More and more I’m hearing disturbing reports of young dancers developing stress fractures in their feet. Stress fractures are not and should not be a part of dance. Stress fractures are developed as a direct result of poor technical training and resulting muscle weakness which puts excess stress on the tiny bones of your feet. But how does how you use your toes directly effect your feet strength? Well, let’s look at the structure of the foot and mechanics.
No doubt at some point in time you will have heard a teacher refer to your metatarsals. For example, you may have been told to lift them. Where are your metatarsals? The easiest way to relate them is by looking at the back of your hand when your fingers are outstretched. Can you see the lines running from your wrist to your fingers? They are your metacarpal bones. They sound similar, don’t they. Those bones in your hand are a reflection of the bones in your feet. If you place your hand over your foot, lining up the knuckles of your fingers and your toes, you now have an idea of where your metatarsals are, directly under your metacarpal bones running from your toes to the middle of your foot. These bones are the biggest under threat of fracture because those bones take not just your body weight, but your body weight multiplied by the force of any landing out of releve or jump.
These bones have a series of intrinsic muscles that work to support them that must be strengthened gradually over a long period of time. The problem with ‘knuckling’ or curling your toes under is that this action only uses extrinsic muscles in the calf that, by the time the movement has reached your feet, have become tendon made movement. So by knuckling you are not strengthening your feet, at all. To get an idea of what I mean, refer back to your hand. This time with the palm facing you, curl your fingers, now with the other hand feel your palm. You’ll feel it’s soft. Stretch your fingers out and you’ll feel the palm go hard. So it is fundamentally important to point your foot from the ankle and then extend through the mete tarsals and toes, feeling the underneath of the heel pulling up in to your leg.
How you use your foot to execute movements like tendu and degage through to grande battement is important, too. Correct foot articulation, working from flat foot to three quarter point to full point while engaging the muscles in your instep and metatarsals will support those tiny little bones while strengthening the muscles. It is even more important to do this in a jump. It’s also extremely important to always feel an extension of both the big toe and the little toe in all foot positions. Even when you are standing flat or in a pile. The little toe is very underrated, but it ties in to the use other stirrup muscles in the outside of the ankle. If you knuckle that toe you can not engage the stirrup and support muscles on the outside of the leg which will exacerbate other issues like rolling the feet.
If you commit time and care to your feet and toes and their correct development you will take away unnecessary stress and strain, lengthening your Dance life. At the end of the day, that is what technique is for, and good technique looks good.
Winsome Barker is a qualified dance teacher with 25 years teaching experience. She is working on her Assciociate Diploma and Sport Science Degree.