Photo by Nathan Sayers.
We’ve all seen that photo: an otherwise lovely dancer, posed in first arabesque, with a glaring blemish at the end of her leg—a droopy, sickled foot. Swap that image for a photo in which the dancer’s foot gracefully swoops, or “wings,” up from the ankle, though, and bunheads will start to drool. That one small detail makes such a huge difference.
But what’s wrong with a straight, neutral foot? Technically, nothing. When New York City Ballet principal Sterling Hyltin partially tore her deltoid ligament four years ago, she temporarily lost her ability to wing. “It’s not the end of the world,” she says. “Just make sure you’re pointing as hard and as straight as you can so that your foot completes the line of your leg.”
Besides, sickling and (at times) winging can create instability. “A neutral foot is the healthiest option because you’re more properly aligned,” says Shannon Casati of Ballet Austin’s physical therapy team. Still, ballet dancers are often encouraged to enhance their line by winging. The key is knowing how and when to do so.
Improve Your Line
What is it about sickling that makes ballet dancers shudder in horror? For one thing, it’s just kind of ugly—especially in a pointe shoe. “You always want to accentuate and elongate your leg line,” says Rose Taylor, a ballet instructor at the Kansas City Ballet School. “But a sickled foot immediately breaks and shortens that line.”
Additionally, sickling can be dangerous, especially during relevés and jumps. “You can easily sprain your ankle when you roll towards the outside of your foot,” Casati says. “And once you’ve stretched out a ligament, it’s permanent.”
While some dancers can easily shape their feet correctly, others have trouble moving beyond a sickled line. The reason? “Genetics,” Casati says. “Two heel bones—the calcaneus and the talus—have to move up towards your head to point the forefoot down and create a pretty shape. Some people have a lot of play in those two bones, which allows them to point from higher up in their ankle, while others don’t.”
Luckily, basic classroom technique can help those who struggle with sickling. Tendu, which leads forward with the heel and back with the toes, is a perfect example. “Work segmentally through the foot to engage all of the muscles,” says Casati, who is also a former professional dancer. “I had a teacher who called it ‘pushing your pennies’: Imagine you have a pile of pennies in front of your toes, and push them away from you so that you’re articulating your toes like fingers.”
Patricia Delgado, a principal dancer with Miami City Ballet, has always struggled with her less-than-ideal feet. She noticed a vast improvement in her line when she started wearing pointe shoes at the barre. “You can use the floor as resistance during tendu and dégagé,” she says, “and because a pointe shoe is much harder than a flat shoe, it strengthens the muscles in your foot and ankle.”
Thera-Band exercises also help. Sitting on the ground with your legs straight out in front of you, loop the band under your forefoot and pull on the ends to create resistance. Casati recommends practicing pointing, flexing, winging and sickling your foot (10 to 20 repetitions per direction) to build strength in your ankles and feet.
Building flexibility takes time. “Don’t force your body to do things it can’t do—you’ll be more susceptible to injury,” Casati says. “You have to make peace with your anatomy.”
Form vs. Function
If you’re blessed with flexible ankles, be aware that winging has a definite time and place. “Wing your foot when it’s in front of you or behind you, whether it’s touching the ground in tendu or up in the air,” Hyltin says. “But not in à la seconde—then it looks like you’re not pointing.”
“A lot of times students misinterpret winging and contort their foot until it’s actually flexed,” Taylor says. “It’s important to understand that the line should be pleasing on a 360-degree plane. If you’re doing a promenade, the audience will see your foot from all angles. You always want the foot to appear fully pointed.”
Sometimes dancers push over towards their big toe on demi- and full-pointe to create a winged look, but this can create problems like tendinitis and heel stiffness. “Ideally you want a nice, neutral foot in relevé, with your weight between your first two toes,” Casati says. “When you’re always grinding one side of the ankle, you create a lot of wear and tear, which can lead to arthritic issues down the road.”
Delgado is sometimes asked to dance over her big toe to create a better line. “But I know that functionally it’s more important to be over my second toe and rotated from the hip down through the knee,” she says. “Function first, then create the line.”
