Ballet shoesOnce upon a time, there was a little dance studio with big problems. The electrical connection to the water fountain was a jerry-rigged code violation and fire hazard; a fire exit door could not open; sections of barre dangled unsecured from the wall.

Nobody much cared about these hazards. There was something else that frightened, enraged and pitted people against each other. Parents, board members, students, teachers were up in arms about pointe shoes.

Somehow it reminded me of the old SNL skit with Irwin Mainway touting toys like his “Bag o’ Glass” and “Teddy Chainsaw Bear” as safe, while demonstrating the ways blocks and foam balls can be dangerous. For those of you too young to remember it, here’s a link.

Obviously, we’re not talking about putting 8-year-olds on pointe or using the new “demi-pointe shoes,” with boxes but no shanks. (“Don’t stand on your toes with these” is a warning with all the power of “Don’t push any buttons on your shiny new iPhone.”) It’s a long way from irresponsible practices to pre-pointe classes taught by a qualified teacher.

Some parents threatened to take their teenage daughters to another studio if they couldn’t have pointe at this one (something its financial straits could not afford), while others got irate at the very prospect of a soft-slippered relevé-intensive preparatory class and complained about lack of “integrity” (while enrolling their daughters anyway).

Budding ballerinas don’t want to miss the boat, and it does sail early. There’s no standard age to begin pointe – it depends on the student’s physiology, skill, and knowledge from years of ballet classes. Some enterprises now offer x-rays to measure bone ossification as one measure of whether students are ready for pointe. Generally, a well-qualified teacher is the best judge. By late adolescence, it can be difficult to begin pointe work because the body needs a degree of malleability along with rigid strength.

Despite some truly egregious practices, we haven’t seen whole generations of girls hobbled by pointe shoes. I dare say many more are injured by soccer, let alone by dance studios that force turnout, throw gymnastics into dance choreography, or push young bodies beyond their limits. Yet the thought of completely capable teenage girls demonstrating one pas-de-bourrée on pointe in a recital? Shocking! Dangerous! It just isn’t done before three full years of pointe study!

What I wonder is why girls – even in a modern dance studio – are so anxious to dance on pointe. It’s a painful, bone-contorting practice. Like corsets and Chinese foot binding, pointe shoes alter the natural form of the body for the sake of a centuries-old cultural aesthetic. Although pointe shoes were first used to create an image of ethereal, heavenly beauty, no one exclaims “Heavenly!” when first standing in them.

Modern dance began as an art form embracing women’s nature and power. Women were its entrepreneurs, and made their own statements about the female body in motion. Their dance defied ballet’s qualities of airy, lofty floating and instead embraced earth-bound movement in levels, gravity and weight. (Perhaps coincidentally, this parallels the ancient duality of earth deities as female and sky gods as male.) Whereas George Balanchine once said, “The ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener,” modern dancers redefined themselves as dancing women – not flowers or sylphs or swans.

While modern dance has taken us a few steps forward, we’ve bourréed ourselves backward, too. It only took a few phone calls and some power tools to fix the faulty wiring, jammed fire exit and dangling barres in the troubled little dance studio. It will take a lot more to change perspectives about girls and women in dance, and to reconsider where we should invest our concerns. Pointe shoes just aren’t that big a threat.

Long before little girls think about trying on pointe shoes, the ballet aesthetic shows up in the ubiquitous “fairy princess” fascination. A symptom of myriad cultural and commercial factors, it’s been the topic of recent books like Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Many dance studios now exploit it with “Fairy Princess Camps” and the like (unlikely to attract boys to dance). What happens when this hyper-feminine image of girlhood grows up?

Twerking, perhaps.

Our troubled little dance studio produces several student performances each year. There’s no apparent concern about “integrity” when teenage girls, clad in bathing suits, lie on the floor opening their legs to the audience (I am not making this up) or when 11-year-olds in scanty sequins and fishnets mimic the movements of seductive adult women. There’s a danger here that goes beyond the possibilities of prurient interest from men in the audience: it also goes to the girls’ developing sense of themselves.

Girlhood in our culture is replete with challenges, pitfalls and mixed messages that warrant real concern. Pointe shoes themselves aren’t on that list. When artificial ideals, fetishes and gender biases become cultural norms, it’s easy to take the obvious for granted while worrying excessively about other things… and missing the point(e).