Wings and Sickles

The aesthetics of ballet are continuing to evolve, however something which has remained a constant is the appearance of the foot when it is fully pointed. The ankle joint has limited movement outwards and inwards, however the adjustments of the foot’s position can make a big difference to how it looks to the audience.

The foot as an extension of the ankle can elongate an arabesque or alternatively turn it inwards and demonstrate a weaker foot by sickling. When the foot is pointed in a neutral position an invisible line can be traced up through the floor, foot and into the ankle. Whilst this is technically correct, a winged shape can be seen as more desirable in that the toes are pointed outwards, extending the line. Sickling the foot might indicate poor training or weakness in the ankle, as well as demonstrating a more unsightly line.

The ankle has a slightly larger range of motion inwards, so students may be prone to sickling regardless. Genetics or anatomy can also contribute to a student’s tendency to sickle, and injuries can occur when the foot is both sickled and weight-bearing. This pulls the tendons of the ankle out of alignment, yet injury can occur when winging the foot too. Sickling can even be the intention for some choreographers, if that is what the movement or piece demands, yet for the majority of times, improving ankle strength and stability will minimise sickling.

If the foot winging is supporting weight, this too pulls the ankle joint out of alignment. Dancers may force their heels forward with tendus, instead of using their turnout. This places stress on the tendons on the inside of the foot and twists the knee joints. Despite this, winging could be encouraged in non-weight bearing positions in order to improve individual aesthetics and enhance the line – and limited turn out – the dancer is creating. Turn out must be fully engaged however, so as not to solely rely on the shape of the foot.

Dance-inspired Fit

There are many dance-inspired fitness methods on the market today, from fitness trainers who used to be dancers to those who use dance as a means to remaining happy and healthy, whilst not having a dance background. Aerobics and Zumba classes still have their place, but these are now two of many different options for class participants. Workouts of these kind offer a combination of dance, fitness and wellbeing, and there is truly something to suit everyone, be it at sports centres or the local dance studio.

Today dance-inspired fitness – such as ballet-inspired workouts, dance cardio and toning barre classes – use dancers’ graceful and athletic bodies as a start point, aiming to emulate the idea of dance and being a dancer, rather than aspiring to lose weight or tone up. Strength, lengthening and athleticism can be just two focuses in classes of this kind, aiding existing fitness regimes for both non-dancers and dancers alike. Equally, classes such as HIIT (high intensity interval training), yoga and Zumba can be offered at dance studios that may have previously only offered technique classes.

Barre-style workouts can be used for physical as well as mental fitness benefits. They usually use the body’s own weight to gain lean muscle and a balanced mindset, where the focus is purely on the own body. Many may combine barre, Pilates and dance, and may even incorporate hand weights to aid the body’s training. Mixing up the body’s fitness routine – whether it is from a dance or fitness perspective – continues to challenge the body, and help participants find both energy and strength in the change in fitness activity.

Dance and fitness of course go hand in hand, so trying something different can renew your passion for the reason behind the workout, offering a range of benefits for both body and mind.

Cross-Training For Dancers

Cross TrainingDancers cannot just be fit to dance. Dance fitness in itself is not as wholesome as if the body undertook a wide range of physical activities to maintain fitness as a whole, whilst complementing that obtained through dance.

Many dancers are fans of swimming, as it maintains stamina and works the muscles of the entire body in a low-impact way, as much as Pilates helps to keep the core strong with little to no impact. If you are not currently working in dance and auditioning widely, it is important to keep your body in peak physical condition so it is constantly ready to be used to the best of its ability. Auditioning in peak condition shows directors strength and provides the confidence to attack any movement. It is difficult to anticipate how vigorous auditions will be, so being as fit as possible prepares you for anything.

In this instance, cross-training is of ultimate use. Integrating cardio training into your workout schedule boosts energy and complements the requirements of dance with its short bursts of activity. Additional training, through extended cardio sessions for example, then improves endurance for full-out dance combinations or longer variations. The body will also be able to recover quicker afterwards, providing more peace of mind during intense auditions. 30 minutes of cardio a few times a week is usually what is recommended, however interval training is even more beneficial than steady paces, as high intensive intervals closely mimic the varied aerobic demands of dance classes and auditions.

Working with your body in different ways can help to identify weak and imbalanced areas, and means your body is ready for anything, not just the dance technique you have trained in your whole life. A variety of exercise techniques will improve overall strength, especially to keep the body active and attentive to changes, adapting quickly. However, do be wary of letting your cross-training become overly time-consuming or draining on your number one priority of dance, instead of complementing what is already taking place. Avoid overtraining and take one day off per week for rejuvenation.

The Gifts Of Dance

Ignition Dance FestivalWe are all aware of how good dance is for us. As a non-verbal method of communication utilising the body’s movements, often to music, there are many dance styles practised around the world. Originally these would have represented different ways of life, different cultures, ethnicities, belief systems, social structures, and traditions, but today it seems all dance styles are danced everywhere! It is arguable too that the individual and communal benefits of dance go far deeper than the common perception of dancing just for fun.

