Care of the Ballet ….
Care of the Ballet Dancer’s Feet
The human foot with its ankle contains 26 bones and 20 movable, articulated joints. It has over a hundred muscles, ligament and tendons. In other words, it is complex. Feet come in all sizes and shapes, and they are subject to many injuries and adverse conditions. Metatarsalgia, Plantar Fasciitis, Morton’s Neuroma, Achilles Tendonitis, toenail fungus, arch strain, bunions, heel pain, heel spurs, and many other problems can diminish our strength and balance and take a lot of the fun out of movement.
Moreover, as James Weldon Johnson’s famous Spiritual implies, the foot bone IS connected to the ankle bone… and all that lies above it, so particular care should be paid to this most important part of our anatomy.
It goes without saying that this is a primary consideration for dancers. In addition to the strengthening exercises that I wrote about in a previous blog, basic foot care can go a long way toward protecting the health of the dancer’s feet.
Walk it Out
Before and after class, especially pointe class, walk through the feet. You can stand at the barre and “walk” through the feet or just walk across the floor, making sure that the movement rolls through all of the foot from heel to toe. This is to relax the feet.
Similarly, standing in natural stance, or “6th position”, you can do ten or twenty slow relevés.
These exercises help to re-establish the natural patterns of foot movement after the often stressful positioning of ballet footwork.
Even if you don’t want to play, tennis balls are wonderful for working the kinks out of a ballet dancer’s feet. You can roll each foot around on a tennis ball — under the toes, at the metatarsal arch, in the arch itself, and at the heel — deciding how much pressure feels good for the foot at a given time. It is also helpful to put three tennis balls inside a long sock and tie it closed, making a foot roller that is softer than those that are sold online.
Some people use very hard balls from other sports, but this should be done with extreme care so as not to bruise the foot.
When You Go Home
Foot baths in Epsom Salts or in salty water can help to relax and cleanse the feet. Several drops of Tea Tree Oil in the water or after a bath can disinfect the feet and protect against fungus and infections.
Then, massaging the feet to increase circulation and to knead out the sore and knotted muscles is also useful. It is wonderful if you have someone to massage your feet, but it is unnecessary. It is easy to do it yourself.
Foot creams are very popular. They moisturize and re-elasticize the skin of the foot which is often under extreme duress during class and performance. I love a foot cream called Weleda Foot Balm which I get at Whole Foods or at Amazon. Others like Gold Bond, O’Keeffe’s Healthy Feet, Amope, or Amlactin.
If you have professional pedicures, please consider asking the beautician not to cut away the calluses. Calluses form to protect the foot from the continual pressure of tight dance shoes and repetitive movement. They are the foot’s attempt to avoid being hurt. It’s OK to have them filed down a bit but not to have them removed or cut off. Explain to the pedicurist that they are there for a reason.
Keep toenails short. It will most likely hurt you if they are too long, but it is advisable to keep them short anyway. Cut them straight across, and file away any roughness. If you cut down into the corners, you are risking ingrown toenails. Pointe is quite painful enough without having ingrown toenails.
If you can live without brightly colored, opaque toenail polish – and I understand that some of you cannot – that would be wonderful. No polish or very light polish (like Essie’s Ballet Slippers) makes it easier to see if a nail is damaged or if the toe beneath it is bruised. That way, something can be done about it before it becomes painful.
Blisters can be prevented to a great degree by wearing tights or a foot-covering. If it looks like you are at risk for a blister, cover red, sensitive spots (known as hotspots) with a blister-prevention pad called 2nd Skin.
Ordinarily, a blister is not serious. Most medical professionals will tell their patients to cover a small blister with a loose bandage and – here is the issue for dancers – avoid the activity that caused it. Most dancers are not going to do that, so they must look into alternatives. An obvious alternative is to use a doughnut-shaped pad placed directly over the blister to protect it.
Some health professionals say that you can drain a large blister, if it is painful, with a sterilized needle. I have done this many times although I am not sure it is safe. The area should then be washed with soap and water. Alcohol and iodine or other cleansers are not suggested. Lastly, the area should be covered with an antibiotic ointment like Neosporin and kept covered until it heals.
I don’t know about you, but I am accustomed to pain so, as soon as the blister begins to dry, I cover it with a liquid bandage called New Skin. Yes. Yes. It is very painful… but then it is over. Then I cover it with a bandaid when I dance or take Yoga, and I don’t have to worry about it. New Skin can be reapplied every two or three days as needed.
Blisters seem like only a painful inconvenience until… they become infected. Then they must be treated carefully. It is never advisable to puncture or interfere with a red blister. When a blister is red and painful, a visit to a health professional is probably in order. It is always better to be safe than sorry.
Lane Gormley is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Board Certified Coach at East Paces Counseling in Buckhead and Ray of Hope Counseling Services in Kennesaw, GA. She has take class, taught, and participated in the GDC community for years.