Teachers often wonder how to get the best out of their students en pointe, and there are many questions around strengthening dancers' feet once they are safely en pointe. Naturally dancers tend to think that once they are en pointe that their feet will get stronger just by working. This is true but dancers do need to continue strengthening and conditioning their feet so that they can match the increasing pressure that pointe work demands of them.
Building strength in their feet:
Please always remember that the pre pointe training is the most essential thing in strengthening the feet in regards to pointe work. Getting the required range of motion and correct ‘firing patterns’ established before starting en pointe is one of the crucial components of developing strength when actually en pointe. This is why doing the pre-pointe assessment and commencing pre pointe training at least 1 year before you are planning to put the student en pointe is so valuable.
If the right muscles are working from the beginning, then they will continue to work once challenged en pointe. However, if those muscle firing patterns have not been established before hand, then the student will tend to overuse other inappropriate muscles, leading to the potential for developing other issues later down the track. I am pretty sure that you already have The Perfect Pointe System and The Perfect Pointe Book, so Im sure that the students are well versed on this!
Once these motor patterns have been established, it is essential to start with some very basic exercises in pointe shoes. The preparatory exercises that should be introduced before the student actually starts with the class work include balance exercises, and non-weight bearing exercises to learn how to correctly articulate the foot in the shoe when moving onto pointe. Rises are actually introduced a little later, as we discuss in the My Beginner Pointe Program that I produced with Vicki Attard.
Building the stamina to last in their shoes for longer:
The Mini Rises that Vicki goes through in Stage One of the My Beginner Pointe Programare wonderful for deliberately developing good control in the feet, as well endurance and strength in the turnout muscles, core and legs. The exercises at this level must be very slow, deliberate, and focused on keeping most of the body still, while articulating the feet. Far too many students do fast relevé, and often release the knees in order to get fully up onto the box. Think of improving the postural endurance of the student as well as the feet, as this i usually what fatigues in the early stages.
For actual endurance of being able to tolerate being in the shoes, I suggest to many teachers to get the girls to work in pairs. This means that you can have one student sitting or lying on the floor closely watching their partners feet for sickling, snapping into end range or relaxing the knees, while they are actually resting their own feet with the shoes still on. This means that the student may be in her shoes for 20 mins, but actually only doing 10 minutes of exercises. This helps soften the shoe to make it more tolerable for the student new to pointe work.
I do not advocate walking around the house in the shoes, or sleeping in them, especially in the early years en pointe - as young students will often try out a few pirouettes or fouettes before they can even do rises correctly! This is one reason why I suggest keeping the shoes at the studio for the first 3 months, until you are sure that they will not do any damage to themselves!
Enhance the arch of the foot for a nice line in shoes?
An essential component to achieve this is the integration of the Doming Exercise action when moving from 3/4 to full pointe. This ensures correct activation of the Lumbrical muscles in the very front part of the foot that are essential for getting a nice line. These should be worked in every single Tendu and every single rise in the early stages to really cement the correct motor pattern in the students ‘other-than-conscious brain. Keep the exercises very slow and repetetive so that this action becomes natural. Obviously working on strength t control their full range and gradually improve the range over time is important, and will happen with the focus on these slow deliberate exercises.
I hope this helps you put together a good program for your students to have them continue to improve en pointe!