Get To The Point

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.

Physical Solutions

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.

Cosmetic Solutions

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
difficult cases.

Latest Posts


Vikki Sloviter

Sydney Dolan Takes Center Stage at Pennsylvania Ballet

This is Pointe's Summer 2020 cover story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

Just days before the world shuttered under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic, and the curtain came down indefinitely on dance companies everywhere, Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Sydney Dolan debuted Gamzatti in La Bayadère with captivating ease. Her jumps soared, her technique was sound, and her cheeky smile paired with exquisite port de bras was beguiling. Though she didn't know the company would soon cancel the remainder of its season, her beautiful performance acted as a kind of send-off into the unknown.

Dolan's career could be described in one word: charmed. At just 19 years old, she's flown through the ranks at PAB, debuted a long list of roles, won a Princess Grace Award and been named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch." Yet it's her challenges that have shaped not only her training but her outlook, giving her a solid foundation for becoming one of Pennsylvania Ballet's rising stars.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
VAM/Siggul, Courtesy YAGP

YAGP Has Announced the Winners of the 2020 Pas De Deux Virtual Competition

Last weekend, Youth America Grand Prix took to the internet, hosting its first virtual pas de deux competition. Over the course of three days, YAGP streamed videos from its regional events' highest-ranked competitors for a panel of esteemed judges. And, drum roll please... YAGP has just announced the winners, spanning three categories: Senior Classical, Junior Classical and Contemporary.

You can watch the full virtual awards ceremony, hosted by YAGP director of external affairs Sergey Gordeev, below, or scroll down for the list of winners. And if you're missing the thrill of competition, don't fear: Gordeev announced that registration for the 2021 season will open on July 10, with both in-person and virtual options available.

Congratulations to all!

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

Defining and Refining Musicality: How to Tune In and Develop Your Artistic Voice

Ask a hundred people what musicality is, and you're likely to get a hundred different answers. "Musicality is where an artist's personality shines brightest," says Smuin Contemporary Ballet member Ben Needham-Wood. For American Ballet Theatre soloist Skylar Brandt, "it's what distinguishes one dancer from another. It helps me express myself more vividly and emotionally."

Teachers encourage it, directors seek it out and dancers who possess it bring choreography to life in compelling ways. But what exactly is musicality, and how can dancers get more of it?

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks