All ballet dancers wish for fabulous feet. That beautiful elegant arch and stretched metatarsals. How do your feet get that way if you are not born that way. I dreamed of that beautiful ballet foot while I was training. At home as a teen, I would sit on the floor with the tops of my feet under the low lying couch we had in the living room and just stay there. The couch would be stretching my metatarsals and creating the arch I so wished to have.
Well there are many exercises you can do to gain beautiful feet, and the one I stated above is not one of them, which we will see later. Here are a few good ones….
Beginning with the Achilles Tendon
The Achilles tendon runs down the back of your lower leg and into your heel, and is a weak spot for many dancers. The repetitive motions in ballet, especially dancing en pointe, can cause a strain or tear in the tendon and ligaments, creating pain in the foot. Achilles stretches will loosen tight muscles, and strengthen the area.
Stand on a staircase with your knees slightly bent. One foot should be planted fully on the step, and the other should hang off the step so that only your toes touch the surface. Balance with your planted foot and press down with the foot that is hanging off of the step to feel the stretch in the in the Achilles tenbdon. With good balance you can do this with both feet at the same time.
Stretching your big toe
When you dance en pointe, you place a significant amount of pressure on your big toe joint and the sole of your foot. Stretching out the big toe can manage and prevent injuries in which the joint can become stiff. This exercise may also relieve pain from plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the tissue on the bottom of your foot.
Manually stretch your big toe by pulling it back toward your body. Doing this can help your joint remain flexible and less likely to lock. This stretch also stretches the sole of your foot at the same time.
Freed’s of London suggests that you sit down with your feet flat on the floor. Slowly bunch your arches together while keeping the toes flat on the ground. You do not want to scrunch your toes at all, you want to feel like you are picking up a towel on the ground with the entire metatarsal area…. do not bunch your toes. It will take while but you should begin to feel your arches burning, that’s a good thing! This exercise is great because you can literally do it anywhere, anytime.
As a ballet dancer, you appreciate the importance of maintaining strong, supple feet and you value high, flexible arches. Dancers subject their arches to tremendous pressure; they must be sufficiently pliable to absorb the shock of endless jumps and work en pointe. While it is wise to include arch stretches in your overall dance conditioning program, be sure to choose sensible exercises that help to prevent, rather than invite, injury.
One way to stretch the arches of your feet is to take a manual approach.
Begin by seating yourself comfortably in a strong chair and resting one foot across the opposite thigh. Taking the working foot in both hands, apply gentle pressure to the top of your toes to stretch the bony arch of the foot. Release your grip and hold the position of the arch of your foot. The manual stretching technique allows you to fully control the amount of pressure you apply to your arch.
Work through your foot
You can also stretch your arches safely using familiar exercises at the barre. Learn to consciously work through your feet, holding your point when the arch is at its peak.
Begin by facing the barre with your feet in first position. Hold the barre with both hands. Working your right foot first, slowly tendu side, keeping the entire underside of your foot on the floor as long as possible. Continue to slide your foot, pressing the ball of your foot into the floor as your heel lifts up. Slide your foot still further, keeping your big toe on the floor as the ball of you foot lifts up. Take a complete 32 counts to arrive at a fully stretched foot. When your arch is lifted as much as possible, hold the stretch for 4 counts. You can then reverse the direction of the foot, slowly working back through the metatarsal as you slide the foot back to first position. Repeat 8 times on the right before switching to the left.
Partnered stretching exercises
Stretching your feet can also be accomplished with the help of a partner. To do this exercise…
Dancer A sits on the floor with their legs extended to the front, keeping the back and knees straight, feet parallel, and toes pointed to the floor. Dancer B will then hold, with both hands, the metatarsals of person A pushing their toes even closer to the floor. Hold the stretch for 10 seconds, release, and repeat four times with each foot.
Stretching your feet with resistance bands (ie. Thera Band) can be beneficial to a variety of muscle and soft tissue groups in your feet, including the plantar fascia on the sole of your foot, the Achilles area and the ankles. All of these locations are prone to overuse injuries and stress fractures.
Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you and loop a resistance band around the bottom of your foot. Pull on the band as you point your toes toward the floor.
Although stretching is important to achieve the ideal “ballet feet,” strengthening is as important. To strengthen your feet, try these exercises using the exercise band for resistance.
Sit on the floor with your legs extended straight in front of you. Flex your foot and place the exercise band across the ball of your foot, making sure the band reaches over your toes. Hold onto both ends of the band and pull taut. Slowly point and flex your foot moving through demi-pointe to reach each final position. Repeat 25 times with each foot.
Also, you can sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you and your spine straight. Working one foot at a time, loop the band around the bottom of the foot and grasp the ends of the band in both hands. Starting in a flexed position with the toes pointing upward, slowly and deliberately articulate through the foot. Using the band as resistance, press the ball of the foot and then the toes away from your body and into the band. When you reach a fully pointed position, hold for 5 seconds before reversing the direction of your foot. To reverse, pull back your toes and then the metatarsals until the foot is fully flexed. You can repeat the exercise 10 to 15 times before working the other foot.
Stretching using your pointe shoes
In your pointe shoes, probably one of the safer ways to stretch your feet. Kneel down, and put one foot up on pointe. Place your hand on the heel of your foot and apply gentle pressure to slowly push your foot over on pointe. The angle and pressure can be changed to stretch different areas of the foot. Note: make sure that your foot is NOT sickled and make sure that the floor is not slippery and your foot will not slip out underneath you.
Also in your pointe shoes you can hold onto the barre, rise up into first position and then plie while on pointe to push over your shoes.
Megan Richardson, a certified athletic trainer and clinical specialist at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, warns dancers about the dangers inherent in extreme stretching techniques. She points out that tucking the feet under a low couch or piano, as some dancers do, places undue stress on the bony arches of the foot and can lead to injury. This is something I used to do as I stated in the beginning of this post!
She also states it is also wise to avoid mechanical or wooded devices designed to stretch the arch. Megan states that such devices take control away from the dancer, preventing her from adequately gauging how much pressure she is applying to her arches. She also states that extreme stretching techniques such as these can lead to overstretching, which can strain the tops of your feet.
Please think twice about purchasing one of these. Although I have never used one, I researched them and located advice from professionals. Some say that here has been recent evidence that stretching of this kind will not benefit your foot, but can actually over-stretch the tendons and ligaments, etc. making your foot perhaps stretched a bit more, but weaker in the process. These stretcher devices came out years before any studies were done on them and that new research is very much against this type of stretching.
Ballet dancers want strong, flexible feet. Strong feet are required to help you successfully work en pointe. Ballet focuses on creating long lines with the body, and flexible feet help to finish that line, creating a beautiful picture. Strengthening and stretching exercises can help you develop flexible, strong feet. Stretching your feet every day will help make your feet more flexible. When attempting stretching exercises, begin slowly and if you ever feel pain stop the exercise immediately.