Thursday, July 28, 2011

Ideal Dancer's Body: Feet

Okay, I felt guilty posting just my stories two days in a row, so here's a real post. This may or may not become a series, we'll see. I've talked a lot about the body on this blog and what can be done to take care of your body as a dancer, in my posts about taking care of your body and cracking. I've previously talked specifically about feet in my injury post and in my pointe feet post.

Have you ever told another dancer "I'm so jealous of your arches, I wish mine looked like that" or "I wish I had Achilles tendons like yours"? Yeah, because the ideal dancer has gorgeously high yet strong arches and long Achilles tendons (deep demi plie). Personally, I've got really flat, wide feet and relatively short Achilles tendons. My foot is pretty square, so that's nice for pointe I guess, but other than that, I've got the un-ideal foot. If you're like me, you're probably bummed about that too every now and then. I hope this will help you love your feet a bit more and maybe even take a few steps (heh, foot humor) towards the foot you've wanted!

If you don't have the ideal high arch:
I started to realize a few things. I have unnaturally good balance, which I credit partially to my wide, flat feet. There's more contact with the floor, see? I'm not sure if there's anything to that theory, but it makes me feel better. With a shorter arch, you automatically have more stability - your arches may not drop as much, meaning your ankles won't roll in and cause you problems. Your feet are stronger, probably because your muscles don't have to worry about stretching so much, so it's easier to contract them and use them (long, stretched out muscles have less strength). So you didn't really get the shorter end of the stick. But I do suggest getting arch inserts for your shoes, wearing shoes with a slight heel on them, and not wearing flip flops as often so you don't encourage your feet to flatten out even more.

If you do have the ideal high arch:
Good for you! You've got beautiful, gorgeous feet! They look great when pointed and absolutely magnificent en pointe. But you've got your work cut out for you - you must be aware that high arches may look good, but they're a hassle to maintain. Your balance may be a little wobbly and you have to watch that your ankles don't roll in. Your feet probably aren't as strong and you might be prone to cramping. You were blessed to look good, but do your feet a favor and strengthen them. A theraband is a great way! You'll thank yourself later.

If you have short Achilles tendons:
Maybe you've been wondering what I'm talking about. This is the large tendon that you feel when you touch the back of your ankle, right above your heel. It stretches when you flex your foot and contracts when you point it. You can tell how long your Achilles tendon is by testing your demi plie in first position, keeping your heels firmly on the ground: if your demi plie is relatively shallow, your Achilles tendon is relatively short. To stretch your tendon, you can use a towel (like below) or a theraband to pull back on your foot:

Photo credit
If that's really as far as her foot bends back, then the woman in the above photo has relatively short Achilles tendons.

If you have long Achilles tendons:
Good for you, I really have nothing to say other than I'm jealous. :) Your long Achilles tendons may give you a little instability if they're too bendy and not strong enough. The theraband exercises I alluded to above are great for this too, but you don't want to be bending your foot back (you've already got that part!). You'll actually need a theraband, not a towel, for this one. What you want to be doing is holding the theraband in both hands, wrap the middle of the theraband around the ball of your foot, and slowly point the foot (pushing the band away from you), like this:

Photo credit
Importance of the Achilles tendon contracting as well as lengthening:
Many people want their Achilles tendons to be as long as possible, but you also want it to contract well so that your foot will make a straight line from your leg when you point it (as shown below):

Photo credit
If your Achilles tendons don't contract as well as they stretch, your foot may look something like this:

Photo credit
She's got a beautiful arch, but see how the foot makes a slight 'bump' up from the straight line of the leg? This is not bad for you in any way other than pure aesthetics. It may also not be just your Achilles tendon affecting your foot, it could also be the top of your foot, if yours looks like the second photo. A great stretch to stretch the front of your foot is to sit on top of your shins on the ground with your back straight up and down and toes parallel to the ground, and to just pull up on your knee from that position, like this:

Sit like this, and pull up on one knee with your hand. Photo credit
Yet another huge thank-you to another two anonymous posters on my quick note post! So lovely to hear from you, and thank you so much!


24 comments:

  1. DANCING IS MY LIFEMay 20, 2012 at 10:05 PM

    I have relatively high arches, as well as about two other girls of the six in my dance class. They look great in point shoes, but balance is more difficult in regular ballet shoes. While in releve, I am pushing my arch to the max, and then all of the pressure is on the ball of my foot. At some points in time, it can be pretty uncomfotable and hard to keep balance in coupe.

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    1. That's really interesting, never thought of that! I have pretty flat feet, so obviously I have no experience in that extreme. I find myself pretty stable on my feet, but do you think stability has to do with the degree of arch in the foot or something else as well?

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  2. I have pretty high arches, they look pretty but after 3 hours of dance my feet hurt so bad!

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    1. High arches means you need strength! I've heard that from a lot of my high arch-blessed dancing friends. I call it a blessing because you can strengthen your feet so that they won't hurt, whereas my flat, strong feet will never look as pretty as yours!

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  3. Wow, my daughter began dancing this past year at age 9 and we are always told what beautiful feet she has. Thanks for opening my eyes as to why she has difficulty balancing. We will work on the strengthening exercises you described, thanks for the tips. I'd love to subscribe to your blog but only see that it can be done through Google Friend Connect? I have a blog myself and if you make more options available, such as subscribing through an RSS feed (by email) it is really helpful. Also, if you don't have one already a Facebook Fan Page helps immensely:) I'd love advice on helping to steer and develop a dancer from a young age...what to pursue, the order it is best done in (i.e., I was told not to pursue Contemporary for her without a strong ballet background but was told by another studio to ignore that advice so am left wondering) and pitfalls to avoid. Thanks so much!

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    1. Beautiful feet is such a blessing! Of course, high arches need more strength and balance training. There are many different types of strengtheners that can be researched and found online as well! I have never used them personally, so it's hard for me to recommend.

      Thank you so much for the blog tips! I never thought about widening subscriber options. Never realized there were other options! I'll look into it. I'm only afraid a Facebook fan page will lead to nothing! I don't seem to get many hits here, but as long as I can help a few people out, I'll keep writing.

      As I wasn't steered from a young age, I'm not sure what good I can do! I'll write a post on my thoughts, but there are so many ways to develop dancers, and most of them are legitimate. Are you considering dance as a future career for your daughter? Or are you just looking for her to have a solid foundation established by the time she can decide for herself? A hobby? There are so many levels of dedication to dance at a young age. Good luck, I hope to help as much as I can!

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  4. Well, currently my daughter is already dreaming of being accepted into a dance program in college (yet she is only 9, lol). I guess if you could go back to age 9, what are you grateful for in terms of your dance education, what do you wish had been available to you at a young age that you feel would have benefitted you now? I feel it is important for her to develop a strong foundation now so that she can make that decision when the time comes. She spent the past year dancing as part of a competition team and performing a lyrical solo but we are no longer able to financially support that (I'm thinking dance must be THE most expensive dream to follow). It breaks my heart but all I can do now is try to determine the best way to help provide her with the technique and instruction necessary and within our means. It is more than a hobby...it's in her heart to pursue this and any advice you offer is greatly appreciated. (And yes, a Facebook Page is a great way for people to find you and connect with you...there are plug-ins that connect it right here to your blog. My blog is through Wordpress so it may work a little differently. I feel like you though...as long as I am helping a few people out...I will continue to write. I'm glad you do!)

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    1. Sorry I'm replying so late! My dance education at age 9 had only just started - I began at a studio at age 8, and I never knew dance was destined to be my future until high school. I'm actually grateful for this because I never felt burnt out - I was a very serious, very perfectionist child and it took me a long time to be able to handle the criticism and demands that dance training implies. Dance really is the most expensive dream, and dancers rarely ever make any of that money back! If she's already competing and doing solos, then she is already far beyond my training. If I were in your situation, I would put her in ballet classes until she is older (maybe high school?), then continue with jazz or modern/contemporary/lyrical.

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  5. I was wondering what type of dance would be right for me? I usually prefer classical types like ballroom or ballet. My mother always traveled so i never had the chance to dance at a studio. Now we're settled and i want to start because i makes me feel better. See recently my grandpa passed away, he was like a father to me ( parents are divorced, dad never really there for me, he's just some random man who's my dad, didn't even bother to show up when i was being born grandpa was there, though and he watched me). He and my grandmother were dance instructors so when i dance it makes me feel connected still, you know what i mean?

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    1. Seems like dance is in your blood, and would be a really great way to help you discover yourself, move on, and mature. Ballroom is great because it's easy to pick up at any age, and there are lots of classes for all ages. With ballet, it might be a little tougher to find a teen/adult class, but they exist! I would say go for a ballroom class, it's a great way to connect with people (you physically have to) and can be a great social skill as well as a lot of potential for self expression. Good luck!

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  6. Thanks, I will take your advice!:) You're blog is amazing though!:D

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    1. Thanks! Good luck and have fun!

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  8. THE KEY TO SUCCESS IN BALLET... THE PERFECT FEET?
    by Dane Youssef

    At least... that's what most practicing ballet performers think, especially the girls. It's what they keep saying over and over again. What they focus on most.

    Look, I myself have been praised by ballet pros for my very own feet–made for ballet, which I’ve been taking for nine whole years. Take it from someone who’s done the craft and played the sport himself for almost a decade: You don’t just have to be born with it.

    If you want the glorified curve in your foot, for it to stand tall and prominent, you’ll just have to work at it. Doing Pointe exercise with an elastic band until those arches come up. Mold your feet into the proper shape like they’re made of clay.

    Yet this little woman, one Margaret Fonteyn was given the title of “prima ballerina absolutta,” an honor given to the precious ballerinas who seem to be heaven-sent in the profession. Madams Anna Pavolva, Natalia Makarova, and of course, Fonteyn.

    Ballet master and innovator himself George Balanchine critiqued the first lady of Royal Ballet herself Margot as, “Hands like spoons, bad feet, can’t dance at all.” But he also attacked Rudi as, “a passable dancer who’s problem is he always tries to be the prince.” Mr. Balanchine wanted the only star of his ballets to be his own choreography. Any dancer who’s career and reputation outshined his own made him feel threatened.

    Natalia Makarova and Svetlana Zakharova had the perfect feet--among the ideal bodies. Some just do. Why are Russians always the best? In Russia, one isn't accepted into the school. Even if you have the money. And it's not just about what you can do. They give all those who apply an exam. Test their reflexes, their heartbeats. They measure their bodies, their limbs. One has to have an exact body type.

    Besides... high-arches are usually more hazardous in ballet. They look better when they Pointe... but the shock when you jump won't be absorbed as much. You can expect more stress pain in your ankles and the rest of your body. You're less likely to roll over in any first position.

    He founded a school and company where he was God. That’s why he called his students/employees “dear.” He liked to think of them as his own children. One of those true artistes’ who was all ego. Look, I’ve been praise by ballet pros for my own feet–made for ballet, which I’ve been taking for nine whole years. You don’t just have to be born with it.
    If you want the glorified curve in your foot, for it to stand tall and prominent, you’ll just have to work at it. Doing Pointe exercise with an elastic band until those arches come up. Mold your feet into the proper shape like they’re made of clay.

    Look, kids: Technique is one thing. But Margot had a way of onstage, a charisma and persona that isn’t really taught. Makarova’s technique was flawless. She was born for technique. But technique can be taught. Margot had a way that transcended mere skill or exact body type.

    Fonteyn was an icon in her field, regardless of how goddam
    med “proper” her feet (or her short legs) might have been. There is more to the ballet than mere physical dance. She was a ballerina.

    So take this to heart, dear friends and readers, scholars of the ballet: the exact body type, feet, etc. is not written in stone or law. While the conventional way increase the odds of you getting classical roles and employment sooner–perhaps–remember, the ones that break the mold are the ones people remember. The ones who are granted Damehood. Absolute Prime Ballerina. Like the gifted lady in this picture.

    Remember, dance is an art form. A form of self-expression. And when you are not true to yourself or don’t have the faith, there’s just nothing there at all. No art. No dance. No beauty. No truth.

    Nothing.

    --Your Brother in Arms and Tights, Dane Youssef

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    1. Thank you for your insight, beautifully said.

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  9. i'm 15 is it still too late to join ballet? A lot of people have told me i'm very self disciplined and i heard ballet takes a lot of discipline and hard work which i don't mind doing can i still do it or is it too late?

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    1. The simple, optimistic response is that it's never too late! There are ballerinas (albeit few) in professional companies today that started dancing very late in their early lives. It depends on what your intentions are: do you want to learn ballet for fun, to improve your other athletic endeavors, or to join a company? For the first two, a class or two a week will get you started. For the last one, look long and hard and find a good studio that will start you on the right foot right off the bat.

      In a way, you've got some advantages starting ballet later! Your brain has developed enough that you'll learn quickly and retain more of your training. You can learn things right the first time instead of having to fix old, bad habits you learned when you were three. Let me know if you need help and good luck :)

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    2. i will thanks:)

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  10. Is there a limit as to how far your Achilles tendons can stretch? When I use a towel to pull back on my foot, my foot doesn't even bend back; it's straight.
    As for arches, I have a naturally good arch, but what are some ways to strengthen my feet?

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    1. Yes and no. The Achilles tendon is a very large tendon with lots of pressure on it because the major muscles of your calf are connected to it. When you stretch your Achilles, you're actually aiming to stretch the calf muscles, not the tendon itself. If you're trying to create more range of motion for your plie by stretching your foot back, consider using a small rubber (pinky) ball or some other method to help relax your calf muscles. This massage in addition to stretching should help "lengthen your Achilles" and give you a deeper plie.

      There are some great conditioning exercises for feet on the internet. I'd recommend these (I've tried some) as listed by Dance Magazine: http://www.dancemagazine.com/issues/April-2012/PrePointe-Conditioning-Exercises

      Good luck, sorry it took me so long to respond!

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  11. How do i work on my point for point shoes

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  12. I want to make love to your feet.

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  13. I never gave having perfect ballet feet a thought, it's brought to my attention when I try on shoes or wear strappy sandlals and get pedicures. I'm 5'3" so I'm not sure if my height is within criteria for ballet but I've always had natural flexibility and graceful legs ....... guess maybe I missed my calling haha

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  14. I would just like to point out that the "bump" in the fourth picture down IS the high arch. It is highly desirable and you will see it in all high arched feet. Look at Zakharova's "bump"

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