3 Ways to Get More Articulate Feet (Plus, 3 Exercises to Maximize Foot Facility)

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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."
Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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