“This is a good exercise for your calves,” the ballerina on Youtube told me as I rose onto my toes for the twentieth time. My calves felt perfectly fine. It was the soles of my feet that were killing me My feet had always been so bad that I was one of the few ballerinas in my class to never achieve pointe shoe status. Though most of them also quite pointe after a few years due to the pain, so I just saved myself from a lot of pain for a small amount of time. Even though I will never be dancing on the tips of my toes, I can still improve my understanding and technique.
The bones, muscles, and tendons are crucial for footwork. It would help if I know what I am using.
Nearly a quarter of the human bones are in our feet. These bones consist of:
Talus The bone that forms a joint with the tibia and fibula to form the ankle
Calcaneus The larger bone under the talus that forms the heel bone
Tarsals Five irregular shaped bones in the midfoot that form the arch. This includes the cuboid and navicular bone as well as three cuneiform bones (the medial, the intermediate, and lateral).
Metatarsals Five bones that connect the tarsals to the phalanges.
Phalanges Fourteen bones that make up the toes. The little toe consists of two phalanges while the other toes have three.
Sesamoids A small pea-shaped bone that is embedded in a tendon. There are two sesamoids under the big toe.
Even though there are multiple tendons, the two main ones are the Achilles’ tendon and the Posterior Tibial tendon. The Achilles’ tendon connects a calf muscle to the calcaneus bone and allows us to stand on our toes. The Posterior Tibial tendon also starts at a calf muscle and continues to the underside of your foot. It supports the arch and is a key factor in stabilisation.
Similarly, while there are many muscles, there are seven that are essential for dance. This includes:
Soleus Used for walking and standing
Gastrocnemius Flexes and extends the foot, ankle, and knee
Abductor hallucis Pulls the big toe away from the body
Tibialis anterior Flexes the foot upward and turning it inward
Extensor digitorum longus Extends the toes, lifts the toes, and turn the foot outward
Flexor digitorum longus Flexes the second to fifth toes and points the toes downwards
Fibularis longus Moves the foot sidewise and flexes it downwards
Fibularis tertius Moves the foot side to side at the ankle joint
Fibularis brevis Moves the foot downward.
All of these bones, tendons, and muscles need to work together to make a strong and flexible foot.
Flexible feet both finish a clean line and allow you to go onto your toes without falling forward. This is done through what is known as plantar flexion, which is the extension of the ankle, so the foot is away from the leg. The typical person has 40-50° of ankle plantar flexion while elite ballerinas usually have 97°.
Whenever ballerinas discuss their feet flexibility, they talk about the ‘arch’. This is the curve under your foot and heel. When ballerinas point their feet while sitting down, their toes can touch the floor. As someone with flat feet, this has always been difficult. However, I like to say they are a little better than what they were at the beginning of the month.
There are many exercises that can help increase flexibility, which mainly consists of stretching. While standing, put one foot on its ball and try to move it forwards as far as you can. You can also move it over so the top of your toes are against the floor. This works on the bony part on top of your foot, or the in-step.
A lot of dancers use foot-stretchers to, you know, stretch the foot. It is an invention where you can keep your leg straight on a base while a fabric lightly puts pressure on your foot, forcing it down. It feels like this has become more popular in recent years. Honestly, a rocking chair works just as well.
Whenever someone discusses how difficult ballet is, the start with one key factor: ballerinas need to have all of their weight on their toes. This requires a lot of hard work and strengthening all the muscles both within the ankle and foot. A US study shows that 40% of the reported injuries in professional dance were from ankle injuries.
Most of the exercises for strengthening ankle are simply based on putting more weight onto it. This is primarily done by going onto releve in multiple positions from one or two legs. It is easier to start with two legs so your weight is distributed more evenly but also try from one leg.
A more difficult exercise that I still haven’t mastered is based on building the muscles in your toes. Lay out a small cloth or tea towel and start to scrunch it up with your toes. Like any muscle, they need strength training and eventually, they can support your entire weight. When you’re done, make sure you give yourself a nice stretch.
The main issues that ballerinas may have is that they do not have the flexibility nor strength required for movement. However, there are other aspects that have to be remembered to improve the overall performance.
- Curling toes I recently realised that this is an issue I have. When you try to point your feet as hard as you can, they start to curl up. This destroys the elegant line and causes more harm when on pointe, as this is called ‘knuckling’. Instead, try to extend your toes.
- Sickling This is a word that many beginner ballerinas would hear a thousand times. It is when your heel drops behind the leg, so the line doesn’t look clean. It is usually done when most of your weight is towards your small toe.
- Winging This is the opposite of sickling. Instead of your weight being on your small toe, it is towards the big toe.
Even if you have no interest in dance, be kind to your feet. They literally support you.