The only thing dancers ever brag about to me is something least under their control: the beauty of their arch. An elegant arch is the grace note at the end of an extended line. It’s no wonder that teachers and choreographers single out dancers with beautiful feet and harangue the unendowed.
What if you’re a talented dancer, but you feel held back by your feet? Is there anything you can do to improve your arch? Yes, a lot, depending on your age and certain structural factors.
In medical terms, when you see a foot in tendu, you’re looking at the ankle, the midfoot joints and the toes in maximum plantar flexion (literally, the bending of the sole of the foot). Deficiencies or excesses in these joints add up to the look of the pointed foot. The chief player is the ankle. To point, the top of the foot moves downward away from the shin. This activity gives a fist-like appearance to the top of the foot and directs the remainder of the foot to the floor. Inadequate range of movement in the ankle keeps most feet from achieving a graceful point.
Some ankles simply do not have enough range of movement. Like the screen on a laptop, the ankle was designed only to open a certain amount. If you try to force the screen beyond its designed limit, it will break. If an ankle is forced beyond its design, it may be injured. This is more often the case for anyone with flat feet. Because these are the hardest feet to improve, many teachers discourage those with very flat feet from seeking a career in dance to avoid disappointment after investing years of hope, time and money.
Twenty-six years ago, a young dancer in A Chorus Line showed me a simple way to measure an ankle’s capacity to point—and check to see if your efforts realistically stand a chance. I’ve used his method ever since: Point your foot to the max. Take a ruler or some other straightedge and place it along the top of your shin, just above the ankle (see above). Look at the part of the straightedge that extends over the top of the foot. There should be a space between it and your foot. If the straightedge touches your foot, pointe work will be a challenge.
Most often dancers who experience difficulty pointing have a raisin-sized extra bone called an “os trigonum,” which occurs deep in the back of the ankle joint. When dancers born with an os trigonum try to point, this bone blocks the action. Sometimes there is no extra bone, but extra cartilage, called “marsupial meniscus,” causing another kind of blockage.
For those who have a little space under the straightedge, the arch can be developed. Be mindful that young people are usually more flexible. Stretching will work better on the young ballerina than on the recent empty-nester who wants to try pointe. Also remember that if any of the following solutions cause pain or problems, ease up or stop. If the pain persists, see a doctor who is familiar with issues dancers face. Finally, whenever you try something new, especially if you’re trying to change something you were—or were not—born with, approach the project gradually. Don’t rush things and end up with an injury.
A visit to a foot orthopedist or podiatrist who has experience working with dancers can help you determine the nature of any difficulty you may have achieving a full point. For those with a bony obstruction in their ankle, surgery may help; for others there are less drastic solutions.
Stretching is one option. While some ballet dancers have been known to just wedge their feet under a piano and go for it, there are more sane ways to stretch the ankle, such as commercially available arch-stretching devices. (Caution: Don’t use these devices if you have loose ligaments!) Some companies even encourage their dancers to use them. Most safely, a dance physical therapist, osteopath or chiropractor can work with you to increase the range of extension in your ankle.
Also consider toe-strengthening exercises to maximize your point by working the muscles behind the toes during tendu and on pointe. It may take years, but the overall result is usually better than any other strategy.
While frowned on by some, there are pads available (www.fancyfoot.com), which, when worn on the foot, enhance the appearance of your instep. Choosing split-sole ballet slippers and avoiding bulky arch support in your dance shoes is another way to help you feign a higher arch. I don’t recommend sewing your ribbons too far forward in your pointe shoes to pull up the arch, because you’ll lose valuable ankle support. If your toes are strong, you can remove the rear half of your pointe shoe shank to give your foot a higher-looking arch.
Often dancers between the ages of 12 and 14 become aware of problems with their feet and arches as they begin pointe. But given time—and a little extra effort—their point improves. Hang in there. There’s help in most cases!
Dr. Novella has been a doctor of podiatric medicine in New York City since 1978. He specializes in dance injuries and