Everyone is built differently, so it’s important to understand your foot—and its limitations—to create the most flattering line. “It’s about figuring out when to wing,” Delgado says. “Spend time examining your foot in the mirror to determine what’s best for your own line.”
Ah, feet—we point, stomp and crack them (and everything in between). And though dancing all day makes them strong, they need special attention to help prevent injury. DS spoke with former professional ballerina and conditioning expert Rachel Hamrick, who recommends these four exercises to keep your feet in tip-top shape—and improve their overall look, from arches to insteps.
Modeled by Ashlyn Mae (Photo by Nathan Sayers)
You'll need: FLX ball (or small exercise ball), exercise band
(Photo by Nathan Sayers)
Purpose: To stimulate and strengthen the core muscles of your feet
1. Begin by sitting with your foot planted on the ground.
2. Press your toes firmly down and pull them back into the floor, keeping them as straight as possible. Simultaneously raise the arch of your foot. Hold for 5 seconds. Repeat 10 times per foot.
A relaxed foot (left), and a domed foot (right) (Photos by Nathan Sayers)
(Photos by Nathan Sayers)
Relevé with FLX Ball
Purpose: To improve your arch and discourage your toes from knuckling under. This exercise also strengthens the muscles that help you rise from demi-pointe to pointe.
1. Sit on the floor with your legs in front of you. Place your left toes flat on the surface of the FLX Ball.
2. Lift your heel while pressing your toes flat into the ball.
3. Point your toes, maintaining contact with the ball’s surface.
4. Return to a high relevé position by flexing your toes, keeping your heel held high. Do two to three sets, repeating the exercise 10 times, then switch feet.
Purpose: To promote stability on pointe by strengthening the toes
1. Sit on the floor and wrap the exercise band around the toes on your left foot. Place your right foot on top of the free ends of the band. Use your hands to pull the band ends away from your feet.
2. Flex your left foot towards you, focusing on maintaining neutral alignment.
3. Return to starting position. Repeat 10 to 20 times, then switch feet.
(Photos by Nathan Sayers)
Purpose: To strengthen your ankle muscles and promote all-around stability
1. Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you, hip-width apart. Loop the exercise band around your toes, pulling the ends with both hands so that it’s taut.
2. Keeping your arches pointed, wing your toes up and away from each other. Slowly return them to their original position—you should feel a slight resistance. Repeat 10 to 20 times.
(Photos by Nathan Sayers)
This one's for all you ballerina-hopefuls out there wrestling with spatula feet...
Not all of us were endowed with arches so curved they'd make a banana jealous (le sigh)—and while having less-than-ideal feet isn't a ballerina death sentence, we understand that the struggle is real.
That said, let's set aside the Thera Bands, the tennis balls and the (somewhat-terrifying) foot-stretcher contraptions for a moment and have a good laugh. Because if there's one way to ease a potentially sore subject, it's humor.
You know we love a good ballet-inspired parody, especially one that brings us new, clever lyrics to the songs we already can't seem to get out of our heads. So naturally, it's about time we had a ballet parody to Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda."
That's where 15-year-old ballet student Clarissa May comes in. A couple weeks ago, she released her "Anaconda" parody, "My Ballet Teacher Don't." Instead of celebrating an obsession with...the bootay...Clarissa's version focuses on a ballet teacher fixated on perfect arches—because her "ballet teacher don't want none unless you got feet hun."
Schuyler Gieringer of Michelle Latimer Dance Academy company may have flaws, but you'd never guess—because she's making sure you can't see them. (Photo via evolvephotovideo.com)
Baby, you were born this way! Even though not every dancer has the “ideal” build, all dancers can learn to make the most of their natural attributes. Here’s how to improve the things you can change—and camouflage the things you can’t.
