This post is dedicated to every student I have encountered over the years who innocently asked "should my toes be pointed here?" to every instructor who is ready to pull their hair out because their students cannot seem to grasp the simple concept of "point your feet!" and to every judge whose commentary has included something like "let's make sure everyone is pointing their toes here."
To me, the whole concept of "point your toes" may be equated to nails down a chalkboard. It focuses on one tiny detail while ignoring the greater issue. Teaching by yelling "point your toes" is like attempting to treat a minor symptom while simultaneously refusing to treat the underlying illness.
So let's diagnose the big problem: a lack of understanding of extension and line. My first priority when working with a new group, is helping them find ways to feel their center. I like to do some Pilates-style exercises in my warm-ups to activate the correct muscles. When we begin dancing we can remember what it was like to use those muscles. As we perform technique exercises, my focus is to get the students to think about their center as the source of their energy, and to extend that energy out through their extremities.
I love to use imagery for this type of extension. The basic idea is to think of your center as some type of reservoir for a substance. As you extend outward, you can shoot that substance out your fingers and toes. I've used images like lasers, water guns, chocolate pudding, glitter, paint, etc. For example, to perform a dégagé, I might say, "load your glitter cannon, and shoot that glitter down the length of your leg, through your toes and out in front of you."
I hope you'll notice a few key elements to this type of imagery: it begins by activating the center, it extends down the full length of the limb, and the energy extends past the end of the extremities and out into space.
In recent years, I have made it a priority to teach exercises that explicitly explore such imagery and the proprioceptive qualities it invokes (ie reinforcing an understanding how your body feels when you extend). I'll do this with warm ups that look similar to port de bras exercises or simple lunges, motivating the kids to reach further, extend more, shoot glitter farther.
You may also notice that there are certain buzzwords of which I am particularly fond. "Extend," "reach," and "lengthen" are some of my favorite terms to describe the movement I'm teaching, or to provide guidance and correction. Terms and phrases that I make a point to not use in my rehearsals? "Point your toes," of course. I'm also not very fond of anyone yelling "perform!" at the kids, especially without ensuring that the students first have the information they need to understand what it means to "perform." I'll reserve my commentary on developing a character (and subsequently exploring the emotional element of performance) for another post. "Performing" with your body, however, can often be sufficiently explored in the exercises and images I have described above. As an alternative to "perform!" I like to use more specific commentary on how to fix the problem. "Reach more with your arms," "maintain a lifted spine through that sequence," or "slow your body and take all the counts to extend through that phrase." Each comment gives the student a specific action they can take to improve their performance.
I encourage all of you, as performers or instructors, to resist the urge to think of the foot as a thing that needs to be pointed independently. Instead, try to look at the bigger picture. Extend from the center down the line of the leg and push that energy out past the end of the foot. I'm certain you'll see an immediate change in the way you or your students move.