Since I have yet to find an expert to write a post on how to prepare for a summer intensive like the one Julian will be attending at American Ballet Theatre this summer, I thought I’d share the information I gathered when researching two articles for Dance Teacher magazine on keeping dancers’ feet healthy. Some of you may not actually read that magazine, so you may have missed it.
First, you can access my article on tappers’ feet here and the information on exercises for tappers’ feet here. The doming exercise is pretty much the same one described below, but some different points are made. Julian is using this one every night to build up some extra cushion in his feet. We figure this will help prevent broken bones and, possibly, shin splints. The extra muscle in his feet will give him extra cushion. It surely can’t hurt!
Second, here are all the exercises that were offered to me by the experts I interviewed for the general article I wrote on keeping a dancer’s feet healthy. Julian is doing some, but not all of them. I plan to print this post out, though, and give it to him tonight!
Exercises for Developing Strong, Healthy Feet In and Out of Dance Class
When it comes to helping dance students develop strong, healthy feet in and out of class, the experts suggest a few exercises that provide the most bang for the buck in terms of developing muscles in the foot itself, ankle stability and strength and foot and leg awareness.
Once students have learned good abdominal and pelvic alignment, which means good posture, so the nerves that go to the feet are not compromised in any way, Marika Molnar, a physical therapist and president of Westside Dance Physical Therapy in New York, NY, suggest they stand on one leg in parallel. The other leg is raised off the floor and doesn’t touch the body. The foot and ankle ligaments and tendons should be working hard to keep the body over the base of support. The bottom of the foot should share the support among the heel, ball of first and ball of fifth toe so dancers have a tripod beneath them.
Students should try this exercise for 10 seconds at first with about six repetitions and build up to 60 seconds. Once dancers can accomplish it for 30 seconds on one leg, they should switch to the other leg.
“This is a great exercise to increase the awareness of where you are in space,” she explains, adding one caution. “Make sure that the alignment of the leg is healthy without the knee hyper-extending beyond five degrees.”
The next part is more challenging: Have the students close their eyes and repeat the exercise. “Most dancers cannot do it at first, because they use their eyes for centering themselves. Closing their eyes forces them to rely on their intrinsic messengers: the information from the ligaments, tendons, muscles, etc. to the brain,” Molnar says.
The Foot Crunch
To perform a foot crunch, students simply pick up a towel (or a theraband or a pencil) with their toes. “This is a good general exercise to strengthen the muscles of the foot and the muscles that support the arch of the foot,” reports Dr. Chris E. Chung, M.D. a sports medicine specialist at South bay Sport & Preventive Medicine Associates, Inc., in San Jose, CA. “Building muscles in the foot provides shock absorption. In the long run, increased muscle in the foot helps prevent injury to bone, to muscle and to joint.” Doing 15 crunches on each foot for two repetitions per foot provides a good daily workout.
In a similar fashion, Kim Gardner, a former professional ballet dancer who now working as a rehab trained, certified Pilates instructor and the lead dance medicine specialist at South Bay Sports and Preventive Medicine Associates in San Jose, CA, suggests dancers practice “doming” their foot over a tennis ball to strengthen intrinsic arch muscles. This involves simply holding the arch over the ball for five seconds at a time for up to 15 repetitions per day. Dancers should perform this exercise with one foot, and then switch to the other foot. This exercise can be done without a ball as well.
Another good exercise, especially for pre-point students, involves strengthening the arch of the foot and the muscles along both side of ankle and calf to create ankle stability. Gardner explains that these muscles “attach under the foot like stirrups, but you don’t want one pulling up tighter than another. The inner stirrup muscles help avoid pronation while the outer stirrup muscles help avoid supination.”
Doming over the tennis ball helps strengthen the stirrup muscles to some extent, but imagining standing in wet sand scooping the sand to one side or the other with the sole of the foot does a better job. While sitting, students should be instructed to move the inside of foot toward midline and to imagine they are scooping sand towards the center or their body and then pushing it away from their center and towards the outside or their body. “This can be done with a Theraband as well,” says Gardner.