Sit on the floor and put your legs together out in front of you. Sit up tall–use your hands on the floor to help support you. (Might as well practice sitting up tall every chance you get!) Reach your toes long away from you, lengthening the top of your ankles. The goal is to reach your feet long on all sides, like thisIf you have high arches and pointing comes naturally to you, great. If your feet barely look different between when you point them and when you flex them, don’t despair. It may take some time, and we can discuss some things to do to help. First, a couple of no-no’s.
1. No sickling – Sickling is when the inner edge of your foot bends inwards. Like this:See that sickle shape on the inner edge of Allison’s foot? It’s not only an unnatractive line to the foot and leg, it can create alignment issues, cause injuries and other difficulties. Stephanie’s foot, pictured here: does the opposite of sickling – her foot naturally pushes forward at the ankle, creating a lovely line. Some people call this “winging”. Not everyone has this flexibility in their ankles and I’m not advocating that you aspire to point your feet like Stephanie’s. However, if you have a tendency to sickle, it may help to imagine the front of your ankle yearning forward as you lengthen your toes. I don’t want you to sacrifice lengthened toes to get this shape though, ok? That’s not the goal. Ideally, you want your foot evenly reaching on all sides for the optimum health of your feet and ankles. After all, they are your foundation, and will affect the alignment of your whole body.
2. No scrunching your toes. Lengthen them out. If your toes naturally bend when you point, this is something to work on at home. With Allison’s foot, (even through her shoe!) you can see her big toe is very straight between her bunion and the tip of her toe. The joint of her big toe reaches long. Instead of bending. Isn’t that cool?
I’ll tell you my story because this is one of the most common dancer injuries, and like many dance injuries, it is avoidable. When I was growing up, my big toe scrunched when I pointed my feet. By the time I was in my teens, pointing my feet made an audible crunching noise in the back of my ankle. It wasn’t painful, it just seemed like one of those ‘weird dancer things’.
A few years ago between ballet, going running and wearing three inch heels to my day job, my ankles started bothering me. The backs of my ankles were painful and swelling and despite icing my feet in ice baths after class, they got worse. Finally, I asked Google.
I found a terrific website called The Ballet Blog, written by a physiotherapist for dancers who is based in Australia. Lisa’s article about FHL tendinopahy was exactly what I needed. I took her advice, and went to a doctor who confirmed the diagnosis with an MRI. Luckily, I was able to get physical therapy at Harkness Center for Dance. (They are great if you ever need a physical therapist.)
What had happened to my foot was the Flexor Hallucis Longus (FHL) tendon, which runs from the big toe under the foot and up through the back of the ankle, had gotten overused over time because of my bending my big toe, causing the tendon to thicken. As it passed through a narrow channel at the back of my ankle, it created so much friction you could hear it! Over many years, the thickened tendon began to cause pain and swelling.
If your big toe bends when you point your feet, remember it took many years for my foot to start having difficulties. But you can also un-learn this bad habit just like I did. You just have to stop squeezing your toes and instead, imagine your feet lengthening. It may take a little concentration. It helped me to use my hands to lengthen my toes as I pointed my foot. Your feet will begin to understand as you mold them with your hands. It is really more challenging for your brain. As you relearn, there are lots of intrinsic little muscles in your feet and ankles that can help do the work of pointing the foot, and Lisa’s video talks more about that.
How can you improve your point?
As you work on your foot and your point, please be kind to your yourself and to your feet. This isn’t chinese foot binding, it’s the lines of your body and your body is beautiful. I’ve shown pictures of a couple of dancers who have amazing feet so we can all enjoy them, but not because I’m saying if you don’t look like them you are doing it wrong. If energy is going out your feet, then my dear, you are doing it absolutely right. You don’t need perfectly arched feet to dance ballet. You just need need the joy and the desire to dance. That is all ballet or any other dance form requires of you – no matter what anyone tells you. If your feet sickle naturally and it causes problems for you, it may be something you can talk to your doctor or physical therapist about. But gently working with your feet and doing some of these exercises can stregthen and stretch them a lot.
1. Massage the bottoms of your feet with balls can help release tension there. Stepping on the balls with them under your arches can also be helpful releasing the feet.
2. Using your hands to point your feet, massage and manipulate your feet can help release tension along all sides of your foot.
3. My teacher growing up told us to pick up marbles or pencils with our toes to develop the little muscles in our toes and arches.
4. She also told us to do ‘doming’ with our feet. Sit in a chair and put your feet flat on the floor and press down with your toes and lift your arches up as if making a little mouse passageway under your feet.
5. Another exercise is to lift each toe one at a time starting with your big toe until they are all up, then place them down again one at a time starting with your pinky toe, like you are playing the piano with your toes. Or alternate lifting your big toe and putting it down and then lift the other four toes and put them down.
6. Our teacher also had us press the top of our foot on the floor to stretch the front of the ankle joint. Stand and bend your left leg so that you can place the top of the right foot on the floor — the area above your toe knuckles around your metatarsals. Straighten your left leg and push the top of your foot against the floor with the top of your foot to open your front ankle joint. Don’t just bend your toes down, the idea is to use the top of the foot to help open the front of your ankle joint. If you already have very flexible feet, this one my not be for you. As with all stretches, respect and listen to your body.
7. If you get cramps from pointing your feet, be sure to eat a lot of bananas and bend your toes back to stretch your arches. As your feet get stronger, they will cramp less.
8. Finally, during class, imagine the tops of your ankles opening as you reach your toes long as if you are pushing something away with the top of your pointed foot.
I hope these suggestions and ideas help you work with your feet. Your energy should radiate out your feet reaching them very long. If you are doing that and your toes are reaching long and your ankles are not sickling, you are doing the right thing, no matter how you may judge them, and that really is the whole point.