On your toes

[[If you are looking for a specific discussion about pointing your feet, go here: Pointing your Feet]]

(Important!!! This information is meant as only that…information. This is in no way an attempt to diagnose any movement problem. If truly understanding this information is important to you, do more research and find a teacher/physical therapist/trainer to help you IN PERSON.)

I am so starting to feel like I am in school again…this post has taken me days & days to organize and it would so not satisfy me as a professor! But, not all who come here are looking for a “lecture,” so these BODY posts will not be dissertations…thank freaking goodness! Consider this the bare minimum, though it is still long…if you want to know more, google it, ask a teacher, or email me.

Someone asked about the similarities and differences between being on your toes in pointe shoes (“en pointe”) and ID hard shoes.

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Similarities? The feet should work exactly the same way. (Nothing in/on the human body functions in isolation…I explore differences between ballet & ID that affect calf muscle use and size here.)

Differences? The feet are truly asked to do the same things in totally different shoes. Pointe shoes are engineered to support pointe work…hard shoes are NOT!!!

I had a real problem the first time I watched an Irish dancer go en pointe…I cringed and instinctively wanted to stop her. I soon learned that this was a “trick” that was all the rage and everyone wanted to be doing it. I wanted to know how ID teachers were getting a dancer’s feet ready for this.

In ballet, pointe work requires at least a couple of years of study before a dancer is deemed strong enough to attempt it. If you are young, a good dance teacher will not put you in pointe shoes until you are at least 12. I personally think it should be later because the growth plates in a girl’s foot bones are not truly closed until sometime around 14 years old (go here for great info). Much damage can be done if you are put en pointe/put into toe stands too young.

Up until the first moment that a ballet dancer puts on her pointe shoes, she has been preparing for it with exercises to strengthen her posture, hips, legs, ankles and feet. And that first class (and usually many more) is spent at the barre learning how to roll through her feet. A ballet dancer who has been properly trained will have the strength to roll through her feet, up & down in any position; she will not simply plop up on point and then fall back out.

(I found the videos I have posted here on youtube…only after slogging thru video after video after VIDEO of every ballet student with a videocam. Not one showed even the remotest knowledge of articulating the feet. Hmmm, what does that say about some ballet teachers?!)

How are Irish dancers trained to do toe stands, to go en pointe??

I was asked to help with toe stands at my daughters’ former school. When I taught the dancers the simple exercise of rolling through the feet to build strength in the foot, you would have thought I had discovered America. And the students were astounded by how hard it was. My thought was, “Why are you en pointe if you do not understand and do not have the strength?!”

In searching for some good visual support, I found some videos made by Lisa Howell, a physiotherapist in Australia. Brilliant. Her website is here: ThePerfect Pointe Book. I have put a couple of her videos here as they are relevant, articulate, and very informative.

In the first video she talks about the intrinsic and extrinsic muscles of the foot, so here’s a bit more info before you watch it. (The following info is simplified. If you want to know more detail, please google it.)

Intrinsic muscles of the foot: these muscles are “in” your foot; they control movement “in” the foot, and all the muscle attachments are in the foot. They move your toes, and for a dancer, they are responsible for creating the shape of your pointed foot by moving the bones of your foot. These muscles should be what take you from half-pointe to full pointe back to half-pointe. These muscles are also responsible for helping to control some of the descent of your weight through the foot when you come out of a jump or from being en pointe. We instinctively know this when coming out of a jump…without controlling the descent, we would slam our heels into the ground. Learning to use these intrinsic muscles by doing the exercises Lisa shows in her videos will help you strengthen your feet which will help your pointe work. (Doing the same exercises while using a Theraband will help all the more.)

For those with achilles tendonitis: Tendonitis can be the result of trying to point the foot using the ankle only. 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). Learning how to use and articulate the intrinsic muscles in your feet can help alleviate the pain of tendonitis because you are no longer trying to use only your ankle. Trying to get more point out of your foot by pulling hard on your heel bone is a main cause of this problem.

Extrinsic muscles of the foot: these muscles have one of their attachments (the origin) outside the foot, on the lower leg, and the other attachment in the foot. They control the movement of the foot as a whole, as a lever.

Here are the bones of the foot:

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And here are the muscles.

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Here Lisa explains how to use these muscles for ballet pointe work: the muscles work EXACTLY the same way for toe stands. This is simple but SO, SO important.

 

The exercises above are obviously done sitting. The next ones are weight bearing. Although these exercises are not done “en pointe,” this is the next phase in gaining the strength, control and understanding necessary for good toe stands. If you can’t do this, you cannot do correct toe stands. Period.

 

Now, this next video is good, but I do wish she had gone on to show more; perhaps that is another project she has yet to produce. More of the exercises in this category would be informative for IDers. But, this video is important because doing this exercise in hard shoes will show what IDers must contend with…most hard shoes are not this flexible in the half-pointe position. Yes there are flexi shoes, but not every IDer is strong enough to use them well or safely…catch-22 here. But watch this before you go on.

