, years of training and practice are required to develop the strength and technique needed to perform pointe work.
Pointe technique encompasses both the mechanical and artistic aspects of pointe work. In particular, it is concerned with body alignment, placement of the feet, and the manner in which a dancer transitions to and from en pointe. A dancer is said to have "good" or "proper" technique when in conformance with the best practices of pointe technique, which in turn are generally referred to as proper technique.
En pointe dancers employ pointe technique to determine foot placement and body alignment. When exhibiting proper technique, a dancer's en pointe foot is placed so that the instep is fully stretched, with toes perpendicular to the floor, with the pointe shoe's platform (the flattened tip of the toe box) square to the floor so that a substantial part of its surface is contacting the floor.
Proper technique is also evident from a dancer's body alignment, by visualizing a straight line that extends from the center of the hip through the toes. When a properly aligned dancer is viewed from the side, the line passes through the knee, ankle joint, and big toe joints. When viewed from the front, the line passes through the knee, ankle joint, and the joints of the second toe or middle toe or the area between those toe joints. In cases of unusually high instep or metatarsal joint flexibility, it is sometimes necessary to flex the toes to achieve proper alignment.
A dancer may transition to en pointe by any of three possible methods: relevé, sauté or piqué. In the relevé method, the dancer rises smoothly by rotating the foot downward until it reaches a fully extended, vertical orientation, while the toe box remains in contact with the floor, thus "rolling up" on the foot. This may be done either gradually or rapidly, on one foot or both feet, beginning with feet flat on the floor or in demi-pointe (heels raised). In the sauté method, the dancer springs up and lands en pointe. In the process, the feet break contact with the floor and the dancer is briefly airborne. To transition to en pointe via piqué, a dancer will step out directly onto a fully extended, vertical foot. The other foot is then raised from the floor, thereby leaving the dancer en pointe.
Modern ballet technique incorporates all three transition methods. Relevé and piqué transitions are typically used for adages, where strength, poise, and controlled movements are highlighted. The more abrupt sauté method, which was introduced by Enrico Cecchetti, is typically used in allegros, where the relatively slow and smooth relevé and piqué transitions would be both impractical and visually inconsistent with the lively pace of movement. The sauté method is more common in Russian ballet.
Although age is not a prerequisite, many ballet students do not begin to dance en pointe earlier than approximately eleven years of age because bones in the feet are often too soft prior to that age and, in such cases, serious and permanent foot injuries could result from starting pointe work too early. Exceptions may be made if the dance teacher or a physician has determined that a dancer's feet have sufficiently ossified, and it is not uncommon for dancers to begin pointe work as early as age nine. Also, the age at which dancers are psychologically ready to learn pointwork varies from one individual to another.
Otherwise, ballet students are generally ready to begin pointe work after achieving competency in fundamental ballet technique. For example, before learning pointe work, a dancer must be able to maintain turnout while performing center combinations, hold a proper ballet position with straight back and good turnout, pull up properly in the legs, and balance securely in relevé.
Preparation for pointe work is a gradual process that starts with exercises at the barre to develop the strength in ankles, feet, and legs required for pointe work. These exercises may vary in accordance with a teacher's preferences and, if applicable, the syllabus associated with the teaching method used. The first exercises at the barre are usually relevés and échappés. When the student is comfortable executing these steps on both feet, and tendons and muscles have become sufficiently strong, steps ending on one foot are introduced. Examples of these are pas de bourrée en pointes and retiré en pointes.
During each class session, a student will move on to centre exercises after completing the barre work. These exercises emphasize various aspects of ballet technique, such as turnout, pointing of the toes, and the use of ballet technique while en pointe.
Dancing en pointe stresses the feet in various ways and thus can potentially cause injuries. Injuries can result from improper technique, poorly fitting pointe shoes, and lack of effective cushioning and accessories. Some types of injuries are prevented by adhering to proper technique such as correct upper-body positioning, maintaining straight knees when required, keeping body weight centered over the box of the shoes, and avoiding sickling.
Injuries due to toe misalignment are often avoided by adjusting toe alignments with gel toe spacers. Toenail bruising can be caused by heavy pressure on the surface of the nail; this is typically prevented by keeping toenails clipped short, by wrapping tape around the toes, by using padding, or combinations of these. Bruising can also occur on the tips of the toes, especially when no padding is used.
Pointe work can cause friction between toes and the interior of the pointe shoe's box. This friction, under the high pressure of much of the dancer's body weight, can result in chafing and blistering. This is often mitigated with lambswool or toe pads or by wrapping tape around toes. Other exterior injuries include cuts caused by toenails piercing adjacent toes. Also, calluses may form on the bottoms and sides of the feet, which can crack open. Ingrown nails can result from ill-fitting shoes.
Other common injuries: