Have you ever heard the saying, “Even a Ferrari can’t drive on flat tires?”
So what exactly are the metaphorical “tires” for a dancer? Your feet, of course! So if you’re cross-training your body but you aren’t crossing training your feet, what’s the point(e)?
Often amongst dancers, there’s a belief that simply because we use a muscle or muscle group, that area is strong. This misconception is what can bring about overuse injuries and contribute to the general wear and tear on a dancer’s body.
Much like a classical musician spends time fine-tuning their instrument, so also should dancers invest time in strengthening their main instrument, their feet.
In particular, I find my professional performer clients neglect the strengthening of their feet.
They cry, “But I do my barre work! I’m articulating through my tendus!” as they massage their inflamed plantar fasciitis. And while I have no doubt they are working your feet, the simple fact remains, in order for any muscle to get stronger- yes, even feet muscles - the muscle must work against resistance.
Here are 5 unique foot strengthening exercises and resources for you to incorporate into your regimen to help strengthen those tootsies!
The Short Foot
It’s like a crunch for your feet! If you suffer from sore, achy feet or plantar fasciitis, you’re going to want to save this one to memory. Too often I hear clients and fellow performers complain of collapsing arches, plantar fasciitis, and generally achy soles of their feet.
To avoid these pitfalls, the arch of your foot needs to be strengthened, just like your abs. Sure rolling your feet, ice, and getting massages help temporarily, but your feet might ache because their “core” is weak!
If you’re new to it, start seated in a chair, then with your foot flat on the floor, press all your toes down and in (without having them leave the ground). Contract the arch muscles for 3 seconds and then release. During this time you should see a small space appear between the floor and the sole of your foot.
Having stronger feet as a dancer is imperative. Just like learning to engage your core when you’re jumping, turning, and balancing, imagine engaging the “Core” of your foot in all those elements too.
The Towel Scrunch
This simple exercise is so effective in improving strength, balance, and even flexibility of your foot. If the aforementioned “short foot” is like crunches for the arch of your foot, this exercise is like bicep curls, contracting and lengthening your foot as you scrunch the towel with your toes. You can use a towel, Thera-band, or if you’re really looking to train those toes, add a small, sturdy weighted object to the end of your towel and pull it toward you. The trick with this exercise is keeping the heel in contact with the floor so your ankles don’t contribute.
Ankle Internal and External Rotations (IR/ ER)
For many dancers, foot pain is often just a symptom of weakness elsewhere, like their ankles. And while performers are confident in pointing and flexing their feet, some revolt when asked to “sickle” and “wing” at the ankle. In technical terms, “sickling” is called ankle internal rotation (IR) and “winging” one’s foot is referred to as ankle external rotation (ER). When it comes to having strong, stable ankles and ultimately pain-free feet, working IR and ER is imperative.
The set up is pretty simple. Prop your feet up or let them dangle, then practice turning your toes towards and away from each other. For an added challenge, loop a Thera-band around the ball of your foot and add gentle resistance in the opposing direction. For example, if you were to pull your left foot inward, turn your toes right, you’d hold your Thera-band to the left side of your leg.
Every dance movement has two stages, concentric – where all the "action" happens, e.g., extension part of a tendu, and eccentric - where the muscles used to act must relax to return the body to its resting state (the closing portion of tendu).
Make sure muscles are working in both stages. Because the energy and power it takes to lower the leg with control and replace it in the position takes a lot of work, practicing eccentric control allows you to land without a thud or a jerk while you are jumping. When you focus on working the muscles of the foot through the eccentric stage of each exercise, you have greater control and manipulation over your feet. For this I recommend starting with eccentric releves.
Rise up with two feet, shift your weight to one foot, then take a full 8 count to lower the single heel to the floor. For greater impact, try these on a stair and let your heel drop below the stair’s edge so your calf and Achilles reaches a fully lengthened position.
If your feet start aching in the middle of class, rarely will you be able to come to a halt and whip out these exercises.
Remember, a class is the time for growing as an artist, what you do outside of class helps you as an athlete.
But when you’re in class be aware that wearing the Apolla Compression shocks can be an excellent resource for support, pain relief, and expedited recovery. My personal preference in an instance of plantar fasciitis would be the Joule.
As your feet are considered the foundation of your body and are the primary instrument of your dancing, the benefits to having strong feet are innumerable. Improved balance, reduced injuries, and even increased range of motion (i.e. croissants instead of biscuits).
The simplest way to harness these benefits is to practice the above exercises daily, once you get into a routine of doing regular exercise, you may notice a difference in your feet and how strong they may become. As you continue your dance training, keep exercising your feet regularly and with the proper footwear so you prevent injuries and build strength. If you have any concerns about your feet or strength training for dancers, contact Amber at @DancersWhoLift.