Leveling, Advancement, Bewilderment in Ballet Schools

This is the time when some schools hold placement classes to decide who will be in which level for the coming school year. Other schools may have already placed their students before the summer break, but be it as it may, this process can be stressful and even upsetting for students and parents. And everyone involved in the decision making.

It needs to be understood that leveling in a ballet environment is not like progressing from one grade to the next in public school. There, if you are told to repeat a grade, it’s not a good thing and the implication is that there is something wrong with you.

I have never met a dancer or former ballet student that complained about starting pointe training too late.

Ballet training, however, as I have mentioned in previous articles, is a process. It’s slow and thorough, and no student learns like another. Any caring teacher will insist on a student staying for another year in the same level, if she or he feels that it is more beneficial than moving up. It means that this particular student will be on “top” of the class, still having the benefit of a slower pace, instead of being on the “bottom” of the next level and either struggling with a faster pace or faking it.

Some decades back, this could create a social problem by separating “barre buddies” and friends, but it seems to me that in an age of 24/7 social media frenzy, staying in touch does not require to be in the same room at the same time. There is no “holding back” when it comes to the leveling of individual students, there is only caring and responsible decision making.

I know a large number of students that wish to have been “held back” when it counted, because advancing too fast gave them a “lifetime” of unnecessary struggles with their technique and it turned their enjoyment of dancing into a stressful “race to stay in the race”. I also know a lot of professional dancers that jump at every opportunity to take low level ballet classes to improve their technique and hear all those things that you might be tired of.

When I went to school, I had a ballet class for ninety minutes, six days per week, non-stop for eight years with a few breaks in between. In that particular school, leveling wasn’t an issue: either you made it or you were out. Most American schools don’t have that luxury, especially in the lower levels.

Any professional worth their salt will agree that it takes at least nine hours per week of intense training to lay the foundations and build on them. Remember, we have to grow, to shape and stretch muscles; we have to train new habits and coordination, build stamina and strength.

Nature moves at its own pace. Bodies grow and adapt at their own pace, and they don’t care if you have homework, soccer, or whatever other important occupations besides ballet class. It is only logical that training takes longer under these circumstances. Unless you are enrolled in a communist “military academy” style boarding school like the one I studied at.

I once was very involved in a particular ballet school and insisted on each level lasting for two years for this very reason. When it became a “political” issue and the school decided to move everybody through the levels like through grades in a public school, I quit. The level of training diminished noticeably and so did the enrollment.

One decisive issue in the leveling of students of course, is the opportunity to begin training on pointe. I can’t think of any parent who wouldn’t love to see their little girl twirl in shiny new pointe shoes and a pink tutu in the spot light.

Most girls can’t wait to be fitted in their first pair of pointe shoes.

Most girls who have been fitted it their first pair of pointe shoes and who have had their first few classes can’t wait to get out of them!

Parents discover soon that pointe shoes aren’t cheap, are not carried by Walmart, and make a dent in their family budget.

It needs to be understood that leveling in a ballet environment is not like progressing from one grade to the next in public school.

Reason suggests that delaying pointe training might not be such a bad thing. Why rush making an expensive after school activity even more expensive? So for all parents who can’t wait to see their little shining stars emerge from the primordial muck, rise and shine, and lift off above half pointe to full pointe, this is for you:

The growth plates in the feet of your daughters are not entirely stable and fused until a certain age. Putting them into the restriction of pointe shoes too early, with all the body weight bearing down at the mere square inches of their cramped toes, equals Japanese girls having their feet bound. Last time I checked, that was considered torture.

Pointe shoes can actually deform the feet of your child if training is started too early. Like atomic energy, it can be either beneficial or detrimental. Consider handing your child a running chain saw inside your house! Pointe shoes are a tool that needs to be carefully introduced and used only when it is in safe hands.

I have never met a dancer or former ballet student that complained about starting pointe training too late. However, I have met scores that complained about foot problems later in life because of bad training, too early advancement, and premature pointe training. Trusting your teacher to make this crucial decision is an absolute MUST. As a student or parent you are as qualified to choose the time of training as you are qualified to make any other decision above your head.

Some schools require a medical certificate before beginning pointe training. Others begin pointe training with shoes that have all restricting parts removed. Both approaches are smart, especially when business needs have to meet integrity. It is funny that when the famous Italian ballerina, Marie Taglioni, introduced pointe shoes in the eighteen hundreds, it was laughed off and dis-missed as a cheap trick. Nobody in her time could have imagined what an issue it would become in the training of young dancers here and in ballet schools and studios around the world!

About the Author: Alex Ossadnik

Alex Ossadnik
Alex was trained under government scholarship for eight years on the Palucca Schule Dresden in his native (then communist) Germany. His performance career spanned from 1986-2000 with companies in Germany, France and the USA. Since then he is a successful choreographer, teacher and coach. Alex is the ballet master for Ballet Idaho since 2008.