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."