Just two days ago, Misty Copeland was named the principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre. She is the first African-American to receive this position throughout the company’s 75-year history. No matter if you like ballet or have even seen it before, I’m sure you know what dancing (particularly ballet dancing) can do to your feet. Let’s take a look at the common ailments of the ballerina:
Blisters, corns, calluses, bunions, broken toes, stress fractures, cracked, broken, or black toenails, plantar fasciitis, Achilles fasciitis, neuromas, and many, many more problems. The pressure to continue to dance night after night forces many dancers to ignore these problems and simply push through the pain, turning these small issues into chronic problems.
What exactly causes these issues? Well, ballet shoes come in two forms: ballet slippers and pointe shoes. Ballet slippers (pictured right) can be made from leather, canvas, or satin and have little to no sole or protection. As one physician describes it, “here we have tight fitting, non-supportive shoes, petite and sometimes undernourished athletes performing intricate movements up and down on their toes throughout a huge range of motion over time.” (http://goo.gl/9bcYr4) It is easy to see that with little more than a thin piece of material covering the foot, ballerinas are susceptible to a huge variety of injuries.
Wherever you are right now, lift your foot off the floor and point it. I’m sure you can feel the stretch of the tendons on the front of the foot and the bunching of the tendons above the heel. Now, imagine holding that position for minutes on end and repeating it several hundred times a day…. Not an enticing thought. Ballet slippers offer no support or protection so it’s basically like dancing in bare feet.
Pointe shoes (pictured left) may sound better than slippers since they do offer a stiffer sole and a protective toe box, but think again. Pointe shoes were designed to make the dancer appear as if she is floating above the floor. They are comprised of a hard toe box, a stiff interior shank, a leather sole, and a soft satin or canvas covering. Typically the box is formed of layers of paper and material glued together and shaped. The dancer’s toes push against this as they go “on pointe”. The shank can be made of plastic, cardstock, burlap, or leather and serves as a sort of interior sole. The stiffness of the material determines the support provided for the dancer’s feet. Certain dances may require a softer or harder shank. In addition to the shoe itself, many dancers employ the use of toe spacers, toe pads, tape, and lambswool. These can help prevent some of the exterior ailments (blisters, etc.), but do relatively little for the pressure related injuries caused by the actual weight, impact, and movements of the dance itself.
Serious dancers of all types can be quite sensitive about their foot problems and rarely respond well to being told they need to rest. The most many doctors can do is treat the symptoms, recommend measures to prevent chronic symptoms from returning, and hope that one day the dancers will realize that their injuries are serious enough to take a real break and get them fixed.
If you know a serious dancer or are one yourself, make sure you are taking care of your feet. After all, the average professional dancer retires in their early to mid-thirties and you are going to need healthy feet for the many years that will come after that.