Since I’m doing most of my ballet-watching on YouTube these days, I thought I’d comment on a disturbing trend I’ve noticed there: little girls in pointe shoes, usually dancing in competitions.
I mean very little girls in pointe shoes, some of them age 7 or even younger.
I’m not saying they’re not good; some of them are amazing (for children; I have to add that I do not especially enjoy seeing a child dance a role clearly meant for an adult).
I have several problems with this trend, the first being that baby ballerinas — I mean real babies, not the Balanchine variety, which was usually age 15 or older — tend to not reach their potential as adult ballerinas simply because they do not last that long. Too often what is viewed as superior talent in a child does not translate well into adulthood; many more times, the girls just burn out. (I’m basing this opinion on observations through the years of pre-teen and young teen ballet wunderkinds, who frequently seemed to disappear before they entered the professional realm or else went on to have lackluster careers, and also very young figure skaters I observed when I was a skater. Of the latter, out of maybe a dozen genuinely promising child skaters I was familiar with through the years, only one made it to elite USFSA and international championships. The rest flamed out, grew up with the wrong body, got injured, or couldn’t withstand the rigors of competition.)
I doubt we’ll see ballet become yet another form of childhood competitive dance like Irish dance, in which careers are usually over by the time the dancer has graduated from high school simply because there is nowhere to go from there. In contrast, in ballet there is a well-established professional level that has been an older-teens-and-young-adults club, and that is unlikely to change. But what could become a problem is that lots of talented kids could conceivably burn themselves out before they ever come of age to enter a professional company, or decide to be satisfied with a “career” of compiling a collection of trophies and medals before retiring gracefully into the adult world, leaving ballet behind in the realm of childhood sports — a place where ballet does not belong.
Another danger to ballet from this trend is the nonsense that has gone on in women’s tennis, figure skating, and gymnastics. In all of these, some cheerfully stupid mythology arose that females have athletic ability only before they develop figures, and the rush was on to push younger and younger girls into the pros or into the Olympics. It only stopped in all three sports when those supposedly superior athletes started suffering horrendous injuries from early-onset over-use.
Which brings me to the biggest danger — putting babies into pointe shoes. The main argument I see in favor of this abomination is from know-it-alls who sniff from lofty noses that the teachers of these little girls “know what they are doing.” (I should add before going further that this baby-ballerina phenomenon is not limited to the U.S., before anyone considers making the tiresome “cultural flaw” charge.)
I’m sure the teachers do know what they are doing — otherwise the little girls wouldn’t dance as well as they do. However, there is still the issue of physical damage to the feet that can lead to a lifetime of pain. One person, I can’t remember who, said that putting baby girls into pointe shoes is the modern equivalent of foot binding. In some ways, it is.
Back in my day, few aspiring dancers dared slip pointe shoes on before their 10th birthdays. Supposedly by then, we were told, the bones in the foot were “hard” enough to put up with the strain of dancing on pointe. Not being a medical person, I don’t know how true this was, or is. However, most of us came away with undamaged feet save for a missing toenail or two, and those usually grew back in time. Yes, in those days bunions were a problem because as I remember, toe boxes tended to be more tapered than they are today (they had tiny platforms!). In my case, this would push my big toes into severe angles. It was a horrible sensation because my feet are actually square; it felt like my toes were being dislocated. I didn’t dance long enough to develop bunions, but plenty of the more serious dancers did. In fact, several years after quitting, I met a former Boston Ballet School pre-professional student whose feet were still, after a decade of not dancing, shaped like severely tapered pointe shoes.
Pointe shoes are somewhat kinder these days, but I really doubt that little kids’ feet are somehow magically stronger than they once were. And so the danger remains, no matter how knowledgeable their teachers are.
All in all, I see this as a bad trend — bad for the kids and possibly bad for ballet. I welcome opinions to the contrary.