Do you have tips for prepping a pirouette with a straight back leg? I’m dancing a Balanchine ballet and I’m having trouble changing my technique. —Liza

I was in a similar situation when I joined the Balanchine-based Suzanne Farrell Ballet mid-career. I had trained preparing for pirouettes with both legs in plié, so it was hard to get the hang of the straight back leg at first. But over time, I adjusted and actually grew to prefer it!

What helped me was to think of shifting my body forward each time I prepared so that the majority of my weight was over my front foot, instead of underneath myself on two bent legs. The arms help, too: Instead of keeping them classically curved, extend them, as if reaching out. Overall, your body should feel much longer in this position.

The best way to get the feeling in your body is to do it—a lot. Try practicing tombé pas de bourrée to fourth position across the floor from the corner, feeling your momentum moving forward each time you land. Reach your front hand out as your back leg reaches behind you to create one long, continuous line. Notice how different it feels. Try the same thing from fifth position, taking a tendu to fourth in both en dedans and en dehors preparations. With enough repetition, your body will soon do it naturally.

Two of my colleagues don’t take responsibility for remembering choreography. It wastes everyone’s time, and I end up reteaching them during breaks. How can I confront them? —Michaela

Not everyone is a quick study, so first take a moment to assess why your colleagues aren’t picking up choreography. Are they chattering incessantly, spacing out, watching the clock? Or are they earnestly paying attention? If they truly seem to learn at a slower pace, take a more compassionate approach. Suggest that they keep a notebook to write things down after rehearsal—this will allow them to recall steps more easily and to study on their own time. You can also offer to help them for a few minutes at the end of the day. Or, you can recommend that they ask the ballet master for a copy of the video—again, so that they can study on their own.

If your colleagues lack discipline and focus, however, you shouldn’t have to cover for them. Politely tell them that you’re unable to give up your break and that they need to be responsible for themselves. Without their crutch (you), they’ll be forced to pay closer attention during rehearsals. If they don’t, your ballet master will surely notice and they’ll have to pay the consequences. Some people have to learn the hard way.

What exercises will keep my toes from knuckling under when I’m on pointe? —Shannon

Almost every ballerina has experienced knuckling—I certainly did as a young dancer. According to Dr. Frank Sinkoe, a podiatrist who works with students at the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education, knuckling is usually a sign of weak intrinsic muscles, located in the arch of the foot. But it’s also a sign that you’re approaching your technique incorrectly. While on pointe, you should feel the muscles in your feet and legs pulling up and out of the shoe, not sinking down into it. Ask your teacher to monitor your placement closely to identify any technical weaknesses and faulty alignment. In the meantime, Dr. Sinkoe recommends these three strengthening exercises, which target different muscle groups.

(Photo by Nathan Sayers)

Doming: This strengthens the intrinsic muscles. Sit on the ground with one foot flat on the floor. Slowly drag your toes back, keeping them straight and long (not curled!), creating a “dome” shape with your arch. Hold for several seconds and return to the starting position, keeping toes straight. Repeat 10 times on each foot.

(Photo by Nathan Sayers)

Thera-Band exercise: Sit on the ground and wrap a Thera-Band underneath the ball of your foot, holding the ends in your hands. Point the toes, keeping them straight instead of crunched. Maintaining a pointed position, flex and point the toes against the resistance of the band, keeping them as long as possible. Repeat 10 times. This will also help strengthen the intrinsic muscles.

One-footed relevés: Holding on to the barre, stand in parallel on one foot. Relevé, reaching full demi-pointe in two counts. Slowly roll down in four counts. Repeat 10 times on each leg. This will help strengthen your calf’s gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, as well as the “stirrup” muscles, which wrap around the ankle and support the arch.

Another reason dancers knuckle is to compensate for unsupportive or ill-fitting shoes. If you suspect your shoe may be the problem, make an appointment with a professional pointe shoe fitter to find a better option.

Have a question? Send it to Pointe editor and former dancer Amy Brandt at askamy@dancemedia.com.

Inside PT

(Hannah Foster, photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe)

Even after years of pointework, ankle strengthening never stops. Freshen up your warm-up routine with these three daily exercises from Leigh Heflin Ponniah, MA, MSc, from the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries of the New York University Langone Medical Center. Although the movements are subtle, “these work on building stamina in the ankle and supporting muscles,” she says. Each should be done barefoot or in ballet slippers.

Calf Raise with Tennis Ball

1. Stand in parallel with a tennis ball between your ankles, just underneath the medial malleolus—the bony bump on the inside of the ankle.

2. Rise to relevé while squeezing the tennis ball in place and keeping the alignment of the legs.

3. Lower and repeat 20 times.

What it does: This strengthens the calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus), as well as the muscles of the inner thighs and ankles that help with stability.

 

(Hannah Foster, photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe)

Heel Walks

1. Walk on your heels with straight legs and all 10 toes off the ground.

2. Continue moving around the studio like this for 30 to 60 seconds.

What it does: The walks build strength in the tibialis anterior, located in the shin. It also helps counteract overly dominant calves, which are often seen in dancers.

