Dancer Health

Try These Exercises to Stabilize Your Lower Legs

Photo by Emily Giacalone; modeled by Hannah Foster

While she was a teenager studying at Boston Ballet School, Ballet Chicago teacher Olivia Hartzell underwent two surgeries in the same year. She was suffering from os trigonum syndrome, or pain caused by an extra bone behind the ankle. (Many people born with the extra bone don't even know it's there, but for dancers, it can make it excruciating to jump or even point the feet.) Removing the bones relieved Hartzell's pain and created new mobility in her ankles. Her post-surgery rehabilitation helped her build strength and stability to support the increased range of motion.


Even without surgery, dancers tend to have hypermobile joints and can benefit from a strengthening regimen like Hartzell's. The problem with loose ankles is that they make it tough to balance on relevé without wobbling and they put dancers at great risk for injury. And in that sense, weak ankles are a self-perpetuating problem. The most common sprain, which occurs by rolling over the pinky-toe side of the foot, overstretches or even tears the ankles' anterior and lateral ligaments, destabilizing the joint and making the dancer more susceptible to repeating the injury.

Wobble-free balance—a sign of ankle stability—requires strength in the smaller muscles on all sides of the lower legs and ankles: the peroneals, the tibialus posterior and anterior and the flexor hallucis longus. Many dancers overuse their calf muscles, the gastrocnemius and soleus, when trying to find balance on relevé, says San Francisco–based physical therapist Kendall Alway of ODC's Healthy Dancers' Clinic. “It's helpful for getting into relevé, but it doesn't stabilize you," she says. In other words, it gets you there, but that muscle alone won't keep you there.

To engage those smaller muscles, Hartzell performed exercises on a BOSU ball as part of her rehabilitation: She practiced pliés and relevés in parallel, eventually graduating to turned-out passé and arabesque. To further challenge the stabilizing muscles in her legs and ankles, she looped a TheraBand around one ankle and tied it to the base of the barre for some external resistance. In this setup, Hartzell did pliés and relevés in parallel and first, making sure the knee tracked directly over the ankle and that she released the Achilles tendons in plié. The exercise helped promote proper alignment in her knees and ankles while also challenging her hip stabilizers to keep her weight over her supporting leg.

You shouldn't wait for a surgery or injury to build muscles in your ankles and lower legs. Strong ankles support solid, beautiful lines and protect dancers while they're moving, whether through quick direction changes, landing from leaps, turning or balancing on pointe. DT

Andrea Marks is the former Dance Teacher health column editor.

Here are some of Alway's favorite ankle-strengtheners that you can add to your routine.

Pressed Parallel Relevés

This exercise helps you practice bearing weight in relevé over the correct part of the foot—between the first and second toes.

1. With a hand on a barre or lightly touching the wall for balance, stand in parallel with toes and heels together. Make all the skin between the two feet touch.

2. Rise up onto full relevé without allowing any space between the anklebones. Slowly lower. Do 10 reps three times a day.

If this is uncomfortable, try holding a tennis ball between the feet, but don't allow the feet to wing or sickle.

Four-Way Resistance-Band Workout

These exercises strengthen stabilizing muscles all the way around the lower legs. Start with 10 reps of each variation.

1. The basic pointe-and-flex: Sitting on the floor with legs straight out in front, loop the band around one flexed foot at a time so you can focus on pressing sequentially and slowly through ankle, ball, toe, then back through toe, ball, ankle. Keep your working heel on the ground.


2. Cross the right ankle over the left knee, making a figure-four shape. Wrap the band around the right toes and use two hands to hold the ends of the band behind your back at your left hip. Pointe and flex slowly, avoiding winging or sickling the foot. Switch legs and hold the band at your right hip.

3. Supination, or sickling: Use one foot as an anchor to supinate the foot with resistance. With legs extended, wrap the band around your right toes. Cross your left foot over your right, allowing the left knee to bend as necessary to use the left foot to pull both sides of the resistance band out to the right, so your right foot pronates open. With a relaxed foot position, pull the right foot laterally against the band to supinate, then resist as you slowly pronate. Switch legs.

4. Change the direction of the band's resistance for pronation, or winging. Set up the same exercise, but with legs side-by-side. Wrap the band around the right toes. Use your left foot to hook both sides of the band and pull it inward so you can position legs side-by-side and the band is pulling the right foot to a supinated position. Pull against the band to pronate, and then slowly return to the supinated position.


Don't Forget the Core!

Ankle strength doesn't mean a thing without correct alignment and a solid core. "I wish everyone would do side planks on their forearm every day," says Kendall Alway, of ODC's Healthy Dancers' Clinic. "It's just so good for so many different kinds of stability."

She recommends holding for one minute on each side, with the shoulders stacked over the bottom elbow, pushing the bottom hip toward the ceiling.

Start on the forearm to make sure you have correct shoulder placement before trying the full side plank with the wrist under the shoulder.



The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance teachers have a lot of strengths (communicating corrections, choreographing gorgeous movement, planning excellent recitals, cleaning technique—just to name a few) but when it comes to interior design—talent isn't exactly a given. So when studio owners remodel or build, worrying about the decor can feel a little overwhelming (you've got just a few too many other things to worry about, don't you?).

No need to fear! In 2019 we have Pinterest, which shows us all the latest trends we should know about. To help you make the best design decisions for your studio, we've compiled a list of public Pinterest pins we think you'll love.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Vanessa Zahorian. Photo by Erik Larson, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet Academy

At the LINES Ballet Dance Center in San Francisco, faculty member Erik Wagner leads his class through an adagio combination in center. He encourages dancers to root their standing legs, using imagery of a seed germinating, so that they feel more grounded. "Our studios are on the fifth floor, so I'll often tell them to push down to Market Street," says Wagner. "They know that they should push their energy down to the street level." By using this oppositional force, he says, dancers can lengthen their bodies to create any desired shape.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

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

After years of throwing summer parties at your studio, you're likely fatigued by coming up with themes and event details. You want your students to have a good time, but you're also up to your eyeballs in choreography and costume decisions.

Never fear! We've come up with party themes and activities to do during the event. Delegate tasks to your teachers and office managers, and voilà! You have a stress-free party ready to go.

Have a blast, people!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: I recently returned to a modern dance class after a long absence. While I didn't feel any acute pain at the end of class, the next morning I could barely walk from the soreness in both my Achilles. What can I do to fix this?

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Q: I'm trying to think of ways to maximize studio space and revenue during the summer. What has worked for you?

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

In 2019, dance parents are more eager than ever to observe their child's progress, and stay up-to-date with the ins and outs of what's happening in the classroom. That means yearly recitals aren't always enough to keep them satisfied—especially if you have rules against visitors observing class from week to week. The solution? Visitor observation weeks. Trust us, the guardians and loved ones of your students will love you for it!

We caught up with Suzanne Blake Gerety, vice president of Kathy Blake Dance Studios and regular contributor to Dance Teacher's "Ask The Experts" column, to hear her tips on how to have a successful visitor observation week.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Adequate dorsiflexion mobility is needed to find a supple demi-plié needed to bound into the air and land safely. Getty Images

Dancers are trained to think often about the range of motion, stability and power of their extended lines: the point of the foot, the reach of the penché, the explosion of the sauté in the air. But finding that same mix of flexibility and strength in the flexed foot is just as integral to technique and injury prevention. Without adequate dorsiflexion mobility, it is nearly impossible to find the kind of supple demi-plié needed to bound into the air and land safely.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox