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Good news: Your foot strength and flexibility can improve with careful training. All photos by Jayme Thornton, Modeled by Corinne Chowansky of Marymount Manhattan College.

Maybe you weren't born with gorgeous, overarched feet, but that doesn't mean you're completely stuck with what you've got. "Strength and flexibility can improve with training, but that's within the limits of your individual anatomy," says Dr. Nancy Kadel, a Seattle-based orthopedic surgeon who specializes in dancers' foot and ankle issues. Building a balance of both will help you achieve more supple feet that can support ballet's demands. Kadel recommends the following:

Tools of the (Foot-Strengthening) Trade

Hand towel for scrunching toward you as you actively curl your toes. For a challenge, add weight, like a book, to the end of the towel.

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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.

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Have a question? Click here to send it to Amy and she might answer it in an upcoming issue!

I know I need to be supporting my feet and ankles with supportive shoes, but I don’t want to wear running sneakers everywhere I go. What kinds of street shoes should dancers wear to protect their feet? —Katie

I spoke with Dr. Alan Woodle, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s foot and ankle specialist, about what types of street shoes dancers should wear. In general,he recommends a leather lace-up walking shoe available at stores like The Walking Company. “With lace-up shoes you can fine-tune snugness, which is good for stability” he says. For unstable ankles, look for high-tops, like a lightweight but firm hiking boot or, if you’re heading out on the town, a flat or low-heeled dress boot. However he advises to stay away from casual (and, of course, trendy!) sneakers. “Shoes like Converse Chuck Taylors are making a big comeback,” he says, “but they’re just flimsy, even the high-top versions.”

What about when we want to dress things up a little? Dr. Woodle says to keep an eye out for shoe shape. “Look for rounded or square toe boxes,” he says. “Tapered toe boxes may aggravate bunions and cause other foot problems, some of which don’t show up until later in life.” He also says to choose a flat or low heel to avoid shortening the Achilles tendon. As for that fabulous pair of impractical high heels in the back of your closet, Woodle says, “They’re fine for one night, but not on a daily basis.”

Additionally, dancers should avoid flip-flops and other backless shoes. Besides providing little support, flip-flops force wearers to grip their toes to keep the shoe stabilized. “That increases the risk for hammer toes,” says Woodle. “Dancers on pointe already have a tendency to curl their toes, so I ask them to stay away from flip-flops.”

If you need to add a little more support to your existing shoes (because, let’s face it, “practical” doesn’t always mean “fashionable”), most drugstores sell gel inserts both with and without arch support. Or, for a more custom fit, try heat-activated arch molds, which you can nuke in the microwave and shape to your foot (Woodle recommends SOLE Softec Ultra, available at yoursole.com for $44.95).

I have an odd confession to make: I enjoy watching dancers who have bad feet. And I don't just mean that I can appreciate good dancers in spite of their stereotypically "bad" ballet feet. I actually like their lack of instep and/or little arch.

 

Don't get me wrong—I'll drool over a pair of banana feet as much as the next bunhead. I can stare at photos of Alessandra Ferri's feet for several minutes on end. And sometimes when I watch Paloma Herrera dance I think I don't notice anything above her ankle.

 

But I also love it when instead of being a comma at the end of a dancer's line, her feet are more of an exclamation point. Who decided that flatter feet should be shunned in ballet? I find they can make a dancer's line looks like it never ends. As long as she uses her feet well and points through her ankle's full range of motion (and the range includes at least being able to make a straight line from her shin to the top of her arch), feet that shoot straight out instead of curving around can be just as beautiful to me. 

 

Feet are one of those parts of our bodies that after a certain point, we simply can't change. Instead of hopelessly sticking our arches under pianos or walking around on the tops of our metatarsals, maybe one day the ballet world will see the beauty of different shapes, and we will all become a little less footist. 

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