Breaking in Pointe Shoes: Advice and Link Round Up

I love getting emails from my former students, and recently I got one from a girl who was in my class (at school) last year. She was super-excited about going back to ballet and getting her first pair of pointe shoes and wanted some advice on how to break them in. There is so much information on the web, but it can be hard to know which advice to trust here is some of the advice I gave her plus a few good links.

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Choosing Shoes

It’s impossible to know what shoes will fit until you try them on, but it is a good idea to do your research and find out about different shoes. Some will be suitable for a beginner and some (especially those with 3/4 shank) are only suitable for a more experienced dancer. There’s some really great information about different brands of shoes here.

Understanding your Shoes

You may think you know dance shoes, but trust me, pointe shoes a whole different kettle of fish, and there’s a lot of technical vocab that goes with them. Here’s a great breakdown of what the different part of a pointe shoe are.

Understand the Cost

Pointe shoes are expensive no doubt about it! This video shoes you how pointe shoes are made and makes you realise why the cost so much.

Break your Shoes in Slowly

A lot of my students want to hurry to break their shoes in, or they’ve seen videos of dancers hammer their shoes or sticking them in a door. The reality is that as a beginner on pointe, you don’t yet know what your feet need. Take it slow, walk around the house in your pointe shoes, do some slow releves and rises (after your teacher has shown you how to do them properly), let the work you do in class break them in. You may also like to gently squeeze the box of your shoe and soften it a little with your hands, but don’t take to your shoe with anything hard. As you get used to pointe shoes you’ll start to develop your own way of breaking them in, but it’s also interesting to see what professional dancers do; here are some of the tips from dancers in the Australian Ballet Company.

Connect with Other Dancers

One of the best places to get information about pointe shoes is online. There is a great forum (mainly for ballet dancers) called Ballet Talk for Dancers – check it out for lots of great advice. It’s well moderated so you can trust all the information there.

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Choosing how to Dance

It’s been a while since I’ve written a post, so I though it was time for an update. One of the things I’ve missed most is just writing from a personal point of view – and this is at least part of what I always intended this blog to be – so here we go!

To say life has been busy lately would be an understatement, but it’s a wonderful, full kind of busy, the kind that makes you really happy, rather than stressed or worked up. My darling son is growing well, and already loves dancing. At 14 weeks it’s hard to tell exactly what kind of dancing, but if I were to hazard a guess I’d have to say it looks like he’s got the Irish jig pretty well down pat!

Of course having a wee one has meant a lot of changes for me as a dancer. At the moment it isn’t really viable for me to take a regular technique class in the evenings, having been at work all day. It’s really difficult to commit to a fixed time and day every week, so instead I’m going to take local drop in classes when I can – ideally once a week. Luckily I live in a city full of awesome classes, and I’m actually pretty excited about the variety this will give me. Classes I’m planning on taking include: advanced open ballet with Raise (led by some of the RNZB dancers!), senior open ballet at The New Zealand School of Dance, advanced jazz at the Whitireia Theatre, Xtend Barre (ballet meets pilates) and Melt Method (pilates meets myfascial release) classes at The Mat Class, and possibly even some aerial yoga at JoYogAerial. All in all I think it’s going to work out really well being able to have so much diversity.

Of course I’m still dancing at school – this term we’re working on our Stage Challenge entry assisted by 5 lovely year 9s who have just left us for college, and I have to say I’m looking forward to working with them again. I’ll also be coaching aerobics too which is always fun. I’ve still got big plans for The Dance Well Centre and classes will hopefully start soon, once we have the numbers. So there’ll definitely be plenty of teaching going on!

Combine this with some independent practice and stretching and I think I should have enough dancing to keep me happily occupied without taking me away from my family too much.

Safe Stretching

This post is part two of a series on stretching. Check out the first part A Beginner’s Guide to Stretching here, if you missed it.

What is safe stretching?

  • Safe stretching is stretching in a way that is as safe as possible for you and your body.

Why is it so important?

  • It helps to reduce the chance of injury.
  • It can actually help improve your flexibility
  • It places limits to stop you from overdoing it.

How to stretch safely:

  1. Warm up properly first with 10 – 20mins of cardio. This could include briskly walking, running, skipping or other movement that get your heart beating faster. From an anatomical point of view, cardio increases your body temperature, thus warming up your muscles and making them more flexible. Cold muscles don’t like to stretch!
  2. Start gently. Don’t throw yourself into splits straight away, do some hip-opening stretches or hamstring stretches to engage the muscles first. Whatever your planning to work on in your stretching session, start slowly as your muscles are still warming up.
  3. Know your limits and don’t force it. If you are sore from a class earlier in the week, then keep that in mind and work to your limits. Similarly if you are recovering from an injury don’t push yourself too hard.
  4. Be realistic. Change (unfortunately) doesn’t happen overnight however much we want to! Progress happens day by day and I know from experience that you do yourself no favours by having unrealistic expectations.
  5. Don’t overstretch. Overstretching is when you stretch for longer or further than your body can realistically handle. This could be sitting in splits for 10+ minutes while watching TV or stretching for long periods of time more than once a day. Either way it’s not good and it dramatically increases your chance of injury. Did you know that 60% of dance injuries occur as a result of overuse (DANZ, 2006)?
  6. Monitor your energy level. If you are already exhausted your more likely to injure yourself. 90% of dance injuries occur when a dancer is fatigued (DANZ, 2006). If you’re shattered after a tough class or a long day, skip the stretching and relax. You’ll be doing your body a favour.
  7. Stretching shouldn’t be painful. A stretch? Yes. Not comfortable? Definitely. Sore Afterwards? Possibly. Actually painful? No! Pain means you’re pushing yourself too hard and increasing the risk of injury. If you do injure yourself apply the dancer’s first aid strategy PRICED immediately.
  8. Feed yourself. So important. Using your muscles takes energy from your body and muscles and you need to replace it help them stay strong, so make sure you eat something within 40 minutes of stretching. It doesn’t have to be much, but something with protein and carbohydrates is perfect.

