Health & Body

Ask Deb: What Exercises Are Useful to Strengthen Ankles?


Q: A student of mine recently got a bad sprained ankle, and it's been weak ever since she returned to class. Are there any exercises you suggest to strengthen it?

A: Your student needs to begin her recovery process by retraining her nervous system to find center at the ankle joint. The human body immediately compensates after an injury, which, in turn, inhibits balance. Therefore, balance is essential to the rehab process. If we don't take the time to retrain the musculature around the joint through balancing, the body will continue to act in a compensatory pattern.

First, have her start by balancing on one foot while making sure she's not sinking into her hip. Try this first with her standing leg in parallel, and then later have her move into a slightly turned-out position. Direct her to toss a ball between her hands while balancing for one to three minutes. (When I was training gymnasts, I would make them do this on the balance beam, so our dancers have it easy!)

When she gets good at balancing for three minutes on one leg, challenge her nervous system by having her stand on a moveable surface, such as a sofa cushion or her bed.

The leg muscles that fatigue first indicate weakness and/or tightness. By continuing to do the balancing exercises, you will strengthen and retrain the muscles that were injured. This exercise is just as important as strengthening through relevés or working with a TheraBand.

Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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