Getting good feet: The do's and don'ts
The always helpful Pointe Magazine offers up some sound advice in this great article on improving your feet (with tips on what to do, and more importantly what not to do)!
Your Best Body: Bad Feet?
By Kathleen McGuire
It’s a ballet dancer’s eternal question: How do I make my feet better? It seems that our ankles and insteps - no matter how supple they are - are never good enough. But while we all might dream of having arches like Polina Semionova or Paloma Herrera, few of us are born with them.
Jane Rehm, now a dancer with Smuin Ballet in San Francisco, found out early on in her training that her feet were going to be a hurdle. “Pretty much every summer program that rejected me said it was because of my bad feet,” says Rehm. “It was something I knew I was going to have to get past.”
The good news is that with the right strengthening exercises, you can improve the appearance of your feet. And if you start young enough, you can even make them more flexible. But there are limits - and excessive stretching can do more damage than good.
What Are “Bad” Ballet Feet?
Dancers want their ankles to be flexible enough to create at least a straight line from their shin to the top of their foot when pointing. Anything less, and you’ll have trouble getting up on pointe. “Most ankles have about the same total range of motion, but dancers with a flatter foot have more motion toward flexing, and those with a higher arch have more toward pointing,” says Dr. Thomas Novella, a podiatrist based in New York City, who has tested the range of motion in at least 1,500 dancers. “It has to do with the way the rear part of the foot meets the ankle inside the joint.”
While he feels it is possible to improve range of motion through strengthening and moderate stretching, Novella warns that it won’t work for everyone. Dancers in their early to mid-adolescence whose growth plates have just begun to stabilize will see the best results. “Your chance of improving flexibility decreases with age,” he says. Although there isn’t hard statistical data, Novella asserts that by your mid-20s, there’s not much you can do.
How They Can Improve
Kathleen Mitchell, a teacher at Boston Ballet School, has helped students in their teens change the shape of their feet. She recommends using the classic Thera-Band exercises at a slow, controlled pace to increase strength in the ankle and metatarsals. While holding the Thera-Band taut against the ball of your foot, slowly point and flex while fully articulating through the foot. After repeating several times, keep your foot pointed against the band and slowly flex and point the toes only, leaving your ankle in the pointed position.
Stretching properly can also help. “A physiotherapist can stretch your ankle and mid-foot to give the appearance of having more pointe,” says Novella, “But it can take years and there’s no guarantee.” Novella recommends a technique called contract-relax, in which a dancer pushes against a physical therapist’s hand, then relaxes to let the muscles stretch farther than before.
While some perhaps painful efforts, like cramming your toes under a door, may seem like a worthwhile sacrifice, think again. “If something sounds crazy, it probably is,” says Rehm, “and in the long run, it will set you back.” Sleeping in your pointe shoes, standing on the tops of your metatarsals, having a friend sit on your feet or banging your arches to make them swell are dangerous behaviors that can cause serious damage.
“That’s not active stretching,” says Mitchell. “It would be like just slamming down into the splits.” Dr. Novella points out that dancers often cause Achilles tendonitis by overstretching. “You’re inducing mobility in joints that really should be stable,” says Novella. “If you’re going to stretch the arch and ankle, you need to make sure that the strength of the muscle groups around the joints is maintained.”
And resist the temptation to cover up bad feet. “You want to know exactly what you’re dealing with so you can see your progress,” says Rehm. “Don’t constantly wear legwarmers over your feet—look at them and let people help you.”
In some cases, the issue isn’t as simple as an inflexible arch. Dancers who feel pain in the back of their ankle may have an extra bone called the os trigonum. “It’s like having a little marble between the leg bone and the ankle that blocks the foot from pointing,” says Novella. While the os trigonum can be surgically removed, Novella warns that recovery time can range between seven weeks and seven months, and still may not produce a pointe comparable to if the bone had never been there.
Tight upper thighs can also create an obstacle to getting up over your pointe shoes. “If dancers are back in their hips because their hip flexors or quads are tight,” Mitchell warns, “then the ankle joint has to do all of the work.” Stretch out your hips and quads often and make sure to use your glutes when rising onto pointe.
Work With What You've Got
Luckily, many professional ballet dancers have found success even though they won’t be modeling pointe shoes any time soon. “What’s gotten me where I am is how I work, my focus and my ability to pick things up quickly. My feet aren’t terrible anymore, but I still have to work on them all the time,” says Rehm, who strengthens her feet through daily exercises, such as tracing the letters of the alphabet with her toes. “And you have to find your angle - sometimes things need to shift a bit to make the line better.”
Rehm finds that the type of pointe shoes she wears, as well as how she prepares her shoes, makes a huge difference. “If you don’t have a very flexible foot, you don’t need much of a shoe in terms of hardness,” says Dierdre Miles Burger, director of Orlando Ballet School. Go for a more pliable, flexible shoe. Mitchell also advises dancers to “three-quarter” the shanks of their pointe shoes, or cut the shank where their arch naturally bends.
The best thing you can do to improve the appearance of your feet is use them properly. “You have to maximize your rotation and presentation,” says Mitchell. By articulating through the floor and creating a beautiful line, the focus can be drawn away from the foot and more to the presentation of the legs. In the end, using what you have well will serve you best. “Strong, articulate feet, no matter how they’re shaped,” says Burger, “is what’s most important.”