When a dancer is described as having strong, supple feet, the topic of conversation is usually pointework. But well-developed feet are important for all dancers, regardless of genre. The muscles in the feet provide stability for all movement, and are particularly important for jumping. Consistent attention to working through the foot is the best way to ensure that they are able to protect the body and maximize jumps.
Mary Adams, who has owned Adams Ballet Academy in Tempe, Arizona, since 1965, refers to the feet as a dancer’s landing gear. She says that she can hear when a dancer isn’t using correct alignment, foot strength or a good demi-plié. “Sometimes the skinniest people make the loudest noise,” she says. “You know that their weight is in the wrong place and they haven’t learned to work through their feet.”
Put the Foot to the Grindstone
Training foot muscles is as important as developing the rest of the body. Although extra isolation exercises can augment strength, there is no substitute for a daily routine that includes footwork, notes Perry Julien, DPM, past president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine, who treats dancers from Atlanta Ballet. “The muscles get stronger over time with correct training,” he says.
Pointework can be an excellent strength builder. However, working exclusively in pointe shoes can actually be a detriment to foot strength, because dancers may not be able to feel the floor and articulate their feet fully. Long Island University Assistant Professor of Dance Shaw Bronner, who researches the biomechanics of dance at LIU and directs therapy services at Alvin Ailey, warns against exclusive use of pointe shoes, especially stiffer ones, in early training. “With stiff shoes, beginners use their ankles too much. They can lose strength in their intrinsic muscles,” she says.
To avoid hindering students’ foot development, don’t focus too much on speed during exercises. Dancers may sacrifice working through their feet in their desire to move quickly from point A to point B, relying on the ankle rather than the entire foot. But consistent practice will allow them to engage their intrinsics even in the quickest steps. “Fast movements can be superficial. The audience can see the difference [between superficial and proper movement], and you’re not protecting the body,” says Bronner.
Lack of flexibility in the calf and ankle can also be deadly to jumps, even if foot muscles are strong. A supple demi-plié is essential for upward force and additional shock absorption on landing. A good demi-plié is so important to Adams that she has been known to go around classes measuring demi-pliés with a yardstick.
Sandra Daniels, a teacher at North Atlanta Dance Academy in Alpharetta, Georgia, cringes when she sees dancers preparing for a jump with shallow pliés, particularly when the heels aren’t firmly grounded. “They develop bulging calf muscles and no foot strength,” she explains, noting that dancers are often surprised when they see in the mirror that their heels are lifted in landings.
Teach the Feet
You and your students should be aware of what the feet are doing and the purpose of each exercise. Simply placing body parts in prescribed positions won’t necessarily activate the muscles. For example, during a tendu a dancer needs to actively engage the metatarsals in order to gain strength. “The best thing is to work with understanding,” says Adams. “Unless your brain is thinking about what you’re doing, you don’t learn and the feet won’t get strong.” She advises teachers to insist that dancers pay attention to their muscles, rather than just assigning combinations and giving corrections on form. Bronner adds that without these reminders, beginners especially have a tendency to focus on achieving certain positions without engaging the appropriate muscles.
Imagery can also help students become more conscious of their feet. Compare feet to suction cups, peeling off the floor in a jump. In addition, you can compare feet to hands and demonstrate with your hands how strong, supple feet would bend into and out of the floor.
To help make sure that students are really using their feet, Daniels conducts as much as the first half hour to 45 minutes of her pre-pointe classes without shoes. Her students are required to use convertible tights, and roll them up for preliminary exercises. “It’s hard to see the toes even in well-fitting soft shoes,” she says. “It’s amazing how much you can tell with bare feet.” While her students do barre exercises such as pliés, tendus and relevés, Daniels watches their feet, checking to see that their demi-pointe is fully pulled up and their toes are gripping the floor. “If they are clutching their toes, their knuckles will turn white,” she says. “[This will cause] the toes to hit the floor crunched in jumps and be clenched, not extended, when pointed.”
Keep It Simple
You don’t have to add lots of exercises to dance class for your students to reap the benefits of foot strengthening. Plan ahead to maximize the time you have with students. “One hour goes fast,” Adams says. Fortunately, because most foot training can take place through a careful approach to exercises you already do, you shouldn’t find yourself running out of time. “There are many little places in class where you can sneak in footwork,” says Bronner. For seven foot exercises see "Try These."
Jennifer Brewer, MsEd, is a freelance writer and dance and academic teacher based in Saco, ME.