A lot of us can relate to Center Stage’s not-so-turned-out Jody Sawyer. The best way to maximize turnout is to work on rotating from your hip joints. “Think about the way you roll your shoulders from front to back,” says Josie Walsh, artistic director of both Ballet RED and the Joffrey Ballet School Summer Intensive in San Francisco. “Our hips are rolling joints, too.” Picture your legs rolling outward from the hips to achieve your maximum natural rotation.
You can also improve slightly on natural turnout. Try Walsh’s turnout-strengthening exercise: Lie on your left side with your knees bent. Keeping your feet together, lift your right knee as much as you can without opening your right hip. Do 50 reps, then repeat on the other side.
You can get bendier—but you can’t cheat your way there. “We all want to have extension right away, sometimes at the sacrifice of correct technique,” says Yvette Tucker, who trained with the Joffrey Ballet and Hartford Ballet. If you don’t have great flexibility now, “bring your leg lower so you can turn out from the hip,” Tucker says, which will build strength in the right muscles. Every line looks better when your leg is turned out, and maintaining proper placement from the beginning will help you hold higher extensions correctly later on.
While stretching daily will improve your flexibility, Julie Webb, who teaches at the Michelle Latimer Dance Academy in Greenwood Village, CO, often sees dancers make the mistake of forcing their muscles during stretches. “Dancers will sit on the floor in straddle position, and even if their stomachs are nowhere near the ground, they’ll push their chests down so their knees rotate in”—which can cause injuries. Don’t focus on an “end goal” while stretching. Instead, try to slowly and steadily improve from your starting point.
The Long and the Short of It
There’s no way to change your height, but there are ways to make your height work for you. Tucker is 5' 3", but she has found that dancing powerfully makes her look like an Amazon. “I learned how to cover space and book it from one side of the stage to the other,” she says. “I may be small, but I’ve proven I can move as big as someone whose stride is twice as large as mine.” If you’re vertically challenged, think about sending energy out through the ends of your feet during grand allégro, and creating more expansive port de bras by opening your chest and back.
Smart dancewear picks can also help you stand tall. Tucker has learned how to trick the eye by wearing tights the same color as her pointe shoes, which makes her legs look longer. Three-inch character heels have also come in handy: “Those extra inches of leg line really help.”
Josie Walsh teaching at the Joffrey Ballet School San Francisco summer program. (Photo by Jody Q. Kasch)
Walsh had the opposite problem in her dancing days: She was 6' 2" on pointe and felt she was always “apologizing for being tall.” But slouching draws attention for the wrong reasons—and when it comes to line, tall is beautiful. It wasn’t until Walsh embraced her height that everything started to gel: “When I started dancing larger than life, the world started responding.”
Moving quickly, however, can be a challenge for tall girls. Speed starts at the barre, where you build the fast-twitch muscles that get you through crazy petit allégro combinations. Imagine an elastic between your inner thighs, which rebounds after each tendu or dégagé. You’ll find that will eventually help you pick up the tempo in the center.
Off On the Right Foot
Everyone wants beautifully arched feet, but what happens when things fall “flat”? The issue isn’t easy to fix, but it’s also not a dealbreaker. “Even if you stretch your feet as much as you can, there’s only so much you can do,” Webb says. “The key is making them look like they’re better than they are.”
The way Webb and her dancers accomplish that is through strategic angles and movement choices. In arabesque, a little bit of winging—rotating the ankle joint slightly, so the toes point upward—can go a long way. Shoe choices are also crucial. Webb tells dancers with poor feet to avoid bulky jazz shoes and instead choose shoes like Elastosplits, which emphasize the arch.
When working with dancers at the Joffrey Ballet School summer intensives, Walsh advises dancers to focus on strengthening as well as stretching their feet: “Stretching is helpful, but you should immediately follow stretching with Thera-Band exercises.” When it comes to staying injury-free (and technically solid), strong feet are a dancer’s best friend.
The Bottom Line
Sometimes the things you see as weaknesses are helping you become a stronger dancer. “People who have limitations have to work harder to be articulate with what they have,” Walsh says. “They use their legs and feet with more wisdom than people who have everything naturally, because they’ve analyzed every movement.” And remember: Audiences don’t applaud good feet—they applaud great dancers.
Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Gabriella Yudenich says she didn’t grow up with perfect feet—but she made the best of what she had. (Paul Kolnik)
“I grew up in a ballet family—my mom and dad were principals with Pennsylvania Ballet—so I found out pretty early that I didn’t have the best feet,” says PAB soloist Gabriella Yudenich. By age 12, Yudenich understood improving her feet would have to be a key focus in her ballet training. “I knew I’d never have an amazing natural arch, but my goal was to get to the point where people would be able to watch my dancing and see my artistry—not my feet.”
With a lot of hard work, she met that goal. If you have feet that aren’t ideal, you can do the same. You won’t be able to change how your feet are built, but you can strengthen your foot muscles, safely stretch for greater mobility and learn how to make your feet work for you.
“The Thera-Band is a miracle for improving bad feet,” says Carlos Valcárcel, director of the School of Ballet Arizona. He recommends using a Thera-Band to provide resistance as you point and flex the foot, working slowly and taking care not to sickle. If you struggle with sickling in general, you can also hold the Thera-Band on the inside of your foot and use the resistance to help you practice gently winging your pointed foot.
Dancer Amy Ruggiero, who performed in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular this winter after touring with Twyla Tharp’s Come Fly Away last year, recommends keeping your ankle pointed and using the Thera-Band to work through your toes, which will strengthen your toes and the muscles of your forefoot. In this pointed position, try to relax your Achilles tendon and let your forefoot do the work. To further develop your foot muscles, stand with your feet on a towel on the floor. Keep your heels planted and use your toes to slowly scrunch the towel toward you. When the towel is as scrunched as it can get, flatten it out and start again.
Make foot-strengthening exercises part of your daily warm-up. “It’s unbelievable how much more mobility you can get when you properly warm up your feet before dancing,” says Ruggiero, who, like Yudenich, struggled with less-than-ideal feet growing up. During class, feeling the resistance of the floor starting at the barre can help you develop the articulation and strength you’ll need in center. And, Ruggiero adds, “Don’t underestimate the value of repeated relevés.”
You may be tempted to aggressively force your arches—but don’t! Be gentle. (iStock)
In addition to strengthening exercises, you can include some foot stretches in your daily regimen. One stretch Yudenich still relies on involves rising onto a high demi-pointe in parallel and gently lowering her body weight down and forward over her feet, like a modified grand plié. In this position, always make sure to keep your weight over your first and second toes.
She also believes in having a partner stretch her feet, but cautions, “You have to be careful because the other person can’t feel your stretch. Don’t let him or her push you too hard or the wrong way—that can overstretch or strain your muscles.” If you don’t have a partner, you can use your hands to gently stretch your feet, avoiding sickling.
What shouldn’t you do to improve foot flexibility? “Never put your feet beneath a heavy object to stretch them,” Valcárcel says, because the risk of injury is too great. You should also be wary of foot-stretching devices that claim to improve your feet. Many of them are more harmful than beneficial.
If you’re hoping to drastically change your feet, talk to your teacher to ensure you’re stretching safely. Ruggiero forced her feet into foot stretchers as a teen, danced in dead pointe shoes and ended up with an injury that had her off pointe for eight months. “I didn’t understand until later in life that my feet needed strength and alignment first,” she says.
Accepting Your Limits
To improve your feet, you have to understand them. “Spend time in front of the mirror with your teacher looking at your line to see what positions work best for you,” Valcárcel says. All you really need is an unbroken line from the knee to the toe when your foot is pointed, with a foot that’s straight or slightly winged. Avoid hiding your feet inside bulky booties and legwarmers. “When you cover the problem, you can’t see the shape and work on it,” Valcárcel explains.
Try not to compare your feet to your classmates’. “If you’re not born with arches like Paloma Herrera’s, you’re not going to be able to create them,” Ruggiero says. “If you can get your feet to complete your line, so it’s not jarring or unaesthetic, they’re doing the work you need them to do.”
