My First Year On Pointe
Professional Ballerina’s Megan Fairchild, Michele Wiles, Sarah Hay and Tiffany Hedman reminisce about dancing on pointe for the first time.
By Laura Di Orio of Dance Informa.
When most young girls see the image of the iconic ballerina they aspire to be, they see a few of things: The tutu. The tiara. The pointe shoes. It’s every little girl’s dream to dance to beautiful music and appear to gracefully waft across the stage. A first pair of pointe shoes is like a rite of passage. Sometimes it’s harder than it appears, but mostly, it is as rewarding as one would think. Here, some of today’s top professional ballerinas share their stories and experiences of their first year on pointe.
At what age did you first start pointe?
Depending on technique, strength, readiness and other factors, each dancer may start pointe work at a different age. Both Megan Fairchild, principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, and Michele Wiles, former principal ballerina with American Ballet Theater and now artistic director of Ballet Next, started when they were 11 years old. Sarah Hay, soloist with Semperoper Ballett, and Tiffany Hedman, soloist with Boston Ballet, began at the age of 10.
How did you feel when you found out you were ready to go up on pointe?
A dancer’s teacher will tend to make the judgment call on when each student is ready for pointe, but when that time comes it is always exciting.
“It’s like Christmas morning!” Fairchild recalls. “It’s the most exciting thing in a young dancer’s life! I remember wanting to do everything perfectly. I took forever sewing my first ribbons and elastic, as opposed to now, when I rush through in five minutes.”
Hedman remembers the anticipation of her 10th birthday, when her teacher, Margaret Hord, would allow her to go on pointe, at an age when a dancer’s bones would be more developed and ready. Also eager, Hay remembers sneaking around in the autographed shoes of a principal dancer, Mary Barton, before she had pointe shoes of her own.
Wiles mentions that although a dancer’s entry into pointe work will require a lot of hard work, it is still a big milestone of which to be proud. She recalls the time she saw Darcey Bussell perform Swan Lake with the Royal Ballet and instantly knew that was her dream: to be the Swan Queen. “The first time you try on a pair of pointe shoes is a very special experience, and I knew it was a big step toward becoming the Swan Queen,” she says.
How do you remember feeling after putting on your pointe shoes for the first time?
For any dancer, her first pointe shoes are foreign objects, but whether painful or not, the excitement alone is usually enough to mask any other sensation.
“Putting them on at the store was really exciting,” Hay says. “I am very fortunate to have square toes, so pain is not really an issue. My mom said I was hopping on one foot at the store.”
What was your first pointe class like?
Most pre-pointe and pointe classes will start slowly, with many exercises facing the barre and often with much individual attention. Each dancer may progress and get accustomed to being on pointe at a different pace.
“I took my first pointe class with a lot of girls from my school at another studio because we weren’t allowed to start at 10,” says Hay. “In my first pointe class, I was asked to demonstrate. It was fun for me.”
Wiles, another natural, says, “I remember being surprised that I wasn’t totally lost after my first time on pointe and that some things actually did come naturally.”
Hedman, so excited for her first class, says, “I felt like a grown-up ballerina! Funny thing, the very first day I had a pointe class, I actually had the chicken pox. I wanted my mom to take a picture of that first day, but I felt so unphotogenic. But when I got my pointe shoes on, I felt so pretty and elegant it didn’t matter.”
What do you remember about your first full year on pointe? Were some things especially easier or harder for you?
New pointe dancers may begin to notice some changes in their feet or body over the first year on pointe. Bunions and blisters may sprout up, or new muscles may be sore.
Wiles says that, during her first year on pointe, she was still experimenting with what shoes were best for her and also dealing with blisters. “I also remember really noticing differences in my right and left foot,” she adds. “The left foot was strong and able to do fouetté turns from the very first class, but it didn’t look as flexible as the right. My right foot wasn’t as strong. The hardest part was dealing with these differences and the blister pain.”
During Fairchild’s first year, she remembers pointe work as something that came somewhat easily for her. But, she says, “I do remember within the first couple weeks I had already developed tailor’s bunions (the bunion of the pinky toe), which hurt at first, but eventually the pain went away. I vividly remember my first pointe recital, a ‘Stars and Stripes’ kind of ballet. We did the polka on pointe, crossing in two diagonals, and I loved it. I still love hopping on pointe.”
Hay, an eager first year pointe student, says, “I remember that I was just so ready to do more and I would try really hard things, definitely incorrectly, but I wanted to do the tricks! The hardest part was learning how to be patient and to learn how to do things correctly.”
Similarly, Hedman says she learned more about how to work in a smart way and not necessarily always the hardest she possibly could. “In order for a young body to withstand hours of training and not get too fatigued and begin to work wrongly out of exhaustion, it was necessary to learn that thought,” she says. “The easiest part of my first year? Well, that was in class learning more each day and strengthening my body and feet to achieve my dream. The hardest part by far was waiting until my next lesson!”
What advice do you have for dancers who are starting their first year of pointe?
“Pace yourself,” Fairchild advises. “It can be dangerous if you rush to do things too quickly. Listen to your teachers, and work on good technique in the shoe.”
“It is important to take your time identifying the right shoe and to get a proper shoe fitting,” says Wiles. “It will really save you a lot of pain! Remember, this is all a process. Eventually, I figured things out, and my blisters turned to calluses. To this day, I am still experimenting with my pointe shoes. I am recently working on a new custom shoe from Capezio.”
“Be patient,” Hay encourages. “You have to get strong and learn how to approach things with the right amount of energy. And don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t made for it. Everyone can improve.”
“Never look to others and compare your progress,” Hedman says. “We all have a different path to take, and staying focused on your goal will ultimately get you to be able to live out your dream. And enjoy, enjoy, enjoy, for every moment you are able to do what inspires you is a gift.”