 

One of my blogging acquaintances reminded me of this: “Can I add that before girls are placed in pointe shoes or asked to execute toe stands the teacher ought to evaluate the flexibility of the ankle, to ensure that a dancer will be able to safely ‘get over her feet.’ If that inherent ankle flexibilty is not present she may never be able to safely dance en pointe or do toe stands without straining the bone (and muscle) structure.” This should absolutely be the case, but sadly it is not the norm for this kind of evaluation to take place in either ballet or ID. In ID, you have to be able to perform the tricks to succeed, right? Wrong. I cannot tell you the number of students I would get at the university who were suffering from having been poorly trained en pointe or worse yet, from having been told that all they needed to do was STRETCH their feet and ankles to CHANGE their feet….ARGH!!! What they were changing was the length of the ligaments that held all of the bones together…and this cannot be reversed without surgery. We of course worked to strengthen all the muscles to support the feet, but the best piece of news that I gave to many of them was this: you cannot dance on pointe ever again. Only once did someone argue…the rest were so relieved.

Let’s analyze a couple of things. Here is a point shoe being pointed. Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Here is a typical ID hard shoe being pointed.

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They have different “pointing” capabilities, don’t they? Each shoe is designed and MADE to support their main function…and the MAIN function of an Irish dance hard shoe is to MAKE NOISE, not support a fragile foot on its toes. I am thinking that a HARD shoe designed to function as a point shoe would resemble the toe-tap shoe from the teens of the 1900’s…kitschy but to the point (no true pun intended!)!

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Now, there are flexible ID hard shoes that conform to the arch of the foot. But, these are for dancers with extremely strong feet as there is no true arch support. Even a pointe shoe still has a shank under the arch. (Yes, I know many ballet dancers break the shank of their shoes…but dancers who want very soft shoes have feet of iron!) Getting these shoes simply to make a dancer’s point look better when the dancer may not have the strength to support herself is a dangerous thing.

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So, Irish dancers, what CAN you do to take some control? (Again, please talk this over with someone with expertise before you go off on your own.)

Diva #1 Molly has learned a few things. Molly’s poor feet started out in this state which is unappealing, yes, but most importantly, dangerous. Does she dance like this still? Hell no! Here the tarsus is misaligned, extreme stress is being placed on the superior end of the metatarsals, and the toes are knuckling.

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This pic points out a dancer’s weaknesses on so many levels but also illustrates 1) the simple FACT that ID hard shoes are still not designed for pointe work, and 2) the other simple FACT that many ID dancers, for the most part, are not appropriately trained. Is this statement belligerent? No, because I am not looking for a fight. But I am issuing a challenge, in my small way, for teachers and shoe designers alike to look at the reality of the toe stand: the factual anatomy, the strength/training that SHOULD be a given, and the support that SHOULD be already designed into a shoe.

And on I go…

Here is the photo sequence of a hard shoe strength exercise for IDers that expands upon Lisa’s above…this is my diva Molly…all that is missing is her cranky commentary! She has worked hard to first learn how to roll through her feet as an exercise to gain strength, that then, second, has allowed her to learn how to “pull up” out of her shoes for safety and a pleasing aesthetic line.
Beginning…
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I asked her to go to half pointe…
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I felt it was lacking so asked her to do half pointe on one foot….it is somewhat better but illustrates the point that these shoes are stiff. (I should say here that we tried some very flexi shoes…for many reasons. Did not work for Molly. For many reasons. We are now back to the non-flexi, full soles which support her better mainly because she is a powerful dancer and breaks everything that comes her way. I have opted for whatever supports her foot the longest. Reminiscent of me and my pointe shoes…the stronger, the better.)
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So, we get to a better half-pointe.
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She begins rolling through her foot, using the intrinsic muscles of the foot to push through the shoe to full pointe.
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Full pointe…Molly has strong, straight feet, no curving arch in her tarsus (the area below her ankle), but no area of limited stretch either. There is now no collapsing of the toes (knuckling) or the metatarsals (that claw pic up there).
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Now she slowly reverses and begins the roll down through her feet…
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to half pointe…
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to heels flat.
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Working hard shoes this way is good as it helps identify and strengthen the in-between places that dancers drop through. Why is this important? Strong feet will help avoid injuries. If IDers do not develop the strength necessary to support this “trick” that is way too quickly evolving into more complicated “tricks,” we are going to see more injuries and long term consequences.

I am all for the evolution of DANCE as an art form, in all its forms. As a young dance student in the 1970’s and 80’s, in the aftermath of the modern dance revolution (that lasted a few decades) I heard from every “artiste” (and I so use that term cynically!!) that I encountered that all that could be done in dance had been done. At the time. I felt I did not know enough to even remotely evaluate those comments, so just nodded like an idiot. But they were wrong. As a university professor working with graduate students from all over the world, I watched as dance forms of all kinds were re-imagined, transformed, re-configured, re-discovered…I credit my students with keeping me transfixed by the world of dance.

