Tappers may use their feet more than any other type of dancer, as they slide, jump, slap, stomp and balance on the balls of their feet, quickly shifting into various positions. “Tappers use all points of the foot in contact with the floor in different percussive or frictional ways,” says Megan Richardson, a clinical specialist and certified athletic trainer at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York City. The percussive nature of tap dance poses special issues when it comes to injury and foot care. Help your students prevent the following common tap-related problems.
Friction, moisture and poor-fitting shoes cause blisters. If a student reports redness and sensitivity around an irritated spot, have them place a gel patch or blister pad on the inflamed area and do 10-minute-long cold foot soaks until the pain is gone. Wearing properly fitted shoes and moisture-wicking socks will ultimately help prevent blisters.
Tendonitis is caused by repetitive stress or overuse. It commonly occurs when students first begin tapping or increase their dance load, since their muscles and tendons may not have sufficient strength to endure repetitive classes and performances, says Terry Sneed, owner and director of Elite Physical Therapy & Wellness Center in Washington, DC. (Sneed also served as a touring physical therapist for Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk.) A gradual build-up is necessary, she adds. Watch out for chronic soreness around the ankle joint or a nagging pain in the heel. This pain is usually not severe and worsens after activity. Relative rest, icing feet, NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), stretching, strengthening, taping and correction of technical faults are a few necessary actions to avoid tendonitis. For further prevention, always take students through a thorough warm-up, and encourage them to stretch before and ice after activity.
Ankle sprains happen with traumatic force as the result of missed steps or untreated injuries. “Some injury-causing movements unique to tappers include ‘flash’ steps, like wings, and turns and jumps that require constant, intricate foot and ankle movement,” says Kendra Sakamoto, a tap dancer and athletic trainer for Cirque du Soleil’s KOOZA. The constant pounding of the foot and ankle, the type of footwear and poor technique are all factors that can contribute to ankle sprains. Be aware of sharp pain, noticeable swelling and difficulty continuing activity. Advise students to take the same precautions as with any muscle injury. Some treatments may call for crutches, stabilizing braces and professional medical assistance. Take extra time for ankle-strengthening exercises, and pay special attention to body alignment, especially when the student is wearing heeled tap shoes.
Tappers are prone to metatarsal stress fractures, because they jump, pound and stomp their feet in shoes that lack shock absorption. “At first, the muscles absorb the vibration of the floor, then the bones,” says Richardson. “Wear and tear of that nature can give tappers stress fractures.” These fractures can be tricky to spot, but if a student complains of constant pain that doesn’t go away and worsens with weight-bearing activities, look for swelling and point tenderness as a sure indicator. Sometimes these injuries are better diagnosed with an X-ray or MRI. Rest, ice and NSAIDs will help ease the pain, but a walking boot with crutches may be needed, depending on severity.
Tight or poorly fitted shoes that allow the foot to slip and slide can cause ingrown toenails (as will toenails that are too long). Along with discomfort, tappers might notice redness and swelling around the affected area, typically in the big toe. Soak feet in a tub of warm, salty water two to three times per day and pad the toe for relief. Have students see a doctor if there is an infection. Keeping toenails trimmed and wearing the right shoes (or at least padding) can alleviate the pressure. DT
Nina Amir is currently writing a book about mentoring boys who want to become professional dancers.
Foot Care Tips from Famous Tappers
“I aim to stretch before dancing, and that definitely includes rolling through my foot. I soak my feet when I can. I try to know when to rotate my shoes out and get a new pair to protect my feet. In high heels, I always have a gel pad. If I am sore, I try to ice. It brings down the pain and reduces the swelling. I have a foot roller and use that, and I’m in the process of trying out different insoles that address my high arch.”
Derick K. Grant
“Stretching. It took a while for me to make the connection with this one—I’m lazy by nature. But since the feet have all the nerve endings, pain is usually the result of something going wrong somewhere else in the body. So, when I experience cramping in my feet, I start stretching right away.”
“If I am dancing every single day, I’ll rub my feet every day, especially the parts that are tender. I use a hard ball or a rolling pin and roll it back and forth. I make sure my toe nails are cut low, and I try to wear shoes that are comfortable for my feet. I have to be able to wiggle my toes in the shoes. I have a wide foot and narrow heel, so sometimes I need a heel grip. If the shoes are hard at the bottom, I’ll go a half size bigger and put an insole inside to help with the pounding and pressure.”