“What’s the Pointe?”
By Tania Kopytko & Nick Watson
Esther was born in Zurich, Switzerland and loved dance and ballet from an early age, though initially she did acrobatics and performed in a children’s circus. She began her professional ballet training at the Zurich Opera House, the home of Ballet Zurich, and as a student she danced with the company, continuing her training at Rambert and the Dance Centre in Covent Garden, London. A fall during training severely injured her back, resulting in partial paralysis from the waist down. After a major operation and learning to walk again, which took her seven years, she returned to ballet with a different approach: a focus on safe dance practice and preventing dance injuries,
particularly those caused by dancing en pointe.
In 1985, Esther moved to Brighton, England where she opened her own ballet school and shop, Dance Laines, and it was selling pointe shoes that stimulated her interest in fitting pointe shoes to provide the correct support for young dancer’s feet. She set out on a mission to find out all she could about pointe shoe fitting and safe dancing en pointe. She found the pointe shoe fitting courses she attended, run by companies such as Freed, Gamba, Porsellie and Gandolfie, were product and sales focussed.
Her search for information led her to Shirley Hancock, a physiotherapist working with both the Royal Ballet and the English National Ballet, who advised that pointe shoes were mostly fitted too wide and too long and that these were two main areas to focus on. Esther confirmed Shirley Hancock’s views when she studied her students’ feet and shoes during pointe shoe fittings. Her observations showed that when the shoe supported the foot properly, the sizing would invariably be one or two half sizes smaller, as well as one or two widths narrower. Feedback from the dancers showed they liked the new support achieved by these fittings.
Working with physiotherapist Lucy Redhead, a lecturer in biomechanics at Brighton University, Esther gained insight into the workings of the foot: if the foot has a three point support system on the flat and on demi-pointe, then the pointe shoe must also support the foot in three places: through the metatarsal heads, the longitudinal arch and the heel, combined with the ribbons. Esther also worked with a local osteopath who encouraged a holistic approach, looking at the dancer’s posture and body alignment. Through pilates classes Esther explored how the body worked from a biomechanical viewpoint including body alignment and balance. “Needless to say I learned a great deal during these years, and this became very useful when I assessed dancers for pointe work a few years later.”
Esther applied these skills and knowledge to pointe shoe preparation and fitting, producing a resource, in conjunction with her partner Fergus, on correct pointe shoe fitting, further developing her approach to class work. She also introduced a programme of foot strengthening exercises, which she built into the dancer’s daily routine. These exercises helped dancers to improve their foot strength and support their pointe work.
In 1995, when Esther enrolled in the British Ballet Organisation (BBO) teaching diploma, she used the fitting of pointe shoes as her special topic and published it as a small book called Pointe Shoe Secrets. During a major dance expo held at Earl’s Court, London, Esther met Nicolai Grishko, a leading ballet shoe manufacturer from Russia. He was impressed with her fitting work and invited her to Moscow in October 1995, where she held fitting sessions for the dancers at the Bolshoi Ballet and at ballet schools in Moscow. Subsequently, Grishko UK invited Esther to develop a pointe shoe fitting course for their fitter and these courses are still run today by Linda Reid Labatto, who was trained by Esther.
Esther’s profile was increasing and she was invited to write articles for dance magazines including The Young Dancer and The Dancing Times, run pointe shoe fitting workshops for the RAD around the UK and, in conjunction with Lucy Redhead, for the BBO at their Annual Concourse in London and regional concourses. In 1999, Esther and Lucy were invited to present Esther’s pointe shoe work at the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) Annual Meeting at Tring, near London. Esther has kept up her association with IADMS and attended this year’s IADMS event in Singapore in October. “To be at the cutting edge of where new thinking and sharing of information takes place and thinking outside the square is a normal activity.”
Esther married her New Zealand born partner Fergus in 2003, and two years later they moved to Hawkes Bay. She decided to continue her pointe shoe fitting work and set up her company, Juon Pointe. She teamed up with Jackie Scannell, her business partner, and they tour New Zealand promoting the importance of properly fitted pointe shoes to protect young dancers’ feet from possible damage and do this through their workshops, pointe shoe assessments and pointe shoe fitting service. They are enthusiastic, dedicated and knowledgeable about their work.
“We started this company primarily to provide a unique service to the dancer, teacher and parent, making sure that dancers are properly prepared and their feet remain as protected as possible, allowing them a way up onto pointe which is safe and injury free.”
The workshops cover technical aspects such as pointing the foot without scrunching up the toes, and they teach simple exercises to strengthen and keep the balance between important muscle groups, so that sufficient strength can be developed to allow dancers to go on to dance en pointe without the foot collapsing and being damaged. They discuss pointe shoes, why they need to be fitted correctly and how they support and protect the feet.
In their pointe shoe assessments, Esther and Jackie place a lot of emphasis on strong feet, good technique, body placement and body strength. They suggest exercises and techniques to help the dancers develop, and where appropriate follow this with the fitting of pointe or demi-pointe shoes. Esther says, “Education and communication is the key. This is simply a different option to what has traditionally happened. Almost all of the problems disappear as soon as we all start working and communicating together”.
The teachers who have started working with them can already see the benefits of Esther and Jackie’s approach and appreciate the difference they make. Briar Horrocks of Hastings says, “Esther's expertise in the fitting of pointe shoes has been extremely beneficial to all the students. Once the students have grown used to the shoe and the structure of the foot in relation to the pointe shoe, their pointe work has improved considerably”.
Esther still retains her link with Grishko and sells their shoes as part of the Juon Pointe business. She believes the shoes provide the support required for the dancer en pointe and Grishko provides a wide range of sizes to suit the many different feet types. However the pointe shoe fitting service is focussed on fitting all makes of shoes correctly and is not restricted to any particular brand.
As part of their philosophy, they do not sell shoes for young dancers without first being sure that they will fit correctly. However, “once a dancer has been assessed, does the exercises daily, is fitted and refitted a time or two and her feet have stopped growing, we are then able to send her shoes, as she will have settled into a shoe model and size that fits correctly”. However, new buying trends, particularly over the internet, are compromising health and safety as there is a greater likelihood of buying ill-fitting shoes – shoes that are too long and/or wide, incorrect box height or shank length, the wrong shaped box – which can cause foot problems. Parents are not always aware of the safety issues, but Esther finds that once they are informed they become actively interested in safety and good practice.
The Juon Pointe Shoe Fitting Service has embarked on a carefully developed NZ training programme (a complete body assessment and pointe shoe fitting course) to train specially selected people to become fitters and provide the same service that Esther and Jackie offer. They have also helped set up independent pointe shoe fitting centres in Nelson, called Pointe of Difference, and Bellairs in Sydney.
Esther finds purpose and inspiration in her specialisation: “I am very lucky to have worked with so many wonderful people. My education is on-going as every dancer brings a different set of abilities, be they physical, mental or emotional.”
Download the article (Iss. 30) What's the Pointe
Further information on Juon Pointe and the Juon Pointe Shoe Fitting Service is available from the website: www.JuonPointe.com