Teaching Tips

How to Avoid Sickling- and Winging-Related Injuries

The ankle joint can only move about 25 degrees outward and 35 degrees inward from a neutral position. Why does that seem hard to believe? Because in a dance context, these minute motions have huge aesthetic effects. They can punctuate the line of an arabesque, elongate a tendu—or indicate a lack of training. In a purely anatomical sense, a properly aligned foot is one in which an imaginary straight line can be drawn from the ankle out through the second toe. Yet in the classical ballet world, a “winged" shape (toes pointed outward) is the signature of a first-rate ballerina, while “sickling" (pointing the toes inward) is taboo. On the other hand, most modern dance teachers find fault in winging, and some teachers and choreographers even find a sickled foot beautiful. But is either sickling or winging truly safe for student dancers? Here, DT takes a closer look at these ankle adjustments and offers strengthening tips to help students avoid sickling- and winging-related injuries.

The Skinny on Sickling

Because the ankle naturally has a larger range of motion inward than it does outward when pointing the foot, many students with weak or untrained ankles are prone to sickling. Genetics or personal anatomy can also contribute to a student's tendency to sickle, says Julie Daugherty, physical therapist for American Ballet Theatre in New York City. Injuries can occur when students balance in a sickled position on demi or full pointe, which pulls the tendons of the ankle out of alignment, and ankle sprains can occur if jumps are landed through a sickled position in demi or full pointe. Students should be told to avoid sickling in these weight-bearing situations.

Outside of ballet, sickling is sometimes intentional. In modern dance, for example, “dancers' feet are used as expressive tools," says Peter Sparling, professor of dance at the University of Michigan. Sparling, who was a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company from 1973 to 1987, remembers, “In Graham's work, we were asked to sickle in works like Embattled Garden. There were moments when the choreography demanded a turned-in or relaxed foot, signaling vulnerability or a broken body. The foot became part of your characterization, part of one's stylistic integrity." (In modern technique classes, however, Sparling suggests correcting both sickling and winging, which creates a more versatile dancer.)

The Way of the Wing

As with sickling, winging one's foot becomes dangerous when the foot is supporting weight, Daugherty says, because it pulls the ankle joint out of alignment. Since a winged position is more likely to be seen as desirable than a sickled position, Daugherty treats many injuries that stem from long-term winging in weight-bearing positions. Dancers who force their heels forward when executing tendus en avant and à la seconde, instead of using their turnout, overstress the tendons on the inside of the foot and twist their knee joints over time.

But the winging question is a delicate one. Marisa Albee, a teacher at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School in Seattle, Washington, admits that she allows some students to alter their ankles' shape into a slightly more winged position—in non-weight-bearing instances—in order to fulfill the demanding ballet aesthetic. “There are times when a dancer needs to wing her foot slightly to enhance the line she's trying to achieve," she says, if the dancer has limited natural turnout.

Those teachers who approve of winging should explain how a winged foot fits into the classical line as a whole, to prevent winging from becoming an empty affectation. Denise Pons, professor of dance at The Boston Conservatory, recommends breaking down the whole process of the foot's extension through tendu, explaining each movement verbally rather than just showing it. For tendu en avant, for example, tell students to put weight onto the ball of the gesture foot, then to release and let the heel glide forward to initiate the brushing motion, keeping the whole foot on the floor as long as possible so that it seems to pass through a short fourth position before the heel lifts. Remind students to engage the turnout and strength of the whole leg as they execute these movements, Pons says, and a small wing will occur naturally.

Ultimately, sickling and winging are just two tools in a strong dancer's toolbox. Pons stresses that above all, a student needs to be aware at all times of how she is using her feet. “If she's not thinking when working through these positions," she says, “a dancer is setting herself up for knee or ankle injuries, for sure."

Strengthening to Avoid Injury

Daugherty recommends that dancers work on improving their overall ankle strength and stability, so that they can consciously control winging and sickling as required with a minimal risk of injury. To this end, she suggests that teachers have their students place a tennis ball between the feet in a parallel position, just below the inside ankle bone, and then slowly move through plié and relevé while keeping the ball in place. Maintaining the ball's placement will strengthen the calves and work on a dancer's proprioception and proper alignment of the foot and ankle.

If you have a student struggling to control her sickling tendencies in particular, Daugherty suggests having the seated dancer sit with her legs straight in front of her, with a TheraBand tied in a loop and placed around both feet. With ankles, feet and toes pointed, wing one foot out to the side and slowly return to neutral, then repeat with the other foot. This will strengthen the muscles along the outside of the foot, preventing involuntary sickling.


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."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

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.

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