How-To

Our 5 Best Self-Foot-Care Tips for Your Post-Holiday Return to Class

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Snow and cold make January a rough time for teachers who need their feet to be limber and warm, especially after a few weeks off. Karin Ellis-Wentz, head of pre-professional programs at the Joffrey Academy of Dance in Chicago, always feels the difference after vacation. "One winter break, I did TheraBand exercises," she says. "It helped to keep my feet, ankles and calves in shape, so I wasn't cramping terribly when I came back to teaching again."

Whether you've cross-trained over the break or not, returning to class means long days of teaching, demonstrating and standing that can be especially rough on your feet and lower legs. To remind you to treat your feet well, we asked the experts for their most current thinking on how to best prepare and protect your most-used body part.


Warm Up Appropriately

Physical therapist Sean P. Gallagher says point-and-flex TheraBand exercises are good, but they aren't enough to prepare your feet for a day of load bearing. "TheraBands are like five pounds of resistance, but when you go up into relevé, that's a lot more than five pounds," he says. Instead, he suggests running through a condensed version of the warm-up you'll teach students. Going through a shortened barre, for example, not only gets your feet feeling the floor and your muscles working the way you'll use them, but it helps you go over your lesson plan before you begin, he says. It also helps you practice the coordination you'll need to dance.

Customize Your Routine

Regardless of your specific warm-up, Elizabeth Maples, doctor of physical therapy at Miami City Ballet, recommends some light cardio movement of choice to begin, like 30 minutes of yoga, Gyrotonic or using an elliptical machine. After that, find what suits your needs. After spraining her ankle in February, Alexa Capareda, rehearsal assistant for Ballet Austin's second company, incorporated her physical therapy exercises not just into her own warm-up but into what she does with dancers, too. Her routine involves lying on her back and going through a series of foot-scrunching and flexing, individual toe tapping, and winging and sickling with feet on and off the ground. She also stands on one foot on a balance board and alternates slowly touching the front edge and back edge of the board to the floor. "Stabilizing exercises get the little muscles in feet and ankles, but also get yourself aligned in the hips," Capareda says.

Have the Right Gear

Footwear is a major issue for teachers, since ballet slippers lack the necessary support for a day of standing and walking. Gallagher recommends wearing sneakers but keeping ballet slippers or other soft shoes on hand and changing when you need to demonstrate.

Ellis-Wentz wears Bloch split-sole sneakers when she knows she won't be demonstrating much or that she'll be sitting in a cold theater and wants to keep her feet warm. "But when I try to demonstrate petit allégro, I'm tripping over my shoes," she says. On a dance-heavy day, she'll opt for Gaynor Minden Joy or Grishko split-sole ballet slippers, both of which she says have padding in the heel.

Maples points out that for some people, split-sole sneakers cause mid-foot dysfunction, and says a full sole may be better for teachers who are standing for long hours. If sliding on marley floors is required, suede can be pressed onto the full sole of a sneaker.

Stay Warm

Ellis-Wentz spends some of her long days sitting at a desk, so she keeps her wooden foot roller on hand and also does doming exercises while she works.

Another exercise you can and should return to throughout the day—while you're warm—is calf stretches, says Maples. She offers a variation on the standard that involves rolling up a legwarmer or T-shirt and placing it under the back foot along the inside arch, and then along the outside arch, causing the foot to supinate and then pronate gently. If you stretch with a straight and bent back leg with that variation, it stretches more deeply into the fibers of the muscles.

Recovery Is Essential

For Lynn Schwab, who teaches tap four or five days a week up to six hours a day at Steps on Broadway and American Tap Dance Foundation in New York City, recovery is the most vital foot-care component. Schwab ruptured a plantar fascia a few years ago and now puts in extra effort in keeping her Achilles and calf muscles stretched and pampering her feet after a day of heavy tapping. She uses yoga toes to spread out her metatarsals after they've been squished in a shoe and rolls out her feet on spiky rubber balls or a wooden roller. She also swears by foot soaks and Epsom-salt baths.

"Recovery is equally important to warm-up for the dancer and teacher," Maples says. "If teachers can model that before and after class, we will have healthier dancer populations."

Dance Buzz
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."



The Boy Factor doesn't just have to do with competition scores: It's how we treat boys throughout their dance education. "We idolize the boys," says Ashley Harnish, a teacher at a competition studio. "We build entire dances around one boy, and we teach them that we need them more than we need the girls."

On the surface, The Boy Factor is flagrant sexism. But what's really behind the phenomenon? "So often, young male dancers are bullied because our culture says that dance is for girls," says a second national competition adjudicator. "This stigma pushes some judges to reward boys by scoring them higher than their female competitors." The Boy Factor also stems from a simple fact: There are far more girls than boys in the dance world.

"Judges see boys as valuable commodities," says Marissa Jean, a staff member at Broadway Dance Center's new building for children and teens and a teacher at several competition studios. "To encourage their career in dance, judges will throw a little extra their way. It could be placing them in the top ten or giving them a special award. They nurture them a bit more than the girls."



But by trying to retain more male talent, are we suggesting to girls that they are less valuable to the dance world than boys? "There's so much about this getting into these kids' psyches," says Childress. "Like, 'Oh the boy will beat me no matter what.' How do we teach self-worth knowing that you're going up against a boy, so what's the point?"

The Boy Factor is a product of and a contributor to the culture that sends the few men in dance up the glass escalator: "Many boys growing up in the dance world are not told the word 'no' often, so they tend to climb the professional ranks more quickly than the women," says Jean. We often bemoan the absence of female leadership in dance, but the damage is already done if we've taught young women that their gender determines their value to our community.

So what can be done about The Boy Factor? First, we could change how we encourage boys to continue dancing. Instead of empowering young men by devaluing young women, we could work as a community to dispel the culture of toxic masculinity that discourages boys from pursuing dance in the first place.

But it also falls in the hands of judges and teachers. "We need to increase awareness," says the second adjudicator. "A lot of us judges don't realize what we are promoting and the messages we send through our scoring and awards. If enough of us band together, I think we can make a difference so that this part of our field is less toxic."

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