Dancing Calves

When I was writing about NOT writing about dance technique issues the other day, I decided that my motivation, or lack thereof, was based on not wanting anyone to misunderstand and incorrectly use what I write. I do not want to be responsible for dancers injuring themselves. But, as is the usual way of my brain, it percolated ALL FREAKING NIGHT& DAY, and I came home from meeting with a couple of clients yesterday inspired to write a bit about something kinesiological. (How d’ya like that word?)

Inside the post that started all of this for me was this: “I’ve got a question for you – Why do IDers get the big calf muscles – TC says it shows they’re working on their toes. But ballet dancers don’t seem to get them that way. What am I missing?

I have transferred what I wrote to the blog so that I could add visuals. I NEED some visuals.

Ballet dancers’ calves are not typically as big because their weight is literally over their toes in pointe shoes which means the muscles in the entire leg actually work more efficiently, meaning that they do not have to work as hard. When the weight can be so centered, you are not over-using muscles.
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It has everything to do with the system of levers and pulleys that make up our entire body. When the lever that is our foot is able to fully extend so the leg can rise in a column above it, the pulleys (muscles) do not have to work as hard which means that they will not over-develop through constant tension.

Here is an example of the lever that is our foot. This is how it would “look” when an athlete does the long jump, landing heel first. It is over-simplified and as dancers we land toe first which does change the way the muscles work a bit, but the point here is to see the foot as the lever that it is. And notice which “muscles” bulge and when.
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Now lets think of the leg (the thigh and calf) as a cylinder or column that has to balance over the extended foot this way: Here we have a cylinder, (yeah, a toilet paper roll…serves a purpose!)Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Balance it on its end. When it is balanced, you can let go, right?
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Now, holding the top of the cylinder , tilt it so that if you let go it will fall. In order for the cylinder to stay in that position you have to “hold” it there, right?
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Now imagine that the entire leg is a cylinder that balances on top of a pointed foot. When that cylinder can balance directly over the center of the foot, muscles do not have to over-work. When the cylinder is “tilted” the muscles, the gastocnemius and the soleus in the calf, have to work harder to maintain the relationship between the foot and the lower leg which means they are over-loaded and extra bulk is created. Remember in the lever animation when the lever was pulled by the bulging muscles at the back (calf muscles) to start the jump? These muscles remain bulging as they stay in constant contraction when the leg column cannot balance over the foot.

Not everyone balances/aligns their body parts correctly and the reasons can range from a lack of understanding to a lack of strength to faulty technique to body type and bony restrictions.

It is important to understand that a pointed foot is accomplished by movement in 3-4 areas, not just one. 1st you move your ankle, then the bones in the tarsus (the area in front of the ankle), then the metatarsals (the long foot bones), then lastly the phalanges (toes).
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In a perfect world, we would all have pointed feet that looked like this in an x-ray:
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This foot has enough range of motion in the ankle and enough flexibility in the tarsus to be able to point this beautifully. Notice how straight the toes are, not curled. Let me be very clear here: NOT EVERYONE is capable of achieving a point like this. Yes, you can stretch & strengthen your feet to achieve the best point you can, but if your ankle is restricted by the bony structure and the bones in your tarsus are inflexible because of tight ligaments, this kind of point will not happen for you. Without silly surgery, bony restrictions cannot be changed. And while you can stretch your foot enough to actually stretch the ligaments in the tarsus, you are potentially doing damage that cannot be reversed without surgery, because ligaments are inflexible stabilizers and are not made of material that stretches like muscles. Here is one view of the ligaments:
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Here is an x-ray of a non-pointed foot.
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket Notice where the the leg bones and side of the ankle are in relation to the back of the heel…does this look the way you pictured it? Our own “body map,” the way we think things are put together, affects how we move. The heel bone, the calcaneus, sticks out back to serve as a place for the muscles of the calf (gastrocnemius and soleus) to attach so force can be applied to this lever to accomplish locomotor movement of all kinds. Look again at the animation above.

Here are a couple of diagrams to see more ligaments and where the muscles attach to the heel bone.
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Now let’s look at these 2 pics. Both of these dancers are standing in what I will call half-pointe here. Notice anything?

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The first set of feet have quite a great range of motion so the dancer can get very high up on her feet while the second set of feet have a much more limited range of motion which restricts the dancer’s ability to get fully up into half-pointe. (There is actually no way for me to know if the feet in the second pic are restricted without getting my hands on them, but they work for now as a visual.) Thes two dancers carry their weight totally differently. Here are the same pics with plumb lines, lines that indicate where the weight of their body is centered through the foot in these positions.

