As a young ballet dancer, Peter LeBreton Merz would often get into trouble for taking his shoes off in school and picking up pencils with his toes. "I was born flat-footed," says the current director of the Ballet West Academy. "I wanted my feet to get strong enough so I could sustain a full pointe."

It takes time for dancers to develop clean, well-articulated footwork. Some people, like Merz, spend years working to overcome flat, stiff arches. Other dancers continuously overstretch and struggle with feet that are floppy and weak. The right balance of strength and flexibility can maximize facility and lend the necessary control for supple and expressive feet. Though the exercises offered here to combat inarticulate feet are ballet-focused, they can easily apply to other dance styles.


1. Point Correctly

Certain classical ballet positions naturally emphasize the proper shape of the foot. "Introduce sur le cou-de-pied to students around age 8 or 9," says Merz. "It's really good for the little ones because the ankle provides a natural sculpting tool." With the heel placed in front of the ankle and the toes wrapped behind, the foot molds into the correct shape. "Encourage them to press their entire foot around the ankle, not just the heel," he says.

At San Francisco Ballet School, Yuko Katsumi talks to students about pointing the foot fully—and correctly. "The joints are not knuckled; they're lengthened," she says. "Then think of the toes pushing down." (She warns against thinking of the toes as straight, since that image can lead to non-energized toes.) Katsumi discourages over-pointing and sickling to make arches look better, since this practice can lead to injury. To ensure good alignment, she asks students to sit on the floor with their legs out in front of them. "I have them draw a straight line from the middle of the kneecap to the second toe, making sure the ankles are straight," she says. Then, dancers stand up and face the mirror. They relevé in parallel and look for the same straight line, using the mirror as a guide.

Ballet West Academy director Peter LeBreton Merz recommends paying attention to the Achilles and plantar fascia, too. Photo courtesy of Ballet West Academy.

2. Gain Flexibility

Many dancers use foot stretchers to force their arches into better positions. But Katsumi suggests doing manual stretches instead. "It really works if you caress and massage your feet," she says. "You can have another person help, but make sure you do it correctly." As you stretch out the top of the foot, the heel should reach back toward the calf. Gently push the tips of the toes down. It should feel as if all of the muscles are wrapping under the foot.

Merz suggests lengthening the Achilles tendon and muscles underneath the foot, too. "If the plantar fascia is holding too much tension, there's no way you can fully articulate your feet," he says. Massage under the foot with a foot roller or a narrow, frozen water bottle. "Rolling on a long tubular icicle will help reduce inflammation in the tissue and give a deeper stretch," he says. Merz also recommends using a golf ball to roll out the plantar fascia (see photo below). "Sit in a chair so your femur is extended 90 degrees out from your body, and your tibia and fibula are 90 degrees down from your knee," he says. "Start with the ball at the base of your heel and move it up toward each metatarsal, stopping at the base of the toe." If you feel any tight spots, let the weight of your foot melt onto the ball for three counts. "It's an aggressive release, so I only recommend it two to three times per week," says Merz.

Merz's plantar fascia exercise

3. Build Strength

Some dancers stretch their feet incessantly, thinking that flexible feet will make better feet. But overstretching can lead to weakness or injury. "You need strength, too, or else you won't be able to use your feet," says Justin Koertgen, a dance instructor at Interlochen Center for the Arts. Koertgen focuses on slow tendu combinations in class, making sure students work through the ball of the foot before they reach a full pointe. "The more the dancer can strengthen the intrinsic muscles along the bottom of the foot, the more they'll be able to use everything they have," he says. Teach various ways to get to the full pointe, such as doing a tendu slowly and moving fully through the foot, as well as getting the foot to a full tendu quickly, in one second.

Students can take their shoes off and practice doming (spreading the toes out and lifting the metatarsals up). "Make sure they're not clenching their toes, but lifting the arch of the foot," says Katsumi. She also has students stand barefoot in a circle and make "squeaky sounds" with their big toes. "Curve the big toe on the floor and make the loudest noise you can," she says. "The movement activates the intrinsic muscles and is a really good strengthener." Both Koertgen and Merz recommend that dancers stand on a washcloth and scrunch the towel under the toes. Then they can spread the towel out again with their toes, working the muscles both on top and bottom of the foot.