Finally, try to work toward better feet without neglecting the rest of the package. “Remember that there’s a beauty when you dance, and when people look at you, they’re looking at that beauty overall—not just at your feet,” Yudenich says. “Your feet are just a part of what you have to offer.”
Lori Belilove & The Isadora Duncan Dance Company members sport bare feet in Duncan’s Bacchanal. (Vladimir Lupovsky)
When you’re sporting a pair of jazz shoes or ballet slippers, you can throw off strings of chaînés and multiple turns without a problem. But when you shed your footwear for modern class, everything changes. Your feet get sweaty and stick to the floor, making your movements jerky and uncomfortable. And those triples you can pull off in ballet shoes? Not happening.
Learning to dance barefoot like a pro takes time and patience. But for aspiring modern and contemporary dancers, the ability to move seamlessly without shoes is essential. And even ballerinas and commercial dancers can benefit from having this skill up their sleeves; you never know when a choreographer will ask you to shed your shoes. DS talked to the pros about the trials—and joys—of dancing barefoot.
Feeling the Floor, Then and Now
The history of barefoot dancing in the U.S. begins with Isadora Duncan, who shocked early-20th-century audiences by refusing to wear shoes when she performed. Duncan’s bare feet were a rebellious act, representing her desire to push dance beyond the rigid confines of classical ballet.
But there’s another side to this story, too. Some modern dance innovators, including Martha Graham, actually adopted the practice of dancing barefoot for practical reasons: Without shoes, Graham’s dancers could maintain better balance and stability. Emily D’Angelo, a current member of Lori Belilove & The Isadora Duncan Dance Company, enjoys working barefoot for the same reasons. “When you’re barefoot, you have a larger area of contact with the floor, which makes balancing easier,” she says. “Your feet can widen into the floor and use their natural moisture to make a connection.” Next time you’re feeling frustrated in modern class, remember this: While your pirouettes may be suffering, your balance has probably never been better.
Making the Transition
Madelyn Ho and Justin Kahan in Paul Taylor’s Esplanade (Tom Caravaglia)
While D’Angelo grew up dancing barefoot, most dancers don’t begin to do so until later in their training. Taylor 2 dancer Madelyn Ho had never danced shoeless until her first college modern class. “It was so weird not having anything on my feet,” she remembers. To get used to dancing barefoot, Ho recommends dancers take the time to break down challenging steps, like turns and slides, moment by moment. Practicing movements slowly can help you figure out the places where your bare feet will stick or slip naturally. Instead of trying to work against the traction your feet feel on the floor, learn how you can work with it. “Once I learned to stay grounded while turning,” says Ho, “pirouettes without shoes came more naturally.”
When you’re just beginning to dance barefoot, it doesn’t only feel strange—it’s often painful, too. Blisters, floor burns and split skin are no fun. But don’t worry: You’ll begin to build protective calluses on the toes and balls of your feet quickly. According to Dr. Donald J. Rose, director of the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, you can accelerate the process by soaking your feet in black tea, which helps prevent skin damage. “The tannic acid in black tea helps harden the skin,” he says.
If you do experience a particularly bad split or blister, proper care is important. (Studio floors are dirty.) “Clean raw and open wounds to keep them from getting infected,” Rose advises. “Cover them while you dance with elastic athletic tape, but make sure to remove it at night to allow the wounds to heal.” Your calluses need a little TLC, too. “Thick calluses are likely to split or tear from underlying skin layers,” Rose warns. “Use a pumice stone to gently exfoliate calluses if they grow too dense.”
Practice Makes Perfect
As with most elements of dance, regular practice is the only tried-and-true way to get comfortable dancing shoeless. Don’t be tempted to “save your feet” by rehearsing a barefoot piece in socks or shoes—even if your choreographer allows it. You’ll only set yourself up for more challenges when it’s finally time to perform. Instead, advises Ho, relax and enjoy the experience. “I actually feel better when I’m barefoot,” she says. “It makes my dancing so much freer.”