Your Body: Pointe Pain
Pointe work often brings blisters and calluses—par for the course for most ballet dancers. Raina Gilliland, 20, can attest to the challenges. The Minnesota Dance Theatre company member started pointe class when she was 8. Problems she’s already had include ingrown nails and a bunion. However, Gilliland admits some of her injuries could have been prevented if she had taken better care of her feet.
Dancers, pointe shoe fitters, and podiatrists all agree that finding pointe shoes that truly fit—and continuing to adjust that fit throughout your career—reduces the chances for injury. “Dancers think they get to a certain age and they stop growing,” says Jane Denton, a Bay Area podiatrist who works with San Francisco Ballet dancers. “But their feet get longer and wider with use over time.”
Marika Molnar, director of Westside Dance Physical Therapy in Manhattan and director of physical therapy at New York City Ballet, recommends that dancers get refitted for pointe shoes every six months to a year. “You could be a 7.5 when you’re 20, but when you’re 25, you could be an 8 or a 7.5EE,” she says.
Padding can help. Gilliland uses paper towels—“whatever’s in the bathroom”—and a toe spacer to help cushion her bunion. She’s seen many other kinds of padding used, including blue masking tape, which is waterproof and doesn’t slip. “But using lots of padding makes it not only harder to get into the shoe, but can change the shoe’s shape, or even contribute to its breaking in the wrong way,” Gilliland says. “Try to keep it simple, so you don’t mess with the shape of the shoe.”
Once you do find the right box, shank, vamp, width, and padding, you may still have to deal with minor foot problems. Here’s how to prevent and treat a few of the most common:
Blisters If you dance on pointe awhile, you build up calluses, so blisters usually aren’t as common. “On rare occasions if I get one,” says Gilliland, “I let it dry overnight, and maybe put on a little Neosporin + Pain Relief. Then I do what I can to avoid irritating it.” If she has to wear her pointe shoes the next day, she’ll rub more ointment on and cover it with her paper towel padding. Thin gel sleeves often can help to prevent irritation, but if there is chronic blistering, “you need to see if it’s the shoe that is causing it,” Denton says.
Corns Corns occur when pressure causes your skin to thicken into a deep, cone-shaped mass, pointing down inside the skin between toes. For a hard corn, pumice it gently so it doesn’t get too large, and wear lamb’s wool between the toes when in pointe shoes, Molnar advises. However, if you develop a soft corn, go see a podiatrist. “Dancers should not try not to gouge it out themselves,” Molnar says. “I’ve seen too many nasty consequences.”
Bruised Nails/Missing Nails If a bruised nail looks like it may be close to falling off, try to keep it attached as long as possible. If the nail is very loose on one side, bandage it. It helps to protect the nail bed from the pressure of the pointe shoe, Denton says. Molnar suggests that dancers also ice the toe as needed, or use Anbesol (an oral pain relief product) because it numbs the skin.
If the skin under the nail seems raw, keep it covered with a layer of antibacterial cream and bandage it, especially while dancing, to prevent infection. And if the nail falls off and you still have to dance, Denton suggests slipping on a gel toe sleeve for cushioning and protection.
Bunions Bunions, while hereditary, can be exacerbated if a dancer overdoes her turnout, rolling forward into the front edge of the big toe, causing joint deformity. A foam toe spacer helps keep the toes properly aligned and counteracts the pressure inside the pointe shoe. Denton recommends Voltaren gel, an anti-inflammatory available by prescription.
Gilliland has her own version of a foam spacer: She takes a makeup wedge, cuts it down to fit, and replaces it every couple of days. “It absorbs the sweat,” she says, “and they’re cheaper to buy in bulk.”
Hannah Maria Hayes is a New York writer with an MA in dance education from NYU.
Model: Sarah Hay. Photo by Nathan Sayers.
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.
Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:
Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?
The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."
January 16 might as well be a Broadway holiday. Three gigantic names were born on this day, in 1908, 1950 and 1980, and they represent three distinct eras of powerhouse musicals. Without them, there'd be no belting Reno Sweeney, no "Fame"-ous Lydia Grant and no rapping Alexander Hamilton. Happy birthday to these indelible superstars.
In the midst of its 20th-anniversary season, BodyVox is taking a moment to look back. The Portland, Oregon–based company presents Urban Meadow, an amalgamation of some of its most popular works, at Philadelphia's Prince Theater, Jan. 18–21. Expect whimsy, and the unexpected. bodyvox.com.