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Advice for Dancers

By Linda Hamilton


Will a foot stretcher improve my arch? I’ve been strapping this medieval-looking lever to the back of my leg and pushing my ankle and foot down over a curved wooden arch. My friend took one look at it and freaked out. I don’t care what it looks like. My only concern is, does it work?

 

Liz
Chicago, IL

 

Most dancers would do almost anything to improve the shape and height of their arch, all in quest of a perfect pointe. Wedging your feet under a piano leg or asking your best friend to sit on them is old hat. Still, hope springs eternal for an effective solution. So let’s do a reality check. According to dance medicine specialists, you cannot make a dramatic change to the arch of your feet once they stop growing, which usually happens around the age of 13. While a foot stretcher might seem like a good option, it poses several risks. For starters, if your foot is hypermobile, an extreme stretch might make it unstable. Also, it’s not uncommon for dancers to have an extra bone in the back of the ankle, or talus, called an os trigonum. Forcing your foot down in this case can cause the area to hurt. If the extra bone is still attached to the talus, it might even fracture. What’s a determined dancer to do? The safest way to improve your pointe is to perform physical therapy exercises with supervision. Another option is to wear specially designed instep pads that slip on top of the foot to create the illusion of a higher arch (check out varieties from Grishko and other dancewear suppliers).

 

I’d like to have a baby and my husband agrees, since I’m in my early 30s. Yet I also want to keep dancing. I perform in a good company and want to do everything possible to have a healthy baby and regain my dancer’s body afterwards. I’m in great shape now. Any suggestions?


Baby Bump
Denver, CO


Getting back into shape after a baby can be challenging. However, you already have a head start by being physically fit. Barring any complications, you can usually exercise at a decreased pace almost until the actual birth. Obviously, you’ll need your obstetrician’s guidance each step of the way, because every pregnancy differs. The best way to return to dancing once your bundle of joy arrives is to ease back into shape, keeping the following factors in mind. First, be aware that your post-baby nutrition and exercise plans require close attention. Please don’t do anything extreme, such as going on a radical diet. The goal for the first month should simply be to stay healthy and energetic. You don’t need to worry about your weight unless you’ve developed an uncontrollable sweet tooth. In fact, the pounds tend to come off at a surprising rate without even trying. While you’ll hang on to five to 10 pounds during breast feeding, that will come off too several months after you wean your baby. When in doubt, you can always work with a registered dietician. Meanwhile, high-impact workouts, rigorous ab exercises, and full-length stretching are a “no-no” for the first eight weeks after birth. Besides the fact that the left and right sides of your abs separate from one another (not the most comforting thought), your joints and ligaments loosen due to the pregnancy hormone relaxin. You may not be aware of injuries until the hormone leaves your body. Play it safe by doing aqua-workouts, cycling, Pilates, and yoga. Finally, don’t expect a flat stomach right away because it takes a period of weeks for your uterus to slowly contract. Find physical therapists and instructors who know about pregnancy and safe ways to condition your body, since everyone recovers at a different rate. As for returning to dance, two glowing examples of mommy ballerinas are Julie Kent of American Ballet Theatre and Jenifer Ringer of New York City Ballet.

 

My foot is killing me! Last week I performed a contemporary piece in bare feet (I usually wear pointe shoes) and now I have this huge blister on the ball of my foot. It hurts so much I can’t even wear ballet slippers. It isn’t easy switching techniques without calluses. What can I do to prevent this problem?


Emily
NYC


Ouch! Blisters are no fun, especially on the ball of your foot. Since you don’t have calluses, the next best preventive measure is to apply a skin-toughening product from the pharmacy and tape your feet with Elastikon. However, this approach isn’t infallible. Knowing the latest treatment comes in handy. In the past, doctors told dancers to use a sterile needle to open large blisters on the edge (not the center) leaving the skin to serve as a dressing. You would then clean the open cut with mild soap and water, dry it, apply a topical antibiotic and a Band-Aid—and wait about a week for the blister to heal. Now there’s a new tool called photodynamic therapy that practically heals a blister overnight. It involves a hand-held device that emits a cold red laser that promotes healing. A physical therapist targets the affected area with a beam of low-level light that penetrates the skin to rejuvenate the cells. Photodynamic therapy can also reduce pain, swelling, and bruising, whether you have a sprained ankle or musculoskeletal problems. Some doctors are even using it after surgery.

 

Former New York City Ballet dancer Linda Hamilton, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice, the author of Advice For Dancers (Jossey-Bass), and co-author of  The Dancer's Way: The New York City Ballet Guide to Mind, Body, and Nutrition (St. Martin’s Griffin). Her website is www.wellness4performers.com.


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