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.
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.
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.
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.
Om at home: Three days a week, Van Buskirk spends about 20 minutes waking up with yoga. “I build muscle easily,” she says, “so I like to balance it out by stretching and lengthening.” She moves through sun salutations and warrior poses to get her heart rate up but pauses when her body needs a deeper stretch. “If my psoas is sore, I usually hold my lunges.” Yoga’s breathing techniques also help her connect with her breath during demanding choreography.
Stability secret: “My left knee has been giving me problems, so I do a lot of stabilizing work,” she says. Between allégro combinations, she builds strength around the joint with this exercise: Standing in parallel with one leg in a turned-in passé, she slowly lowers into a lunge and tries to touch the ground with her hand before returning to standing. The focus is on tracking the standing knee with correct alignment.
Outdoor action: Van Buskirk admits that the gym bores her. “I prefer outdoor activities like walking, biking and swimming.” Each time she hits the pool, she tries to swim at least one lap farther than she did previously to build stamina. “And anytime I have an excuse to hike in the woods, I’ll take it.”
Scaling walls: She enjoys indoor rock climbing with a group of fellow Atlanta Ballet dancers. “That is some cardio,” she says. “You don’t realize it until you’re halfway up a wall and every muscle is shaking. You’re breathing so heavy and holding on for dear life. It’s exhilarating.” She relishes climbing for its similarities to dance, including the subtle weight shifts, whole-body coordination and problem solving.
Backstage elixir: When she’s in the theater, Van Buskirk always has a local cold-pressed juice made of pineapple, cranberry, ginger and lemon—called a Hot Shot—which she adds chia seeds to for a pre-performance boost. “The seeds help with long periods of energy and fullness,” she says.
Nighttime stretching: Van Buskirk winds down by foam-rolling her muscles and releasing her IT bands with slow stretches from yin yoga. “As dancers, we often approach stretching aggressively,” she says. “Instead of pushing through pain in 20 seconds, I let it happen passively over a few minutes. It gets into the deep connective tissue, and the difference is amazing.”