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Notice where the plumb lines fall. In the first pic, the lines are centered in the leg which means the dancer’s weight is supported by the leg column through the center of the foot. Great alignment, support and muscle efficiency. In the second pic, the line ends on the floor which means this dancer is working extra hard to support this weight because it is not supported by the leg cylinder through the center of the foot. This weight is pulled back which means all her leg muscles are hanging on for dear life!!

Here’s another example that shows us the whole body of each dancer. Look at how each is balanced.

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There are differences in body type and facility here that I am not going to address. I am using these as examples of balance issues and muscle development that are mainly caused by differing flexibility in the feet. See it? Notice the different shapes of their standing legs. There may very well be training and technique issues to be addressed, but the dancer in the top pic simply cannot get her center completely over her foot the way the second dancer can, hence the bulkier muscles.

Here are the pics again with the plumb lines.
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The top pic shows the dancer’s weight behind, while the second pic shows the weight centered

Here are 2 pics: a foot en pointe and a foot in half pointe.

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Both of these pics show a foot position above which the body weight can be centered thereby preventing over-development of the calf muscles.

Irish dancers and ballet dancers use exactly the same muscles in the entire leg, but the demands are a bit different on the calf muscles. Irish dancers in general may have bigger calves because Irish dancers dance in that half-pointe position almost continuously, their calf muscles “holding” the heel of the foot off of the floor unlike ballet dancers who do put their heels down which allows the muscles to lengthen every once in a while. Some of the bulk can be lessened by getting as fully up into the half-pointe position as possible while dancing, but there is so much jumping and hopping in ID, that it is impossible to stay that high at all times. For IDers this means that the calf muscles are in a constant state of contraction, constantly working which causes the muscles to over-develop. Think of a body builder…to gain bulk they overload their muscles…extra bulk in the calf muscles is developed by the overload caused by the ID technique of dancing without putting your heels down. Quite frankly, the simple fact that Irish dancers jump the way they do without the benefit of using the full range of motion of the foot lever AND without using their arms or bodies for added momentum means that the calf muscles on an Irish dancer have to be astoundingly strong. Irish dancers NEED that bulk!

I can say, though, that I have seen many a ballet dancer with huge calves…it can be genetics or a dancer who cannot find her center or one who does not have enough flexibility and range of motion in her ankle and tarsus to allow her to get fully over the center of her foot which means that her calves have to work extra hard…just like an IDer. I have also seen Irish dancers with slim calves…next time you see one look at how she dances…I’ll bet you she dances WAAAYYY up on her feet and toes. Her calves are smaller because her weight is more centered over her feet which means her calves do not have to work as hard.

I feel as if I am leaving something out…please feel free to tell me what it is. I am sure I will be revising and editing this.

Click for more kinesiology info: Dance Kinesiology

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. K8
    Jul 31, 2007 @ 15:12:00

    Brilliant. Thank you! I had many dance major friends in college; now I know a lot more about how they were working their (gorgeous!) bodies. Maybe I’m weird but I always find stuff like this interesting in and of itself…

  2. Rebecca
    Jul 31, 2007 @ 17:52:00

    Wow. I love it! Tell me more. 🙂 I did have to read it a few times to completely understand. Thank you for sharing!! So, is this a chapter in your novel? 😉

  3. Peggy
    Aug 02, 2007 @ 00:37:00

    This is fascinating!
    I found myself thinking about everything you said during ballet class. It also seems that in ballet the impetus for raising onto pointe does not come only from the calves, but starts in the torso and is supported by all the leg muscles down through the feet. Is that true? or do the good ballerinas just make it look that good?

  4. Colleen M
    Aug 02, 2007 @ 19:57:00

    Thank you so much!! I too have been thinking about this for a while to digest it all. Thanks for the illustrations, they really help those of us who don’t know much about the science of the body. Keep them coming!! Please. Colleen M

  5. Anonymous
    Aug 03, 2007 @ 20:26:00

    Thank you! Now can you write a post about ID turnout compared to ballet turn out. In ballet, feet are turned out from the hip, which I’m sure you already knew. I see so many IDers overcrossing, and having their knees pointing in a completely different direction from their feet. Also, they end up forcing it so much that their feet end up rolling in! *takes deep breath*

  6. Ann
    Aug 03, 2007 @ 20:41:00

    Turn out is after the next one about working “en pointe” AKA toe stands.

  7. picperfic
    Aug 04, 2007 @ 21:54:00

    amazing stuff! I am enjoying learning about all this even though I don’t have any connection with it. You words are flow well Ann!

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