by Julie Ferrell-Olson
Whether we realize it or not, the shoes we wear (or don’t wear) have a significant impact on our entire body. Our feet make up 25% of the bones in our body and bear 100% of our body mass when standing or walking. The arches of our feet have evolved to act as a spring to help propel our legs forward when walking or running; anything we add underneath our feet causes biomechanical changes all the way up the body. The slightest heel in a shoe causes an increased sway in the lower back as we try to compensate for the forward shift the heels force us to take (anyone else have low back pain after standing around in shoes for too long?). Additionally, adding arch support may impact the natural working of our feet by holding the foot still, instead of allowing the arch to collapse and rebound on its own.*
As dancers, we push our feet to their extremes—either by using the full extent of our range of motion or as the first point of contact when landing from a jump. Some shoes are made to help with these demands, such as a pointe shoe that provides a platform for us to stand en pointe. However, most dance footwear is not evolving to meet the needs of dancers.
Dancers experience astoundingly high injury rates, with some studies citing an annual injury-incidence as high as 82%, with most injuries occurring in the foot, ankle, knee, lower back, and pelvis. Injuries are often cited as being from overuse and fatigue; very rarely from a single traumatic event. Although not the only factor in injury-risk, footwear plays a large role in alignment and pressure distribution.
Research drives change in footwear for other athletes. The entire structure of sports footwear can affect gait, running economy, stability, speed, and the ground reaction force** an athlete experiences. There are decades of research in this field, but overall research found that the more subjectively comfortable an athlete’s footwear is, the better their performance will be.
In contrast, dance footwear is made more for aesthetic purposes than comfort or injury risk. Most dance footwear research centers itself around ballet, with one of the earliest studies adding orthotics into ballet shoes to see if there was a reduction in ground reaction force. Despite the age of this study and the finding that shoes with a larger sole surface area could help distribute pressure through the feet, there have been no changes to the structure of ballet slippers. Some companies are starting to integrate synthetic material found in tennis shoes into pointe shoes, but none have published validated studies on whether or not these shoes actually decrease injury-risk or improve performance parameters.
Additionally, dancers experience very high ground reaction forces** compared to athletes—cited as high as 4.4 times their body weight, versus the 2.5 times seen in runners. Although there is slight evidence that pointe shoes may reduce ground reaction force, this is not consistently seen in other types of footwear. We do not know at what point ground reaction force is detrimental to a body, but between the repetitious nature of dance and our high injury rate it does not spell out a healthy practice.
We can’t completely overhaul centuries of tradition overnight, so what’s a dancer to do?
Find a sock with flexible arch support and compression for the foot and ankle **ahem, Apolla Shocks**. Coupling the Joules or K-Warmer with ballet slippers helps provide extra support, and I found that the Infinite is incredible for more intense contemporary work, no matter what the floor situation is. And, yes, this is an Apolla blog. But there are studies on the redistribution of pressure through the foot with shocks, and the entire product development was entirely based in scientific research.
Overall, the dance footwear industry has a long way to go to really consider the health, safety, and career longevity of dancers. Fortunately, we can now use Apolla Shocks to keep us dancing longer and stronger.
Daily Dancer Takeaway: Be cognizant of what your footwear may be doing for you in the long run! If you are unable to control your shoes, be mindful of repetitious jumps, especially when first returning to the studio or in more intense parts of the season (check out my Periodization article for more on that!).
*If your doctor asked you to wear arch supports for anything, please listen to them! There is a movement towards minimalist footwear in some communities, such as running, but there are actually no validated studies if running barefoot is better for you in the long run.
**Ground Reaction Force: we’re taking this one back to physics and Newton’s Third Law - that every single action has an equal, opposite reaction. The amount of force a person puts into the ground is felt up through the body as well. So, when a person is standing still, they are experiencing a force back up into their body that’s the same as their body weight. When a dancer lands from a jump, such as a grand jeté, the force they exert is much higher than just standing, often up to 4x their body weight.