Ankle conditioning is critical for pointe work.
Even if you've been dancing for years, transitioning from soft ballet slippers to pointe shoes can be rough. To make the move, you need rock-solid lower-leg strength and excellent ankle range of motion to help you get up and over your toes, keep you stable and protect you from injury. Working conscientiously in class is probably the best way to prepare your ankles for pointe, but supplemental exercises can also help.
Point of Departure
When you condition your ankles for pointe, don't underestimate the value of dance-specific exercises -- the tried-and-true exercises you do regularly at the barre. Slow releves onto demi- and full-pointe are a surefire way to build strength in the muscles that support your ankles. After class -- when your legs, feet and ankles are warm -- take a few minutes for slow, deliberate rises. Face the barre with your feet together and parallel. Roll up and down smoothly through all parts of your feet eight to 12 times. Repeat with your feet in turned-out first position. Focus on keeping your knees relatively straight, your insteps aligned over your second and third toes and your movements fluid. Other barre exercises that benefit your ankles include tendus, degages, echappes and frappes.
A Step Ahead
Take your cue from athletes who value healthy ankle function as much as you do. Calf raises on the edge of a stair step build calf strength, improve ankle stability and increase joint range of motion -- all of which allow for an easier, smoother transition to and from full-pointe. Gripping a dumbbell in one hand, stand facing up a staircase. Step onto the lowest stair with one foot, letting the heel extend off the edge. Your non-working foot can rest against the working ankle. From here, do one to three sets of eight to 12 single-leg calf rises, lifting and lowering the working heel as much as possible. Switch legs and repeat. To work different areas of the calf, repeat the exercise with your toes angled inward and then outward. You can perform calf raises on a variety of raised surfaces, including an aerobic step, sidewalk curb or solid plank of wood.
Resistance bands are lightweight and easy to store in your dance bag for use between classes. They're also great for boosting calf and shin strength and promoting ankle-joint flexibility. Purchase a good-quality band and use it regularly to work the muscles that support your ankle. Include exercises for the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles of your calf and the tibialis anterior muscle of your shin. These are the muscles responsible for plantar flexion and dorsiflexion, or pointing and flexing the foot. Also target the peroneus brevis and tibialis posterior muscles, which control movement of your foot away from and toward your body's center line.
A high level of flexibility at the ankle joint is crucial for safe pointe work. Before class and rehearsals, warm up your ankles with a dynamic stretch, emphasizing smooth, repetitive motion at the joint. Sitting on the floor or in a chair, do ankle circles, slowly rotating one foot at a time in large continuous circles. Or write the alphabet in the air with each foot, imagining your big toe is a crayon. When you're already warm -- after class or between barre and center work -- use static stretches to gently lengthen and loosen your calves and shins.
Balance of Power
When you dance en pointe, your base of support -- the end of your toe box -- is remarkably small. As a result, your proprioception -- your body's ability to sense where it is in space -- needs to be top-notch. To develop your proprioceptive ability and promote ankle stability -- practice one-legged balances. Working in soft ballet slippers, stand on one leg with the other leg in passe. You'll sense your supporting ankle making constant tiny adjustments to keep you from toppling over. When you can stand on one foot for a minute or more -- preferably without wobbling -- make the exercise more challenging by standing on a small cushion, closing your eyes, moving your arms or turning your head from side to side.
To the Point
If you've been told you're not ready for pointe, don't rush it. Along with ankle stability and flexibility, you need sufficient core and leg strength, postural control and emotional maturity. Your teacher understands that letting you dance en pointe before you're physically and emotionally ready sets you up for injury and possible permanent bone, muscle or joint damage. When you're finally given the OK to start pointe training, follow your teacher's instructions and corrections carefully to keep yourself injury-free.