Dancers need strong, supple feet and ankles, but not all of us are blessed with amazing arches or great ankle mobility. Fortunately, there are things we can do to improve what we have. Read on for my favourite foot exercises.
Use your hands to help your feet:
Stretch through the front of the ankle, and give your ankle and front of your foot a firm massage. Massage can help increase blood flow and also assist with releasing tightness and tension around the joints.
Next, sit on the floor with your legs stretched out straight in front of you. Pointe your feet and tilt your upper body forward from the hips in a nice forward bend, stretching the hamstrings. Reach forward with your hands and gently press the metatarsals further down in their pointe.
(The metatarsals are the bones in the middle of your foot. They sit between your toes and the bones of your ankle). Make sure you are working the metatarsals further into their pointe, and not pushing on the bones of the toes. (They're called 'tarsals'.) You should feel a stretch through the ligaments and tendons in the front of your ankles. Ligaments and tendons take longer to lengthen than muscle, so be consistent.
Stand with your weight balanced evenly on both feet. Working one foot at a time, keep all the toes on the floor, and work to lift the metatarsals away from the floor, creating a dome-like shape through the top of your foot. Start with 10 repetitions per foot, and try to add a few more repetitions each time you do this exercise. Work up to as many as possible.
Stand with your feet parallel and close together, but not touching. Lift the big toes, keeping the rest of the toes on the floor, and touch the big toes together. This exercise will help to keep the big toe joint supple and strong.
This exercise is a natural progression from the one above. This time, instead of touching the toes together, lift the big toes, keeping the remaining toes on the floor, then lower the big toes and lift the rest of the toes off the floor. Repeat, "swapping" big toes and the rest of the toes. Try 10 repetitions, and build up to 20 or more over time.
If you find this too difficult at first, try just one foot at a time and use your hands to help 'train' your toes to stay down as you raise your big toe, and then to hold your big toe down while you raise the rest of your toes. Eventually you will learn to be able to do it just with the muscles in your feet. It's tricky, so keep trying!!
This next variation is really quite difficult. It's called "piano toes" because you raise and lower each toe one at a time, as if you were playing scales on a piano. This one takes a long time to master, and is really good at increasing your control of all the small intrinsic muscles of your feet. (The 'intrinsic muscles' are the wee little muscles that control fine movements, such as individual movement of each toe.)
This exercise is best done in front of a mirror. If you're not in a dance studio with mirror and barre, you can improvise at home with a chair and a mirror leaning against the wall in such a position to allow you to see your feet and ankles. If you don't have access to a mirror, ask someone to watch you for a few repetitions to make sure you're not allowing your ankles to sickle out towards the little toe side of your foot.
Stand with your feet together and parallel. Rise up on both feet to your full demi pointe. Work with control and make sure your ankles don't separate and sickle out towards the pinkie toes. Keep the energy centred on the points of support: your big toe, the first metatarsal and the middle of the metatarsals. Maintain control as you lower down. Do as many as you can with control, and try to add more repetitions each time you practice.
Repeat the exercise with single leg rises.
Pointe & Flex
Sit on a chair with your leg extended in front of you. Make sure keep the hip, knee, and ankle in alignment. Flex the foot (bring the foot towards you, flexing at the ankle joint) and then extend to a full demi pointe. Focus on extending the toes away from you, and not curling them under. If done correctly, you will feel the whole leg extend as you reach the toes away. Do at least 10 repetitions on each foot.
Like everything in your dancing life, foot and ankle strength and mobility takes time and comes with diligent practice. These exercises are not a "one and done" kind of thing, but rather should be a regular part of your dance training.
And if we've missed one of your favourite exercises, be sure to let us know in the comments!
Penny, and the team at AKA Dancewear. x