The ankle joint can only move about 25 degrees outward and 35 degrees inward from a neutral position. Why does that seem hard to believe? Because in a dance context, these minute motions have huge aesthetic effects. They can punctuate the line of an arabesque, elongate a tendu—or indicate a lack of training.
In a purely anatomical sense, a properly aligned foot is one in which an imaginary straight line can be drawn from the ankle out through the second toe. Yet in the classical ballet world, a “winged" shape (toes pointed outward) is the signature of a first-rate ballerina, while “sickling" (pointing the toes inward) is taboo. On the other hand, most modern dance teachers find fault in winging, and some teachers and choreographers even find a sickled foot beautiful. But is either sickling or winging truly safe for student dancers? Here, DT takes a closer look at these ankle adjustments and offers strengthening tips to help students avoid sickling- and winging-related injuries.
The Skinny on Sickling
Because the ankle naturally has a larger range of motion inward than it does outward when pointing the foot, many students with weak or untrained ankles are prone to sickling. Genetics or personal anatomy can also contribute to a student's tendency to sickle, says Julie Daugherty, physical therapist for American Ballet Theatre in New York City. Injuries can occur when students balance in a sickled position on demi or full pointe, which pulls the tendons of the ankle out of alignment, and ankle sprains can occur if jumps are landed through a sickled position in demi or full pointe. Students should be told to avoid sickling in these weight-bearing situations.
Outside of ballet, sickling is sometimes intentional. In modern dance, for example, “dancers' feet are used as expressive tools," says Peter Sparling, professor of dance at the University of Michigan. Sparling, who was a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company from 1973 to 1987, remembers, “In Graham's work, we were asked to sickle in works like Embattled Garden. There were moments when the choreography demanded a turned-in or relaxed foot, signaling vulnerability or a broken body. The foot became part of your characterization, part of one's stylistic integrity." (In modern technique classes, however, Sparling suggests correcting both sickling and winging, which creates a more versatile dancer.)
The Way of the Wing
As with sickling, winging one's foot becomes dangerous when the foot is supporting weight, Daugherty says, because it pulls the ankle joint out of alignment. Since a winged position is more likely to be seen as desirable than a sickled position, Daugherty treats many injuries that stem from long-term winging in weight-bearing positions. Dancers who force their heels forward when executing tendus en avant and à la seconde, instead of using their turnout, overstress the tendons on the inside of the foot and twist their knee joints over time.
But the winging question is a delicate one. Marisa Albee, a teacher at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School in Seattle, Washington, admits that she allows some students to alter their ankles' shape into a slightly more winged position—in non-weight-bearing instances—in order to fulfill the demanding ballet aesthetic. “There are times when a dancer needs to wing her foot slightly to enhance the line she's trying to achieve," she says, if the dancer has limited natural turnout.
Those teachers who approve of winging should explain how a winged foot fits into the classical line as a whole, to prevent winging from becoming an empty affectation. Denise Pons, professor of dance at The Boston Conservatory, recommends breaking down the whole process of the foot's extension through tendu, explaining each movement verbally rather than just showing it. For tendu en avant, for example, tell students to put weight onto the ball of the gesture foot, then to release and let the heel glide forward to initiate the brushing motion, keeping the whole foot on the floor as long as possible so that it seems to pass through a short fourth position before the heel lifts. Remind students to engage the turnout and strength of the whole leg as they execute these movements, Pons says, and a small wing will occur naturally.
Ultimately, sickling and winging are just two tools in a strong dancer's toolbox. Pons stresses that above all, a student needs to be aware at all times of how she is using her feet. “If she's not thinking when working through these positions," she says, “a dancer is setting herself up for knee or ankle injuries, for sure."
Strengthening to Avoid Injury
Daugherty recommends that dancers work on improving their overall ankle strength and stability, so that they can consciously control winging and sickling as required with a minimal risk of injury. To this end, she suggests that teachers have their students place a tennis ball between the feet in a parallel position, just below the inside ankle bone, and then slowly move through plié and relevé while keeping the ball in place. Maintaining the ball's placement will strengthen the calves and work on a dancer's proprioception and proper alignment of the foot and ankle.
If you have a student struggling to control her sickling tendencies in particular, Daugherty suggests having the seated dancer sit with her legs straight in front of her, with a TheraBand tied in a loop and placed around both feet. With ankles, feet and toes pointed, wing one foot out to the side and slowly return to neutral, then repeat with the other foot. This will strengthen the muscles along the outside of the foot, preventing involuntary sickling.