(Hannah Foster, photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe)

Romberg Balance

1. Stand facing the barre and lift the left foot off the ground without letting it touch the right leg. Close your eyes and remove your hands from the barre.

2. Balance for 30 to 60 seconds, and repeat on the opposite leg.

3. As you gain stability balancing barefoot, you can progress to doing this in pointe shoes (while standing on flat) for more of a challenge.

What it does: This improves proprioception, the sense of your position in space. According to Ponniah, this plays a major role in ankle stability and overall body awareness when you’re dancing.

Wellness Tips from the Pros

If you’ve ever wanted to know professional dancers’ health secrets—or are looking for a few tips for yourself—The Whole Dancer program might be for you. Founded in 2015 by health coach and former Louisville Ballet dancer Jess Spinner, The Whole Dancer offers online programming for pre-professional and professional ballet dancers on topics like eating well, cross-training, goal setting and self-care through group phone calls, weekly worksheets and more. The next session, running June 15 to August 10, will feature three guest contributors: New York City Ballet soloist Lauren King, Boston Ballet corps dancer Shelby Elsbree and Dance Theatre of Harlem member Lindsey Croop. “The big goal in having professionals participate,” says Spinner, “is to help younger dancers realize that getting through the pressure and stresses associated with a professional dance career takes work—just like within the studio.” Programs run online for eight weeks and range in cost from $99 to $379. For more information and to register, see thewholedancer.com.

Fantastic Flaxseeds

What are they? Flaxseeds are the seed of the ancient flax plant. Through the centuries, its nutrition has been touted by East Indian yogis, the emperor Charlemagne and Mahatma Gandhi. The plant’s Latin name, Linum usitatissimum, even translates to “the most useful.”

Why they’re good for you: According to the American Nutrition Association, the tiny morsels:

are an excellent source of linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid, two fatty acids that the body needs but can’t make on its own.

contain a protein that has all the essential amino acids.

are high in fiber.

are a good source of many minerals and vitamins, including magnesium and vitamin B1.

How to eat them: Grind flaxseeds before eating to release their nutrients—if left whole, they may pass through your digestive tract without breaking down. (A coffee grinder or spice mill will do the trick.) Mix 2 tablespoons into a smoothie, sprinkle onto cereal, oatmeal or yogurt, or use as a salad topper. Adding ground flaxseed is also a great way to boost the nutrition of baked goods like breads or muffins.

The Secret to a Healthier Grocery Haul

If you want to stock your shopping cart with more leafy greens, fruits and vegetables, try this: Eat a healthy snack beforehand. According to a study in Psychology & Marketing, people bought 25 percent more produce if they had an apple before they went to the grocery store, instead of a cookie or no snack at all.

Callus Care 101

With the joy of pointework usually comes the not-so-pleasant experience of having calluses. For most dancers, the hardened patches of skin on the toes and heels come with the territory. According to Dr. Thomas Novella, a podiatrist who works with professional ballet dancers in New York City, “calluses are a natural accumulation of keratin, a protein produced by the top layer of skin to adapt to areas of pressure.” Here, he shares how calluses can be beneficial to dancers, as well as when you should be worried.

The good: Your calluses are like a customized coat of armor, one you started developing when you began pointework. The tough keratin layers may be unsightly, but they’re far better at protecting your feet than blister-prone soft skin. If your calluses don’t hurt, leave them alone; they’re probably preventing blisters.

The bad: An overly thick callus can create too much pressure, irritating the skin under or around it. Or, a harmless callus may evolve into a hard corn—also made of keratin but typically smaller and more sensitive. When experiencing pain, try to distribute the pressure and protect the area with doughnut-shaped pads and malleable lambswool. Avoid pads with uniform thickness, which will cause increased pressure.

The ugly: If you’re taking a lot of modern classes or rehearsing a barefoot ballet, a callus on the bottom of your foot may split into a painful fissure, making weight-bearing and demi-pointe work extremely painful. An untreated corn could also develop into an ulcer, an open sore on the top layer of skin. Since fissures and ulcers are open wounds, they’re prone to infection and may require a trip to the doctor and time off to heal.

Maintain Before Pain

Novella suggests using a PedEgg to safely shave your calluses to a moderate thickness; don’t overdo it.

Avoid using sharp tools or products with erosive acids to manage calluses. Both can damage healthy skin.

Monitor evolving or new calluses, which can be caused by new shoes, different choreography or even changing bone structure after foot growth or injury.

You may need to increase your pointe shoe size or rethink your toe padding to accommodate calluses. —Hannah Foster

Color Yourself Happy

Consider these new dance bag essentials: a coloring book and crayons. Why? Coloring has a calming effect similar to meditating, possibly because it helps you be present in the moment. Neuropsychologists have credited its repetitive nature, patterns and details with its positive effects, and over the past year, the popularity of adult coloring books has exploded. When you’re killing time backstage or between classes, it’s the perfect lighthearted stress reliever.

 

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