I have always yearned for high arched, articulate feet. As a young dancer I used to dream that my flattish feet with their unyielding ankle joints had been magically replaced with the feet of, say, Sylvie Guillem.
An arched foot is central to the aesthetics of ballet – it completes the line of the leg whether extended or carrying the body en pointe. For those of us with less than perfect feet it’s hard not be jealous of those born with those gorgeous high-arched feet that seem to fall effortlessly into the perfect shape.
So is there anything that can be done to improve matters? Or are we stuck with the foot shape we’ve got? I decided it was time to stop dreaming about Sylvie’s soles and find out the facts from Vicki Negus, the West Australian Ballet’s resident physiotherapist.
From an anatomical perspective, feet are broadly divided into two arch types, says Negus. The bones of the foot play a big role in determining foot type but they’re not the only factor involved.
“The flexibility of the ligaments is really important, and the muscles contribute to the arch as well,” Negus explains.
“The two main types of foot are the high arched foot and the flat foot. There are two types of flat foot. The high arched foot is called ‘pescavus’ and that means that the bones are set in a way that ensures the arch is bigger. The ligaments are generally stronger, so the arch is higher even when you’re just standing, let alone pointing the foot.” That strength is important, says Negus. People who do not have a pescavus foot often pronate or roll when weight-bearing because the ligaments that hold the arch are not as strong.
That leads us to the second foot type – the flat foot. “A flexible flat foot will have an arch when non-weight-bearing, but when standing it goes away,” says Negus. “Both pescavus and a flexible flat foot are quite common in ballet – and every combination in between. People aren’t necessarily one or the other – a normal foot is in the middle of the continuum between pescavus at one end and a flat foot at the other.”
The second type of flat foot is called a rigid flat foot. “That means the bones are fairly fixed in the flat position whether weight-bearing or non-weight bearing – there’s no arch in either position,” Negus says. “I’ve never seen a ballet student or a dancer with a rigid flat foot because you can’t really point the foot, “ says Negus.
It’s the pescavus foot that lends itself best to the shape desired for classical ballet. Anatomically speaking, however, there are other factors at play affecting the look of the pointed foot. “You need to have a lot of movement in the ankle joint, through the tarsal joints which make up the medial longitudinal arch (the arch that runs along the inside length of the foot), and through the tarso-metatarsal joints, where the tarsals join onto the long metatarsal bones,” elaborates Negus.
Interestingly, Negus’s last criterion for aesthetically-pleasing feet is not anatomical at all. “My big thing is long toes,” she says with a laugh. “When we’re tiny, we’re told to point our toes, so we tend to scrunch our toes. The small toes joints should be straight when the foot is pointed – it’s biomechanically correct and it lengthens the leg more from an aesthetic perspective.”
And so to my big question. How much can we change the shape of our arch?
There’s good news and bad. The bad news is that here is no magical way to change the bone structure of your foot. A flexible flat foot is not going to become a desirable pescavus foot with training. Cheer up though – there are ways to improve the overall look of the foot when pointed. “If you have got a flatter foot you might not get the same height in the middle of the arch but you can definitely improve the flexibility and strength of your foot so that it appears to be more arched in the shoe,” Negus comments. “We can improve the line of the foot. It’s just the appearance of the top of the foot that we can’t change so much.”
Let’s talk about what we can change.
“Some people are very focused on improving their arch on l’air and in tendu and so on, but don’t actually look at what their arch does as a supporting leg,” says Negus. “That is important – if you let your arch collapse when it is weight-bearing, all the bones of the arch have rolled in and will get strong in that rolled position. If you lift your arch when you are standing on it, you are strengthening it in the correct position.” This will help improve the shape of the foot when it is extended. There are also biomechanical benefits. “Arch control is important for balance and for landing jumps,” Negus adds.
Improving all the muscles that contribute to the arch of the foot is the key to improving foot shape. “That’s the calf muscles and intrinsic foot muscles,” continues Negus.“For your calf you can do slow, controlled rises to demi pointe on two feet, progressing to one foot. You can add in working off a step, you can do it in parallel and turnout.
“The important thing is to focus on the medial side (the inside of the calf) because that is the main postural muscle in the calf. You want the line of the tibia (shin bone) in line with the second toe – that can be checked in the mirror.” How many rises should be done is a subject of some debate, says Negus. “If I was doing a pre-pointe assessment I would hope a student could do 15-20 on one leg.”
Strengthening the intrinsic muscles of the foot also requires attention to detail. “You have to isolate the muscles in the foot itself without engaging the long toe muscles,” explains Negus. These exercises are done while weight-bearing and involved picking up the arch of the foot without activating the toes. “You ‘dome’ the metatarsal joints (the arch) but you keep the toe joints straight. If you’re doing things like picking up pens with your toes, where the toes scrunch, that is not going to help to improve your arch,” she warns.
Negus shows me an alternative, which she calls “piano”. This involves picking and putting down the toes one at a time, sequentially from big toe to little toe and back again, as though playing the piano with the toes.
Isolating the different muscle groups is helpful, but working them together is the ultimate aim. A good exercise is: “Sitting and stretching the ankles into point, then pointing the toes, then releasing the toes, then releasing the ankles,” says Negus.“A lot of people do that with theraband but you’ve got to make sure that you’re getting the quality of the movement right, with long toes, otherwise the theraband will be reinforcing a poor pattern. You can use a little soft ball.” Negus pulls out a partially-inflated rubber ball, which she places against the wall. She then performs the exercise described above using the ball as resistance, working on keeping the toes long.
And what about those old favourites, like jamming your feet under a piano to force the foot into a more arched position? Does Negus recommend this kind of stretching?
“No!” she says emphatically. “That’s highly likely to contribute to injury. Essentially you’re getting that flexibility by over-straining ligaments and muscles. It can also cause impingement at the back of the ankle.” Injuries aside, it simply isn’t a useful exercise. “You aren’t in control,” she explains.“All you’re doing is making the passive structures more hyper-mobile but you’re not developing the strength to actually utilise that mobility.”
That said, Negus emphasises that restrictions in movement range may be improved. She suggests seeing a health care professional, such as a dance physiotherapist, to determine whether this is the case. “If there is a muscular or joint restriction, particularly if there is a difference between the right and the left foot, a professional may be able to passively mobilise the tight areas,” she explains.“It wouldn’t be an overall forcing of the foot into a point though. They would find the joint or muscle that is stiff or tight and target treatment to that area.”
So to all my flexible flat-footed friends, remember it’s all about strength. Whilst a Guillamesque arch may be destined to remain a fantasy, the chances are that you can improve the overall look of your pointed foot.
This article was first published in Dance Australia magazine December 2012/January 2013