Dancer Health

Why All Styles of Dance Need Dorsiflexion

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.


"Dorsiflexion assists in absorbing load and impact when landing turns and jumps," says Jenna Calo, senior physical therapist at Body Dynamics Inc., in Falls Church, Virginia. "Because the foot is the first thing to hit the ground, it sets up how this force will be absorbed up the chain." In order to lessen the amount of this force, a dancer needs an adequate amount of foot mobility. When the dorsiflexion range of motion is restricted, the foot and ankle cannot adequately adapt to the ground, and the force can shift higher up the body, affecting other joints and areas such as the knees, hips and low back.

The issue is not limited to ballet dancers. "In all dance styles that utilize repetitive relevés and jumps, you will likely find adaptive shortening of the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles [the muscles known as calves] from the repetition," says Calo. "Even with modern dance and more grounded work, repetitive relevés and jumps are still involved." Fast footwork and petit allégro are ubiquitous in both contemporary and classical repertoire, and these sequences can make it difficult to utilize the full range of the ankle in demi-plié.

To increase dorsiflexion mobility, Calo first assesses all of the components that influence the foot and ankle, looking for stiffness in the joints as well as tightness in the surrounding muscles. "We typically check the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles for trigger points or general tightness," says Calo. "It is also important to examine the mid-foot and rear-foot joint mobility, as well as tissue on the bottom portion of the foot, to ensure they are contributing effectively to allow for the full ankle to move into dorsiflexion."

Finding the root cause of what is contributing to the limitation is key, and Calo has found it can be different in every dancer. "Since we are bipedal creatures, assessing the entire lower extremity as well as spine and hips is needed to fully address all the contributors." Addressing proximal weaknesses in the glutes, core and deep rotators of the hip can also help to alleviate ankle dysfunction and pain in dorsiflexion.

After loosening up the soft tissue with manual therapy, she teaches dancers these self-massage techniques and stretches to use for ankle maintenance.

Courtesy of the author

Ankle Rocking

1. Set one foot on a stable elevated surface, like the seat of a chair.

2. Gently and slowly, rock forward into ankle dorsiflexion and back while maintaining the other foot flat on the floor. "Ankle rocking is a great way to mobilize the ankle," says Calo.

3. Repeat on the other side.

4. If you are able to do ankle rocking in this setup without gripping in the front of your ankle, you can try a variation of the same sequence, with more load, in a kneeling lunge.

Courtesy of the author

Self-Massage for Calves

1. Put a tennis or lacrosse ball under the tight spot, or trigger point, on your calf muscle. If you are looking for more pressure, you can put the ball on an elevated surface, such as a yoga block, and/or weight your leg with your free leg crossed over it. Be sure that you don't put too much pressure into the knee's hyperextension if elevating.

2. Keeping the ball in place, move your ankle back and forth between a pointed and flexed foot to work the calf muscle.

3. Move the ball to another tight spot and repeat. Try the other leg. Follow up with a calf stretch facing the wall.

Still feeling tight in the front of the shin when you flex your ankle?

"Typically these anterior muscles are being over-recruited in dorsiflexion to fight against the tightness in the back of the leg, and perhaps at the ankle joint," says physical therapist, Jenna Calo. Massage, trigger-point therapy and/or dry needling are all tools that can help relieve this muscle overuse. You can also see a practitioner who specializes in teaching dancers to find the root cause of tightening.

To Share With Students
Performing with Honji Wang at Jacob's Pillow; photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob's Pillow

Celebrated New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns has recently been exploring collaborative possibilities with dance artists outside ballet. Just this year she was guest artist with Lori Belilove & The Isadora Duncan Company, and performed on Broadway in her husband Joshua Bergasse's choreography for I Married an Angel. This summer she appeared in a highly anticipated series of cross-genre collaborations at Jacob's Pillow, titled Beyond Ballet, with Honji Wang of the French hip-hop duo Company Wang Ramirez, postmodern dance artist Jodi Melnick, choreographer Christopher Williams and more. Here she speaks with DT about the effects of her explorations.

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

As a teacher or studio owner, customer service is a major part of the job. It's easy to dread the difficult sides of it, like being questioned or criticized by an unhappy parent. "In the early years, parent issues could have been the one thing that got me to give up teaching," says Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a teacher and studio owner with over 43 years of experience. "Hang in there—it does get easier."

We asked Clough her top tips for dealing with difficult parents:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Risa Steinberg (center); photo by Alexandra Fung, courtesy of In the Lights PR

In an adult ballet class, Kimberly Chandler Vaccaro noticed a woman working so hard that her shoulders were near her ears. "I was going to say something about her tension, but I didn't want her awareness to go there," says Vaccaro, who teaches at Princeton Ballet School. Instead, she told the dancer to remember that breathing muscles are low, below her sternum. "Then we talked about moving from the shoulder blades first, and how they're halfway down your back. She started this lovely sequential movement, and it eventually solved the problem."

Drawing attention to symptoms, such as tense shoulders, might create more issues for a dancer if the cause of the problem remains unaddressed. Simply saying "shoulders down" might compromise alignment as the dancer tries to show a longer neck or forgets to breathe, jeopardizing movement quality. Teachers can be strategic and communicate information in a way that doesn't aggravate the situation. "Dance will never be easy," says master teacher Risa Steinberg, "but it can be easier if you're not folding new problems on top of old ones."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Lindsay Martell at a class performance. Photo courtesy of Martell

More than once, when I'm sporting my faded, well-loved ballet hoodie, some slight variation of this conversation ensues:

"Is your daughter the dancer?"

"Actually," I say, "I am."

"Wow!" they enthuse. "Who do you dance with? Or have you retired...?"

"I don't dance with a company. I'm not a professional. I just take classes."

Insert mic drop/record scratch/quizzical looks.

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

Any teacher who works with little ones knows that props can make class time run much more smoothly. That said, it's often difficult to find the right mix of tools that will both capture a child's attention and are manageable enough to carry around from one location to another—or pack up and store easily. Anything too big or too heavy is out, and some of the props you love to use with little ones may not be the most practical choice if you're a freelance teacher traveling to multiple studios throughout the week.

We asked two experienced teachers to share a couple of their favorite tips for easy-travel props for those who teach young ones. Here are five solid suggestions you can choose from, to incorporate into your overall teaching plans.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Paige Cunningham Caldarella. Photo by Philip Dembinski

It's the last class of the spring semester, and Paige Cunningham Caldarella isn't letting any of her advanced contemporary students off the hook. After leading them through a familiar Merce Cunningham–style warm-up, full of bounces, twists and curves, she's thrown a tricky five-count across-the-floor phrase and a surprisingly floor-heavy adagio at the dancers. Now, near the end of class, she is reviewing a lengthy center combination set to a Nelly Furtado song. The phrase has all the hallmarks of Cunningham—torso twists atop extended legs, unexpected timing, direction changes—which means it's a challenge to execute well.

After watching the dancers go through the phrase a couple of times, Caldarella takes a moment to troubleshoot a few sticky spots and give a quick pep talk before having them do it again. "I know it's fast," she tells them. "I know it's a lot of moves. And you're hanging in there! But stick with the task of articulating everything—try to hyper-explore that."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Q: What tips do you have for creating end-of-year performances that teachers, students, parents and administrators will all be happy with?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Savion Glover instructs students in rehearsal for NJPAC's revival of The Tap Dance Kid; photo by Yasmeen Fahmy, courtesy of NJPAC

Tony Award–winning tapper Savion Glover is giving back to his hometown community in Newark, New Jersey, by directing and choreographing New Jersey Performing Arts Center's revival of the Broadway hit that launched his career, The Tap Dance Kid.

September 13–15, you can see the group of young dancers Glover handpicked from throughout the New Jersey and New York areas, as they bring the 1983 story to life in a new and modern way. Here, Glover shares a bit about creating movement inspired by the show's original Tony Award–winning choreography by Danny Daniels, as well as what it's like to revisit the show that changed his life.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Via YouTube

For all the time we spend talking about feet, we think it's time we did a deep dive into toes. Those little piggies bear a lot of weight, endure painful blisters and help your students soar across the classroom day after day.

So, to show our toes the love they deserve, here are five exercises that are all the self-care you need this week.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
JP Tenuta with Monika Knickrehm in a Level 6 class at The Academy of Movement and Music. Photo by Mike Dutka, courtesy of The AMM

The culture of your dance studio should be a major consideration when it comes to hiring new instructors. After all, teaching experience isn't the only thing that matters! You'll also want to make sure an interviewee fits with your overall philosophy when it comes to interacting with students (and parents!) and teaching dance. Here are some great tips that can help you find the right match.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox