Your Best Body: Bad Feet?

It's a ballet dancer's eternal question: How do I make my feet better? It seems that our ankles and insteps—no matter how supple they are—are never good enough. But while we all might dream of having arches like Polina Semionova or Paloma Herrera, few of us are born with them.

Jane Rehm, now a dancer with Smuin Ballet in San Francisco, found out early on in her training that her feet were going to be a hurdle. “Pretty much every summer program that rejected me said it was because of my bad feet," says Rehm. “It was something I knew I was going to have to get past."

The good news is that with the right strengthening exercises, you can improve the appearance of your feet. And if you start young enough, you can even make them more flexible. But there are limits—and excessive stretching can do more damage than good.

What Are “Bad" Ballet Feet?
Dancers want their ankles to be flexible enough to create at least a straight line from their shin to the top of their foot when pointing. Anything less, and you'll have trouble getting up on pointe. “Most ankles have about the same total range of motion, but dancers with a flatter foot have more motion toward flexing, and those with a higher arch have more toward pointing," says Dr. Thomas Novella, a podiatrist based in New York City, who has tested the range of motion in at least 1,500 dancers. “It has to do with the way the rear part of the foot meets the ankle inside the joint."

While he feels it is possible to improve range of motion through strengthening and moderate stretching, Novella warns that it won't work for everyone. Dancers in their early to mid-adolescence whose growth plates have just begun to stabilize will see the best results. “Your chance of improving flexibility decreases with age," he says. Although there isn't hard statistical data, Novella asserts that by your mid-20s, there's not much you can do.

How They Can Improve
Kathleen Mitchell, a teacher at Boston Ballet School, has helped students in their teens change the shape of their feet. She recommends using the classic Thera-Band exercises at a slow, controlled pace to increase strength in the ankle and metatarsals. While holding the Thera-Band taut against the ball of your foot, slowly point and flex while fully articulating through the foot. After repeating several times, keep your foot pointed against the band and slowly flex and point the toes only, leaving your ankle in the pointed position.

Stretching properly can also help. “A physiotherapist can stretch your ankle and mid-foot to give the appearance of having more pointe," says Novella, “but it can take years and there's no guarantee." Novella recommends a technique called contract-relax, in which a dancer pushes against a physical therapist's hand, then relaxes to let the muscles stretch farther than before.

Dangerous Measures
While some perhaps painful efforts, like cramming your toes under a door, may seem like a worthwhile sacrifice, think again. “If something sounds crazy, it probably is," says Rehm, “and in the long run, it will set you back." Sleeping in your pointe shoes, standing on the tops of your metatarsals, having a friend sit on your feet or banging your arches to make them swell are dangerous behaviors that can cause serious damage.

“That's not active stretching," says Mitchell. “It would be like just slamming down into the splits." Dr. Novella points out that dancers often cause Achilles tendonitis by overstretching. “You're inducing mobility in joints that really should be stable," says Novella. “If you're going to stretch the arch and ankle, you need to make sure that the strength of the muscle groups around the joints is maintained."

And resist the temptation to cover up bad feet. “You want to know exactly what you're dealing with so you can see your progress," says Rehm. “Don't constantly wear legwarmers over your feet—look at them and let people help you."

In some cases, the issue isn't as simple as an inflexible arch. Dancers who feel pain in the back of their ankle may have an extra bone called the os trigonum. “It's like having a little marble between the leg bone and the ankle that blocks the foot from pointing," says Novella. While the os trigonum can be surgically removed, Novella warns that recovery time can range between seven weeks and seven months, and still may not produce a pointe comparable to if the bone had never been there.

Tight upper thighs can also create an obstacle to getting up over your pointe shoes. “If dancers are back in their hips because their hip flexors or quads are tight," Mitchell warns, “then the ankle joint has to do all of the work." Stretch out your hips and quads often and make sure to use your glutes when rising onto pointe.

Work With What You've Got
Luckily, many professional ballet dancers have found success even though they won't be modeling pointe shoes any time soon. “What's gotten me where I am is how I work, my focus and my ability to pick things up quickly. My feet aren't terrible anymore, but I still have to work on them all the time," says Rehm, who strengthens her feet through daily exercises, such as tracing the letters of the alphabet with her toes. “And you have to find your angle—sometimes things need to shift a bit to make the line better."

Rehm finds that the type of pointe shoes she wears, as well as how she prepares her shoes, makes a huge difference. “If you don't have a very flexible foot, you don't need much of a shoe in terms of hardness," says Dierdre Miles Burger, director of Orlando Ballet School. Go for a more pliable, flexible shoe. Mitchell also advises dancers to “three-quarter" the shanks of their pointe shoes, or cut the shank where their arch naturally bends.