Alongside the beneficial physical expression of dance, the emotional, mental and physical health benefits of dance are too interrelated, and are key to personal development. Warming up, stretching and the actual physicality of dance aids our fitness and wellbeing, as well as releasing endorphins to boost our mood. Dance – as a cardiovascular activity – improves circulation, boosts memory and increases energy levels, as well as improving flexibility and toning that body.

Beyond advantages of dance for the body, dance also develops personal skills and character building for children at an early age, elements which then transfer to other areas of their lives later on. Dancing teaches discipline, consistency, perseverance and creativity, and encourages them to express themselves artistically. Dance is something which is very personal to each individual, and connecting with the self is something which can also come from dance.

Dance is for everyone, and everyone can benefit from the positives of dance. Age and social circumstances are trivial in terms of dance: even on a basic level it keeps us fit and happy, and also promotes engagement with others. It contributes to us physically while giving us another way to communicate what is on the inside, and express our feelings through bodily movements.

Knee Nemesis

Knee Skeleton DiagramDo your knees hurt when you land from a jump, go downstairs, do grands pliés, or sit with them bent for long periods of time? “Jumper’s knee” could be the problem, a strain of the patellar tendon that runs from the lower kneecap to the upper shin. It is common in male ballet dancers and basketball players, who also jump a lot.

Other problems with the patella include pain from subluxation, where it goes out and back in, and dislocation where it goes all the way out and stays out. These conditions are common in adolescent females with hypermobility, especially in ballet dancers who turn out from the knee rather than the hip.

The juvenile version of the Jumper’s Knee, occurs at the other end of the patellar tendon, where it attaches to the growth plate, which is called Osgood-Schlatter’s Disease. It is a condition often seen in young (mostly male) athletes where they strain the attachment of the patellar tendon at its insertion to the growth plate on the upper tibia. It forms a swollen, tender lump below the knee and is related to running and jumping. It tends to come and go but disappears when growth is over.

In Jumper’s Knee, the pain usually comes from a specific point in the attachment of the tendon to the tip of the patella and not from the knee joint itself. Most of the time it is a chronic, ongoing condition that slowly gets worse with time. The diagnosis can be confirmed by injecting local anesthetic into the sore spot: if it relieves the pain, then the diagnosis is confirmed. It occurs from tightness of the quadriceps mechanism and weakness when the muscle lengthens as you plié. The condition is usually due to one part of the tendon that has pulled loose from the patella and has failed to heal, and must be treated.

Being Mindful Of Health

HealthIn maintaining your health as a dancer it is important to consider all of the aspects of health which are equally as important as each other. For example nutrition through food and drink is used for the body’s every function, from muscle contraction to nerve impulses, with many nutrients taking on more than one job in the body. For instance, calcium is well known for being a hugely important part of bone health but is also critical for creating an electric impulse that travels down a nerve, and for allowing a muscle to relax after contracting.

Make sure the body is not overworked by doing too much too soon, and make physical changes gradually. Research has found that dancers tend to get injured when they have a dramatic change in their workload, either a rapid increase in the amount of dancing or a quick transition to a new style of dance for which the body is unprepared. Introduce your body to the change by taking time to increase the volume and/or intensity of physical load. This could mean gradually increasing the number of classes or styles you take or it could be increasing the number of repetitions of class combinations.

Cross-training also aids the body, simply because dance is so physical and dancers need to behave more like athletes when it comes to conditioning. A great way to make sure you are maximising physical potential, and reducing opportunity for injury, is by exercising in ways that are unlike exercise through dancing. This can improve cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance and muscular strength. The same muscles are used over and over through technique classes or specific repertoire, and there is little chance to improve the strength and endurance of the muscles that are not critical for current work.

Make sure you rest too! Rest is the time the body takes to heal and improve function. If you are feeling exhausted, decrease the amount of dancing or replace it with low-impact activity like Pilates or floor-based barre. Rest is necessary to prevent fatigue, which is a major factor for injuries and one of the most preventable. Rest is also important for your immune system so help your body boost immune functions by getting enough sleep.

Image courtesy of Adria Richards.

The Many Facets Of Dance

Zumba ClassRegardless of your favourite dance discipline, it is important to maintain your practice in other dance forms to both complement and balance your training. Whilst one discipline may be concentrated on, it is beneficial both physically and mentally to take part in other dance forms other than your main interest.

Many teachers encourage their students to try everything to ensure their dance training is well-rounded and dance interests are well-informed. The more dance styles and dance knowledge you have under your belt, the better!

Once dance students begin to venture into dance careers, the different dance styles lend themselves to performances in different ways, and can even influence the roles you are cast for and whether you may have a role created on you in the future. Having a multitude of dance skills at your disposal means dancers are even more of an asset to the dance companies they join. Dance companies demand a lot from their dancers, so the more you can offer, the better.

Despite this, sometimes extreme pressure is placed on the body (and mind) when something completely new is required. Different styles to what you are used to can be difficult to get used to, but by cross-training your body, it will become easier to manage these changes.