TheraBand exercises can help with control and stability, if they're done with proper alignment. Dancers should keep their ankles straight and stationary as the foot rolls through half pointe to full pointe, and reverse. Students can also wear deshanked pointe shoes for barre, working through the extra resistance to gain strength. "Some feet will not stretch completely," says Katsumi, "but how dancers use their feet will help the way they look."

3 Exercises for Better Foot Articulation

  • Have young students walk in a circle, toe-ball-heel. They can use these "ballet walks" when they enter and leave the studio, and while transitioning between exercises. "This practice encourages them to think about how they use their feet," says Peter LeBreton Merz, director of Ballet West Academy.
  • Relevé to full pointe, lower to half pointe, push back up to pointe and then roll down to plié. "Mid-foot articulation in a pointe shoe doesn't feel natural, so dancers should do a lot of these kinds of exercises," says Merz.
  • Have students lie on their backs with their feet flat against a wall in demi-plié. "I make it a competition to see who can push the furthest away from the wall, sliding on their backs," says Justin Koertgen, dance instructor at Interlochen Center for the Arts. "Then I have them look at their feet, to demonstrate how much they point when the dancers actually push with them."
Dance News
Getty Images

Dancers are resilient by nature. As our community responds to COVID-19, that spirit is being tested. Dance Teacher acknowledges the tremendous challenges you face for your teaching practice and for your schools as you bring your offerings online, and the resulting financial impact on your businesses.

Perhaps we can take hope from the knowledge of how we've managed adversity in the past. I'm thinking of the dance community in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I'm thinking of 9/11 and how that changed the world. I'm thinking of the courageous Jarrah Myles who kept her students safe when the Paradise wildfire destroyed their homes. I'm thinking of Jana Monson who rebuilt her studio after a devastating fire. I'm thinking of Gina Gibney who stepped in to save space for dance in New York City when the beloved Dance New Amsterdam closed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of the Academy for the Performing Arts

“Keeping agile" has taken on a whole new meaning for every studio owner and dance instructor since the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shuttered studio doors for safety's sake in March. Now is the time to show parents how you bring normalcy and positivity to their children's lives so you can retain tuition revenue until your doors reopen for business as usual.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Misty Lown delivers a seminar in Austin. Photo courtesy of More Than Just Great Dancing

Business leader Misty Lown convened (remotely) more than 700 dance studio owners to create an action plan in response to COVID-19 studio closures. ICYMI, here are the takeaways:

  • Studios can deliver value to customers with online content.
  • Owners can preserve enrollment with caring communication.
  • The federal stimulus package is a strong short-term safety net.
Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Photo by Jason Hill, courtesy of Disenhof

When dancer Katherine Disenhof found out her company, NW Dance Project, would be shutting down indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic (on Friday the 13th, no less), she immediately went in search of ways to stay connected and in shape.

At that point, a few virtual class opportunities had emerged, so Disenhof decided to aggregate them on an Instagram account called Dancing Alone Together.

She launched the account that Monday, and by mid-week she'd also created a website. Now, just a few weeks later, Dancing Alone Together has 22K followers—and virtual classes are more than just a growing trend, but a phenomenon that has reshaped the dance world at an unprecedented speed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo by Kyle Froman
Update March 31, 2020: This article was first published in Dance Teacher, February 2009.

One of today's leading ballet masters, German-born Wilhelm Burmann exerts a magnetic attraction on the professional students he teaches five days a week at Steps on Broadway in New York City. “Taking Willie's class" has become a tradition for many top dancers of both New York–based companies and those simply passing through town.

