From biscuits to bananas, feet are the first thing dancers notice. They're great fodder for humorous Instas and can make for some mesmerizing lines. But on a more serious note, foot shape can impact you and your dancing in many ways. DS turned to the experts for insight into how everything from the length of your toes to the height of your arch can make a difference. So, put your feet up and read on to see what they have to say!
Toe length and each toe's relation to the next affects how your weight is distributed. As a result, certain foot types are more stable than others. Dr. Alan S. Woodle, DPM, Pacific Northwest Ballet's consulting podiatrist, says the more equal your toes are in length, the more beneficial it'll be.
"In general, dancers with three to four toes of relatively the same length feel that they are much more stable and have fewer complaints of pain in the toes," Dr. Woodle says. "An even toe length pattern means more even weight distribution shared across more toes."
But for those with one toe longer than the rest, weight is distributed unevenly, and the brunt of the pressure and pain falls on whatever toe is the longest, especially while dancing on pointe. Josephine Lee, founder of the pointe shoe fitting company ThePointeShop, says stability is harder to find.
"The more tapered the feet are, the more it'll affect your balance," Lee says.
In foot types with a long second toe that surpasses the first, the pressure falls instead on that smaller, weaker toe. On pointe, this can cause you to sink further into your shoe. Hammer toes—toes that curl under like claws—can occur, increasing the potential for damage to the big toe and the bones and ligaments surrounding it.
"When you curl your second, third, fourth, and fifth toes into a hammer toe position (known in the dance world as 'knuckling down'), your big toes may start to stick way out by themselves," Dr. Woodle says. "Your big toe nails can become ingrown or bruised. Stress fractures, tendinitises, and strains can occur anywhere from the tip of the toe coming up to the big toe side of the arch and all the way up towards the ankle." Strengthening the toes, not just the foot, in order to better hold them straight against the pressure can help fight these effects.
The length of your toes can also affect how you shape your feet. "Toe length pattern is one reason why people sickle," Dr. Woodle says. "If you have a really short big toe, for example, your foot may sickle to the shorter big toe side." If the big toe slants inward, bunions on the big toe joint are more likely.
The shape of your heel is unrelated to the shape and length of your toes.
Lee says the most common issue stemming from heel shape is shoe slippage.
"If the heel tapers back really sharply, the heel of a shoe doesn't stay on as well," Lee said. "But if you have a wider heel or a protruding heel, your heel will have an easier time gripping the shoe."
Pronation, the inward movement of the foot (that's often called "rolling in" in the studio), is also determined by heel shape. If you roll in, the line from the back of your ankle to the back of your heel will be diagonal. This orientation of your heel can cause injuries to move up the leg into the ankles, knees, hips, and back since the feet set the foundation for your alignment. Dr. Woodle encourages dancers to focus on keeping both heels straight up and down, as if they were guided by a straight line running from the bottom of the heel through the back of the ankle.
Lee checking the fit of the heel at a pointe shoe fitting (Photo by Linda Yun)
Arches can range from the flattest of flat to the highest of high—and everything in between. They also have different levels of flexibility. Some people are particularly flexible and can hold their feet in the high arch position. Some have only semi-flexible arches, allowing them to partially pull their arches up. Others have rigid arches that don't move at all, resulting in flatter feet.
It's important to note that this flexibility is where the foot bends, not the ankle—you may have a high, flexible arch, but you may not have a very mobile ankle, and vice versa. According to Lee, there's a critical difference between pointing with your foot and pointing with your ankle, especially when it comes to pointework.
"Dancers who don't point with their feet but bend with their ankle are able to get over on pointe just fine. But since their feet are flat, they're not breaking through the shoe because they aren't actually bending it," Lee says "Then there are some dancers that can't get over their box even if they have really flexible feet because their ankles don't bend as well. So they're breaking through shoes incredibly fast even though they're not getting over their shoes at all."
Arch height can also affect how your weight is distributed. Dancers with higher arches can better distribute their weight through their pointe shoes. "But if you have a female dancer with really flat feet that stay flat when she points, her feet will slide down the shanks, as if she's going down a steep cliff," Dr. Woodle says. "She will have no arch to put any weight in at all, jamming the entire forefoot into the shoe." This can lead to increased pressure on the toes.
Lee explains that arch height can also affect your stability, particularly when coupled with weaknesses in the lower leg. "Generally, the higher arch you have, the more likely you are to roll your ankle," Lee says. "But it's not only about the arch itself. It's usually about how strong your ankles are."
Lee at a pointe shoe fitting (Photo by Linda Yun)
No two feet are the same—including your own. Toes are longer, bunions are more pronounced, and anatomy can differ. Lee explains that pointe shoes, on the other hand (or should we say foot), are symmetrical. There's no right or left shoe. They're made exactly the same. The asymmetry of your foot shape, therefore, speaks to how your feet will fare in your shoes.
"The foot is not straight," Lee says. "Anything that protrudes out from the straight line is in danger of getting blistered or injured, which is why padding exists, to compensate for your asymmetrical foot shape going into a symmetrical shoe."
Dr. Woodle adds that structural differences between the right and left legs, such as extra bones, can affect abilities like the mobility of the foot and ankle. "Some girls may have a right foot that points quite nicely while the left foot is quite limited," he says. "Maybe they've inherited an extra bone behind their left ankle called an Os Trigonum that's blocking the pointing ability of one foot but not the other, creating asymmetry between the left and right feet."