Happy stretching!

A Beginner’s Guide to Stretching

Stretching.

We all know it’s important but there is so much mis-information out there about it, that’s can be really hard to know where to start.

The tips below are perfect for beginners new to stretching, and a great reminder for the rest of us too!

Stretching is an important part of any dancers' training, but it's important it's done carefully.

Stretching is an important part of any dancers’ training, but it’s important it’s done carefully.

So you want to become more flexible? Well there are few important things you need to know:

  • Improving your flexibility is a journey not a destination. While it’s easy to focus on the end result (for example middle splits), we can often end up overlooking how much progress we’ve made as we work towards our goal. One way to see how you are progressing is to take photos every week or two so you can see the change.
  • Choose one goal at a time. It’s tempting to list everything you want to improve, but it doesn’t make it any easier! Choose one thing to work on, focus on that, and when you feel like you’ve made progress on that move on to the next goal.
  • Usual visual cues to help you achieve your goal. This might be a picture of what you’d like to be able to to do, or a post it note on your mirror. Use it as a reminder of what you’re aiming for and also a reminder to stretch.
  • Celebrate your successes. When you achieve a goal, doing something small to celebrate it and be proud that you’ve managed to work hard to achieve it!
  • Be patient, change takes time. Forcing your self to do something your body isn’t ready to do puts you at risk for an injury. Injuries aren’t fun and they can set you back in progress to achieve your goal, so don’t risk it.
  • Practice safe stretching. This means warming up properly, and not overstretching. If you’re a beginner consider taking a stretch or conditioning class for dancers until you feel confident.

What are your top tips for stretching?

Watch out for part two of our stretching series coming soon – Safe Stretching.

Concourse Review and and an Update

This post started out as a review of Concourse, the British Ballet Organisation’s annual course for students and teachers, but somehow has turned into more of a general update of where I’m at with my dance (teaching) career.

Concourse was impressive and there were some really amazing bits, no doubt about it. But it also gave me pause to reflect on my own journey towards teaching dance and where my passion lies. I love the British Ballet Organisation’s methods and their syllabus, they’re seriously good at it and they are super-lucky to have such an awesome group of dedicated and passionate teachers teaching their syllabus, but at the end of the day, that’s what they’re about – high quality ballet syllabus. Which means it’d totally be the right place for me – if I wanted to teach top-level ballet dancers.

One problem.

I don’t.

Which isn’t to say I don’t love ballet. I do. But as a teacher, teaching the best to be better doesn’t drive and inspire me. Finding the potential does, and ballet syllabus in a studio setting isn’t the way I want to do right for me right now.

So where does this leave me?

Well, not doing my BBO Teacher’s Exam this year, for one. Going ahead with the idea of teaching a choreo class and a stretch/wellness class for dancers next year is main focus at the moment. I’m keeping my options open but thinking about some other dance teacher/education qualifications for next year or the year after. But most of all I’m choosing opportunities that I can get excited about now and that are realistic knowing that there are some big life changes coming in the next few months (new baby and possibly more responsibility at work).

But back to Concourse…

I took 3 classes a day over three days, a stretch class, a teacher’s exam syllabus class and a teacher’s development class. I’m not really going to go into the teacher’s exam syllabus class – suffice to say it helped me come to the realisation above, but I still got a lot out of it.

The stretch class was interesting. It was a huge class – easily 80+ intermediate-senior dancers with only one teacher! To give the teacher credit, she did well given the numbers, and I learned a couple of new stretches, but mostly it was things that were familiar to me. That said though as an adult student/teacher I wasn’t really the target audience and she did have some great advice for the younger students in there. I took the class mainly as a bit of market research, and one thing that definitely stood out was the teacher’s attitude – she was all about conformity rather than working at your own pace/level. She was however very good at spotting and correcting those (often younger) students who like to show off their flexibility but are doing it with bad technique, so that was really good to see. I also enjoyed that her movements were based on pilates, which is a type of movement I’m pretty familiar with. All in all? Interesting to watch/take part in – probably wouldn’t do it again.

The highlight of the course though, was definitely the teacher’s development class, the first two days were taken by a physio and the final day was a mime and gesture workshop with the legendary Sir Jon Trimmer. The first couple of days were great – I learnt a lot about how the body processes pain as well as some strapping techniques for students’ aches and pains that come with growing and dancing. The final day was the highlight though. Aside from being an amazing dancer and actor, Sir Jon is also wickedly good fun and had all of us teachers up moving and acting. I came away with so many great ideas for breaking down those barriers in adding drama to dance.

 

So the final word on Concourse? If you’re into ballet it’s totally awesome and definitely worthwhile. I’d recommend it to any ballet student who is seriously studying for exams. Even if you’re not doing exams there are some great open classes too. For me though? I would have liked a bit more on teaching dance technique and structuring classes, there was an assumption that all teachers already knowing this stuff, so I found that a bit frustrating. Would I go again? Possibly, depending on what teacher’s classes were on offer.

 

The Organised Dancer

There’s no denying that dancers are busy people. Between classes, rehearsals, school and everything else in life, it’s easy to lose track of things. Here are some of my top tools and tricks for keeping yourself organised:

Messy dance gear? Time to get organised!

Messy dance gear? Time to get organised!

General Tips

  • Make a schedule. The great thing about being a dancer is that we work on a pretty routine schedule most of the time, so draw up a schedule of your classes and practices that occur on a regular basis and put it somewhere you’ll see it often.
  • Keep your calendar up-to-date. Whether you use a pen and paper diary,  or the calendar on your phone, make sure all important dates are recorded so you don’t miss a thing – especially when you have rehearsals or assignments that aren’t part of your regular schedule.
  • Sort out your dance bag. If you’re anything like me, you chuck everything in your dance bag. But make time each week to sort out your dance bag so you’re not carrying around unnecessary items.
Fabric packing cells are great for storing padding for pointe shoes or other bits and pieces that travel to and from class in your dance bag.

Fabric packing cells are great for storing padding for pointe shoes or other bits and pieces that travel to and from class in your dance bag.

  • Find a place for everything. Dancers tend to accumulate dance stuff. Organise your dance gear so that everything has a place, and you know where to find it.
  • Plan some down time. It’s great to busy and active, but it can easily become a habit. Planning for some relaxing time each week gives your brain and body a chance to rest.

Dance Gear Storage Tips

Dance gear sorted!

Dance gear sorted! It’s that easy.

  • Choose a basket/drawer or other container that will be your one place all your dance gear is stored. I use woven baskets that are open on top because it lets clothing and shoes breathe better, plus I can see what’s in each basket.
  • Separate your dance clothes based on when you use them. Because I wear the same clothes to teach dance as I do for running or jazz I keep these all together. My leotards and tights, which I only wear for ballet are separate, as are warm ups. It makes it easy to find what you need when you’re in a hurry.
  • Sort other dance related things into containers so they’re easy to find. I have a few different braces for various body parts that sometimes need a bit of extra support, along with therabands, spare ribbons, pointe shoe thread etc. that end up in a jumble if I’m not careful. Making a place for these helps me find them when I need them.
All my ballet shoes in one neat and tidy place - easy to grab when I'm in a hurry.

Store all your ballet shoes in one neat and tidy place – easy to grab when you’re in a hurry.

  • Store your shoes/extra bits and pieces for each class together. I keep all my ballet shoes (2 pairs of pointes, 1 pair of flats) together in a mesh bag along with my ouch pouches and toe tape for pointe. This means I just need to grab one bag every time I have ballet. I don’t every use the shoes separately so there’s no reason they can’t be together.

 

What are your top organisational tips? Share your top tips in the comments below.

The Photo Shoot

I’m pleased to (finally) be able to give you a sneak peak of the photo shoot I had with gorgeous dancer L. about a month ago. While I’m saving most of the images for their accompanying blog posts here are a few of my favourites.

For those wondering, L. is an intermediate level dancer just beginning on pointe. She turns 13 this year. The teacher/older dancer in the photos is me.

Rotating through the whole leg and ensuring the knee is tracking over the second toe is important when working in turn out.

Rotating through the whole leg and ensuring the knee is tracking over the second toe is important when working in turn out.

There's a sort of grotesque beauty to a dancer's feet.

There’s a sort of grotesque beauty to a dancer’s feet.

Helping students to rotate the foot to avoid sickling helps to develop a sense of correct alignment.

Helping students to rotate the foot to avoid sickling develops a sense of correct alignment.

Stretching through the feet is as important in contemporary as in ballet.

Stretching through the feet is as important in contemporary as in ballet.

Brie Jessen-Vaughan

Brie Jessen-Vaughan

Creating a sense of distance through epaulement and eyeline.

Creating a sense of length and longing through epaulement and eyeline.

Supporting dancers to feel correct alignment helps to develop their proprioception of a movement.

Supporting dancers to feel correct alignment helps to develop their proprioception of a movement.

The teacher/mentor relationship is such an important one for dancers of all ages.

The teacher/mentor relationship is such an important one for dancers of all ages.

All photos are taken by Marilyn Jessen and Copyright to dancewell.wordpress.org. Please do not use without DanceWell’s permission.