Parents can worry that the high demands of ballet training can distort or deform young children. Poorly taught turnout, for example, can result in the torqued look of feet turned out, with knees and thighs facing forward, and often with the a little bent. Growth plate damage is not common, but could result from dancing in pointe shoes starting at a too young age, or without proper preparation.
In ballet, the common injuries such as sprained ankles or knee injuries, will more likely be torn tendons, muscles or ligaments.
Starting with the splits, is there an impact on the hip bones that could damage growth plates? If young children practice vigorous or unsupervised stretching to do the splits, what is likely to be injured, if anything?
Doing the splits requires length in the large muscles at the front and back of the thighs, the large postural muscles that run down the front of the spine to the hips and thighs, and also requires long ligaments and tendons, that are not elastic.
Overexertion in stretching, or badly taught or unsupervised stretching, will first cause fairly significant pain (and stiffness the following day) in the muscles. Most younger children will not repeat this very willingly, and will avoid injury.
Overuse of the postural and large leg muscles that can cause injury to growth plates are most associated with sudden, unexpected exertion, for instance to recover from a badly executed long jump. This kind of uncontrolled pull, or compression, by a powerful muscle can damage a growth plate.
If a child, or any ballet student complains of severe, immediate (to the time of stretching), and localized (a child can point to it) pain, they must stop their exercise. If the pain returns at all, it is best that they be seen by a ballet/sports/fitness health practitioner as soon as possible.
Doing the splits is one thing that young dancers idealize in ballet. Some are not born to do the splits ever. Others can stretch to that degree gradually, with the usual guidelines - being extremely warmed up, and be patient.
Being able to dance in pointe shoes is another goal that young ballet dancers are eager to reach. Getting onto pointe too young could damage growth plates in the tiny foot bones. Even after the age of 12, lack of preparation for dancing ballet in pointe shoes can also result in damage.
Growth plate damage does not ever have to be considered a risk in ballet training. Good training is methodical, patient and is of very calculated exertion. Learn more about how to prevent ballet injuries with the materials at The Body Series.