The Dangers of Dancing Barefoot: One Dancer's Extreme Story and Tips for Safety

Jennifer Nichols performing despite a dangerous infection

Jennifer Nichols was rehearsing barefoot this winter when she got a splinter in her foot. An independent choreographer, she was preparing a self-made solo to be performed as part of a new music show in Toronto, and the studio's dirty wooden floor was usually used by winter boot– wearing musicians.

A splinter may not seem like a big deal. But the bacteria on this one led to a serious infection that would land Nichols in hospital and almost end her performing career.


barefoot dangersNichols performing the piece, Lilt

By the time the show came, Nichols was barely able to put weight on her foot. But she performed the premiere as planned, "on an insane cocktail of drugs and in excruciating pain," she says.

The next day, she ended up in the emergency room, hooked up to an IV drip of strong antibiotics and bed-ridden for more than a week. A surgeon eventually had to cut into her foot to drain the abscess. Its infection had spread to her ankle and lower calf, and threatened to corrode the bones of her second, third and fourth metatarsal.

"My body couldn't get rid of the infection because it was not accessible by antibiotics, trapped in the abscess in a very tight spot under a thick callus from decades of dancing," she says.

barefoot dangersNichols runs her own Extension Room dance-fitness studio and performs part-time with Opera Atelier's baroque dance ensemble

"I am very lucky, but I have also been challenged in an extreme way," says Nichols. She is slowly healing but now worries about how the resulting scar tissue will affect her dancing.

Wanting to warn other dancers of the perils of splinters and other repercussions of unwashed floors, Nichols offers up what she's learned about safely dancing barefoot:

1. Take extra care to clean your feet the moment you finish rehearsal when dancing barefoot.
2. If you have developed any splits or blisters, clean with an antiseptic, not just water.
3. Tape your feet before rehearsing if you have splits or are prone to them.
4. Examine the state of the floor before rehearsing, particularly if it's a room not typically used for dance. If it looks in need of a cleaning, do not hesitate to ask the rehearsal director, stage management or any member of the production team to have it cleaned. Be gracious about it, but do insist.
5. Pay attention to your body. Look for these telltale signs to know if you have developed an infection:

  • increasing pain throughout the whole area, not just localized to the spot of the split or blister
  • swelling
  • redness, especially redness which is spreading or developing into a line
  • fever, headache
  • pus oozing from the area
  • heat in the area
  • swollen glands near the area or in the corresponding limb
  • worsening symptoms

6. Go directly to a doctor, not a physiotherapist or massage therapist. See someone who can perform tests to confirm whether there is an infection.
7. If your symptoms do not improve, get a second opinion. "I had to seek out five opinions before my abscess was properly diagnosed!" says Nichols.
8. If a doctor prescribes antibiotics and after a few days your symptoms are worsening, insist on an ultrasound or a CT scan to rule out an abscess.
9. Never forget that your body is your most important tool. Do not take any concerns you may have about something that seems amiss lightly. Advocate for yourself.

Related Articles Around the Web
Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."

Keep reading... Show less
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.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.