Daily class is one of the best ways to cope with the extremes of different styles, as it warms the body up and prepares it for the day ahead. Keeping the body strong and confident is important, so eating well and looking after your body outside of the studio is also vital to succeeding.

Don’t forget that the opportunity to work on lots of different things in lots of different styles is the best way to develop as a dancer, and keep on learning!

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Common Foot Problems For Dancers

Foot ThongThe feet are important to any human being, in terms of posture, gait and movement. For dancers the feet are constantly put under pressure as dance relies predominantly on flexible, mobile and healthy feet. Despite this there are a few common foot injuries in dancers:

Hallux Valgus and Bunions

The big toe tilts sideways towards the second toe and becomes painful, often developing bunion at its base. The pain is usually worse when wearing tight footwear, or when putting excessive pressure through the affected area, such as when on demi-pointe. The entire leg’s biomechanics are often involved: to manage the problem there are options of manual therapy, stretches and strengthening exercises for the feet, ankles, knees and hips. Failing this, surgery may be required.

Hallux Rigidus

This condition becomes apparent during full demi-pointe and is characterised by pain and reduced ability to achieve a 90 degree angle at the joint between the big toe and the rest of the foot. Forcing demi-pointes causes the joint surfaces to become irritated and bony spurs can develop. Half demi-pointes should be encouraged as the forces through the affected structures are then reduced. Cryotherapy (ice treatment), mobilisation and regular stretches can help in reducing pain and inflammation.

Plantar Fasciitis

Characterised by pain on the sole of the foot that is often worse in the mornings or after a strenuous exercise session. It is caused by an irritation and inflammation of the fascial covering of the sole of the foot and, in dancers, it is often linked to dancing for long hours on hard floors. Rest, cryotherapy, anti-inflammatories and manual therapy are all helpful in its management. Orthotics and splints can be used in chronic cases to help alleviate the symptoms.


Characterised by pain over the ball of the foot. It is usually caused by years of overuse and overstretch of the ligaments of the toes; the associated joints become too unstable to sustain body weight and pressure which leads to metatarsalgia. Rest and cryotherapy are recommended, and metatarsal pads can be used to relieve pain and pressure, and strengthening exercises is encouraged.

Taking Care Of Your Body During The Summer

Take Care Of Your BodyFor many dance students, the summer spells summer schools and dance intensives. These summer training programmes are designed to push dance students further and give them another dance experience. They can vary in length, style and structure, but it is important to make the most of the programme while looking after your body.

It is important to warm up properly, despite the fact the warm weather will make you feel like you are already warm and flexible. While your body is warm however, your muscles and joints are not. Don’t be tempted into skipping your usual warm up, in order to give your body the preparation it needs to dance and protect itself from injury.

Remember to drink enough water during summer programmes: staying hydrated is one of the most important parts of taking care of yourself during long days of dance. Make sure you drink water before, during and especially after classes, and also ensure you eat well-balanced meals. You will be dancing for many hours every day, which may be more than you’re used to, so make sure you eat enough of the right food to get you through the day.

With many different dancers around it is tempting to become competitive and push yourself beyond your dancing limits. Get enough rest to balance out the energetic days, which also means you will decrease the risk of injuring yourself. Injuries are common during summer programmes, simply because you are dancing more than your body is used to. Pay attention and listen to what your body is telling you and at the end of the day cool down and stretch.

Above all, remember to have fun! Summer intensives are designed to push you towards being a professional, but remember to enjoy the hard work.

Stretching Sufficiently

Edgar Degas - Dancer Stretching at the Barre

Despite the fact that stretching out dancers’ muscles is vital, there are many points to heed as you work towards a more supple, flexible body. In order to stretch safely and successfully, the body and muscles must be sufficiently warm: don’t hold static stretches (those held for longer than 30 seconds) before warming up. The stretches do increase flexibility but only once the body is warm. Stretching cold muscles achieves nothing and often leads to overstretching ligaments and tendons, increasing instability and resulting in pain. It also decreases the muscle’s ability to contract, resulting in less power and available strength once you start dancing.

The key to stretching effectively is to be incredibly warm, by first activating the muscles and getting blood flowing through the body before working toward greater flexibility and a more balanced body. Unfortunately, in a constant pursuit of greater flexibility, dancers have a tendency to favour extreme, and sometimes dangerous stretches, instead of following a gradual approach, creating weaknesses in their bodies. The first step in switching over to a safe stretching regime that increases muscle flexibility without sacrificing the stability needed for balances and the power needed for jumps is losing bad habits.

Often dancers get caught up with stretching one area of the body that they forget about the other muscles: if you stretch your hamstrings make sure you equate this when stretching your quadriceps. This means that creating imbalances in the body is less likely to happen. An additional method of countering this is by using a foam roller. This can be used when dancers are feeling tight in order to free up the connective tissue muscles before stretching them, decreasing muscles tension and pain. Foam rolling can be done prior to activity, even on cold muscles, or post-activity to release inhibited muscles and allows more freedom in a muscle that was otherwise restricted.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.