The best thing you can do to improve the appearance of your feet is use them properly. “You have to maximize your rotation and presentation," says Mitchell. By articulating through the floor and creating a beautiful line, the focus can be drawn away from the foot and more to the presentation of the legs. In the end, using what you have well will serve you best. “Strong, articulate feet, no matter how they're shaped," says Burger, “is what's most important."

Kathleen McGuire writes about dance from Pittsburgh, PA.

Skip The Morning Muffin
A sweet tooth can be the Achilles heel of an otherwise healthy diet. Keep yours in check by steering clear of sugary treats in the morning. “If you first eat sweets in the morning, your taste buds 'like the idea' and your brain responds, telling your body to keep the insulin up," explains Peggy Swistak, nutrition consultant for Pacific Northwest Ballet. You'll keep craving more throughout the day to keep your sugar high going. Break the cycle by eating protein or a high-fiber/protein combo. Snack on some whole grain bread, crackers or cereal with peanut butter, a little cheese, yogurt or low fat milk.

Backstage rituals might be more than just silly superstitions. According to a study published in Psychological Science, people who carry a good luck charm or perform an act they believe brings them luck (such as keeping their fingers crossed or wishing each other “merde") do better on tests of memory and agility. Researchers believe they get a performance boost from feeling more confident. So keep the lucky legwarmers—but just be sure to ditch them before you go onstage!

Fire Up The Grill
When Memorial Day arrives on May 30, grill season officially kicks off. And that means it's time for a nice, juicy steak. Contrary to popular belief, dancers don't need to shy away from red meat. Although it is generally higher in calories and fat than chicken or fish, if you look at it calorie for calorie steak has one of the highest concentrations of nutrients of any protein. Simply choose your cuts wisely and you can avoid beefing up.

Benefits: Beef is the number one food source for protein, zinc and vitamin B12. It's also loaded with iron, niacin and vitamin B6.

Selection: Choose cuts that are at least 95 percent lean—look for the words “round," “loin" or “roast" in the name. “Choice" and “select" cuts are better options than “prime." Grass-fed beef is also leaner and has fewer hormones.

Portion Size: One serving is about the size of an iPhone.

Easiest Way to Cook: Salt and pepper it, then throw it on the grill.

The Soreness Diet
Most dancers live in a state of almost constant soreness. They stretch and use self-massage to work out the kinks, but too many overlook their diet, which can be the secret to a speedy recovery. The next time your body's aching, add these three foods to your meal plan.

1. Salmon. This fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help to reduce inflammation in your muscles. Opt for wild varieties to get the most omega-3s.

2. Ginger. A recent study showed this herb can ease soreness by up to 25 percent the day after your workout.

3. Blueberries. Grab a handful for a healthy serving of polyphenols, an antioxidant that may help fight off the muscle tissue damage caused by exercise.

Do Energy Shots Work?
Promising hours of energy, no “crash" and few calories, products like 5-Hour ENERGY and Red Bull Energy Shots seem like a dancer's dream come true. But do they actually work? Unfortunately, not really. “The energy sensation you get is a pharmacological central nervous system stimulation from the caffeine, which is not the same type of energy that you would get from eating real food—which is usually the kind dancers need," says Ashley Doyle-Lucas, PhD, a nutrition specialist and former dancer. “The overall effect is fairly temporary and could lead to light-headedness, heart palpitations and decreased performance. The shots also act as a diuretic, a significant danger since dancers are typically a dehydrated group of athletes." A better option? Grab a yogurt and piece of fruit or half of a whole wheat bagel with turkey—and a large glass of water.

Tip: Stretch Deeper

Want to get a better stretch? Hop on the foam roller first. “Rolling helps to break up adhesions in the muscle," says Sally Donaubauer, a physical therapist at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries. “It can also help mobilize the fascia around the muscles." When the fascia (the connective tissue that surrounds your muscles) is loosened up, you can go further, getting a more productive stretch.

Under Pressure
When you're recovering from injury, recuperating body parts can swell, particularly as the day wears on. When you first start going back to class, consider wearing compression tights. “These tights don't allow the tissue to expand, so blood doesn't pool in your legs and feet. It circulates back to the heart instead," explains Steve McCauley, an athletic trainer who works with dancers in Las Vegas. The thick leggings incorporate tight bands of fabric that hug the legs and keep your blood moving. However, they can be a bit restrictive, so they're not something you'd want to wear on a routine basis.

“Compression tights can give you more awareness of the legs and minimize the swelling that occurs during the active phases of rehab," says Michael Leslie, the company physical therapist at San Francisco Ballet. He says SFB dancers use them often during recovery. Check out varieties from Capezio and Danskin.

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Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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