At the end of 1995, my dad sent me a video. Not sure where he got it (I still have it). I was BLOWN away…I watched it over and over. It was “Riverdance” as it was performed at the Eurovison Song Contest. To this day, when I watch that recording of that unbelievable historical moment, I get chills, I am speechless and motionless. I am overwhelmed. Not only were my dance students blown away, but my non-dance students, my anthropology students were mesmerised! We watched it 4 times the day I brought it to class! And they asked so many questions. We were actually witness to an historical moment and we could all feel it! How many months later…on videotape!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

So should Irish dance change, borrow from other dance forms? Sure, why not? But I think it is very important that the information necessary for training a body to do something new should be borrowed at the same time. When the training is correct, then you get lovely feet (in a lovely photo taken this year) like this. Thank you, Kristin White for allowing me to post your pic.

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(Update, 8/20/07: Once again some arguments are happening about whether or not this exercise is necessary or not. The rationale against the exercise says that Irish dancers do not roll through their feet when dancing, that they only ever perform a pique, stepping up onto the already pointed foot. My response…SO? The point of this post is that IDers must have feet that are equally as strong as ballet dancers, perhaps more so as ID hard shoes are not designed at all to support pointe work so ALL the support must be in the foot. The only way to gain this strength is through performing exercises that work and strengthen all of the intrinsic muscles of the feet. Simply performing piques is NOT ENOUGH!! I do wish that someone who disagrees with me would have the guts AND the knowledge to bring the argument to me instead of throwing out uninformed, ignorant opinions anonymously online. Am I irritated? Yes, so BRING IT ON!!!!)

Click for more kinesiology info: Dance Kinesiology

14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Colleen
    Aug 04, 2007 @ 13:09:00

    Thank you for sharing! This is incredibly helpful, as I will soon be seeing a sports medicine specialist for all my aches and pains.. I wish I knew this information when I first started dancing!

  2. GailV
    Aug 04, 2007 @ 13:58:00

    These posts are great for us — my kids are both Beginners, and may never get beyond Advanced Beginners due to lack of interest in dancing several days per week. But it’s good for us to see that there’s more to dancing than what meets the eye. It’s also been good for them to see an example of how someone can be quite involved with dance without actually being a dance star ( you may be inspiring a future dance medicine specialist here — who knows!).

    If anyone at our house decides to get serious about performing/competing, we’ll know more about the type of help to seek for technique. If I were a good mommy I’d be looking up similar information on swimming and playing piano, since currently they spend at least as much time in those pursuits.

  3. Knitting Maniac
    Aug 04, 2007 @ 14:52:00

    You know, I never even put the two together like that …. good points, Ann!

  4. Ann
    Aug 04, 2007 @ 15:25:00

    ar, ar, ar…funny girl!

  5. picperfic
    Aug 04, 2007 @ 21:58:00

    excellent post Ann…When i saw Riverdance on the ESC I was dumbfounded! It was breathtaking to watch. I love going to see Irish dance on the stage. I have seen Riverdance once and The Lord of the Dance twice. It’s like a meditation, I get right in there with the rythmic pounding of the mass of dancers!

  6. Anonymous
    Aug 04, 2007 @ 22:18:00

    Wow! I feel like I should send payment for all of that wonderful info : ). With a 10-year-old open champ dancer who also dances en pointe in ballet, I really appreciate all of the time and knowledge you put into that entry. Very helpful.

  7. Peggy
    Aug 05, 2007 @ 02:12:00

    Excellent info! Again!
    Can I add that before girls are placed in pointe shoes or asked to execute toe stands the teacher ought to evaluate the flexibility of the ankle, to ensure that a dancer will be able to safely “get over her feet”
    If that inherent ankle flexibilty is not present she may never be able to safely dance en pointe or do toe stands without straining the bone structure. Especially if the feet have not been well trained and strengthened!

  8. Caroline
    Aug 05, 2007 @ 03:16:00

    Thanks for the great info Ann. I have been aware of this toestand “problem” and have been teaching others in my class how to do it correctly. All that has been missing is the proper theory to back up the story and the exercises to help reach this stable and good positioning of the feet. This is absolutely great!

  9. Rissa
    Aug 06, 2007 @ 19:11:00

    Fascinating! I was en pointe as a kid and I have the ugly wrapped toes to prove it! It was not until I took ballet in college that I really got strong arches and my shoe size went from a size 10 to an 8.5 and stayed there. 🙂 Belly dancing is done in bare feet, so my feet are starting to flatten out, so a size 9 fits better right now. ROFL

  10. Anonymous
    Sep 26, 2007 @ 15:11:00

    Very informative. How about some tips to help dancers get higher on their toes in soft shoe?

  11. Trackback: Pointing your Feet « Taoknitter
  12. Trackback: Teacher Responsibility « Taoknitter
  13. irishbliss
    Apr 09, 2014 @ 08:11:41

    Thanks for the information. I had been wondering about this for a while as I did ballet for a long time before Irish dancing and I know how careful they are about preparing dancers for this. I think the idea of Irish point dancing is nice but I suspect there’s no proper preparation and approach for this.

  14. Trackback: Irish dance: On pointe – is it safe? | Irish Bliss

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