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By Lauren Kay
As the link between the leg and foot, the ankle is essential for shock absorption and proper alignment of the lower extremities. “The ankle provides mobility and stability for the lower body, from a plié and relevé to a leap or jump,” says Miami City Ballet senior physical therapist Cynthia McGee Laportilla. However, many dancers have endured at least one ankle injury, sometimes due to over-pronation (rolling the ankle in) or over-supination (rolling the ankle out). To help you find a balance between these two extremes, Dance Magazine talked to Laportilla; Margaret Tracey, director of Boston Ballet School; and NYC tap master Germaine Salsberg.
Habit: Over-pronation When the ankle (and thus the entire foot) rolls excessively inward toward the other foot, not only the ankle but the entire leg, pelvis, and spine are at risk for injury. “This habit can be formed as dancers try to achieve turnout in the wrong way,” says Laportilla. “This causes imbalances in the ankle and overstretches the tissue in the medial (inside) joints, while over-compressing the tissues in the lateral (outside) joint. The foot and ankle are being overused, instead of sharing the turnout responsibility with the leg, pelvis, and spine.”
Salsberg says that in tap, over-pronating is an inadvertent result of using a looser leg in order to keep the ankle pliable. “We often don’t use the turnout muscles because although this stabilizes placement, we don’t want to tighten, which inhibits speed and vibration,” she explains. “But this can be problematic if left unchecked, because then the body and feet start losing centered placement.”
Break it: For tappers, Salsberg suggests developing awareness of alignment by slowing down grounded steps like shuffles or flaps. “Work on your placement by pausing in the position,” she advises. “Do a flap and then hold for a count to feel how you need to align yourself over the top of your hips with your hip, knee, and ankle all placed properly. This way you don’t have to tighten muscles, but you still know where your body is, which helps keep your ankle safe.”
Laportilla says that for all dancers, a moderate degree of pronation and supination is normal; only when one becomes excessive does a problem occur. “Bones move in rotation and counter-rotation, and these are natural biomechanic movements,” she says. “If a dancer is standing in parallel, the femur rolls outward, the shin has inward rotation, the rear of the foot pronates a bit, and the metatarsals balance with gentle rotation outward. Then, in plié, the rear of the foot rolls in and the metatarsals slightly roll out for counterbalance.” The goal, she adds, “is to not have too much movement in one direction and not enough in another—and to maintain that balance while turning out.”
Laportilla suggests this exercise for a right ankle pronation (reverse for left ankle problems): Attach a Thera-Band around the ankle while standing in parallel plié, legs hip-width apart. Holding the Thera-Band in your left hand, pull it to your left, across and away from the body, letting the ankle roll in and bringing it back to neutral. Pulling the over-pronated ankle even further into the problematic position activates the resistance needed to maintain balance. As Laportilla explains, “This helps strengthen the weak supinating muscles and reinforces new habits of resisting the pronating movement.” She suggests doing a few sets of 10 to 15 repetitions throughout the day.
Laportilla also notes that winging is a form of pronation. If there is no weight on the winged foot, using this type of pronation to achieve a specific line (as at the end of an arabesque) is usually harmless. However, “when on relevé or pointe, center your weight on the first and second toes,” she says. “Winging while weight-bearing is precarious.”
Habit: Over-supination Sometimes dancers counteract pronating with over-supinating, or rolling out. Tracey says over-supination can result from mis-understanding how to set up a plié. “The plié needs to come from rotation at the top of the leg, keeping the knee over the big and second toe and a tight stomach,” she says. “If you don’t work on this type of static strength in early training, the ankles aren’t in line or protected.”
Break it: Before class, explore movement and rotation of the entire leg in parallel before shifting into a turned-out position, says Laportilla. “Think about the natural rotation of the bones—how the heel gently rolls in and the forefoot gently rolls out—before trying half turnout and then full turnout,” she says. Doing so will help you avoid excessive supination or pronation as you discover your body’s natural balance point.
Tracey suggests working slowly in first-position plié to find strength in the entire leg and to regain balance in the ankle. “Demi-plié and then hold in the plié for a count with your legs turned out at the hip, knee over toe, and tight feet and stomach,” she says. Tracey adds that using the entire depth of a demi-plié (or as deep as your Achilles tendon will allow) is key to avoiding over-supination—and to buoyant dancing. “Using that deep plié is what builds strong ankles,” she says. “This also creates a breath in the dancing, instead of a hiccup.”
Lauren Kay, a contributing editor at Dance Spirit, is a dancer and writer in NYC.