Standing ramrod straight at age 69, Burmann embodies the authority and skills he acquired during an extensive global career. He was a corps member of the Pennsylvania Ballet and New York City Ballet, a Frankfurt Ballet principal dancer, Stuttgart and Geneva company principal and ballet master, and ballet master for The Washington Ballet and Le Ballet du Nord, among others. After he retired from dancing in 1977, Burmann took up guest teaching and is still in great demand at prestigious American and European companies and schools: This year he will teach in Florence and Milan, Italy.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo courtesy of Courtesy Ahearn

Elizabeth Ahearn never imagined that she'd teach her first online ballet class in her kitchen. Adding to the surreality of the situation: Rather than give her corrections, her student, the director of distance learning at Goucher College, had tips for Ahearn: Turn the volume up, and move a little to the left.

Ahearn, chair of the dance department at Goucher, is among thousands of dance professors learning to teach online in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The internet may be exploding with resources for virtual classes, from top dancers teaching barre to free warm-ups courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Foundation, but in academia, teachers face many restraints. Copyright laws, federal privacy regulations, varying tech platforms and grading rubrics all make teaching dance online a challenge.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Talia Bailes leads a Ballet & Books class. Lindsay France, Courtesy Ballet & Books.

Talia Bailes never imagined that her ballet training and her interest in early learning would collide. But Bailes, a senior studying global and public health sciences at Cornell University, now runs a successful non-profit called Ballet & Books, which combines dancing with the important but sometimes laborious activity of learning to read. And she has a trip to South America to thank.

In 2015, before starting at Cornell, Bailes took a gap year and headed to Ecuador with the organization Global Citizen Year to teach English to more than 750 students. But Bailes, who grew up training at a dance school outside Cincinnati, Ohio, also spent time teaching them ballet and learning their indigenous dances. "The culture in Ecuador was much more rooted in dance and music rather than literacy," she recalls. Bailes was struck by the difference in education and the way that children were able to develop and grow socially through dance. "It left me thinking, what if dance could be truly integrated into the way that we approach education?"

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Choreographer Molly Heller with musician Michael Wall. Photo by Duhaime Movement Project

Love electronic music? Calming notes of a piano? Smooth, rich trumpet? Want music in clear meters of 3, or in 7? This week is the ideal time to check out musician Michael Wall's abundant website soundformovement.com. I myself have enjoyed getting to experience his music over the past five years—whether to use in a teen class, older-movers class or for my own MFA thesis choreography.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

On Wednesday, March 18, I was supposed to return to Juilliard and teach Pilates after a two-week spring break. Instead, I rolled a mat onto my bedroom floor, logged in to Zoom and was greeted by a gallery of 50 small-screen images of young ambitious dancers, trying to make the best of a strange situation. As I began class, I applied our new catchphrase: "Please mute yourself," then asked students to use various hand gestures to let me know how they are coping and how much space they have for movement. I asked dancers to write one or two things they wanted to address in the sidebar, and then we began to move.

This is our new normal. In the midst of grave Covid-19 concerns, dance professors across the country faced university closures and requirements to relocate their courses to the virtual sphere. Online education poses very specific and substantial challenges to dance faculty, but they are finding ways to persist by learning new methods of communication, discovering untapped pedagogical tools, expanding their professional networks, developing helpful new resources and unearthing old ones.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Getty Images

As Broadway goes dark and performances are canceled across the country, the financial repercussions of a global pandemic have gone from hypothetical to very real. This is especially true in the dance community, where many institutions are nonprofits or small businesses operating on thin margins, and performers rely on gigs that are being canceled. It's a scary and uncertain time.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Courtesy of Wroth

The effects of COVID-19 on college dancers might have been devastating. Performances were canceled, seniors trying to savor every last moment together were left without a graduation ceremony, students were encouraged to go home, and at each moment, a question has sounded: How can a student learn how to become a better performer when they are not allowed to perform?

Here at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, the ballet department rallied quickly and adapted its programming, choosing to see this hiatus as an opportunity to encourage reflection and self-improvement.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: We always seem to lose the most students after our recitals. How do I prevent post-show fallout?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox