Your Body: Can Crunches Fix Bunions?
How cross-training your core, hips and calves can help
Photos by Jayme Thornton, modeled by Eva Solnick of Joffrey Ballet School
Leanna Rinaldi never expected demi-pointe to be the most difficult part of her first season with Miami City Ballet. But a painful bunion on her left foot made one of the most basic steps in ballet incredibly difficult. “I couldn’t flex my toes and rolling up to pointe was hard,” she says. “I could hardly dance.”
For many dancers, bunion pain is an all-too-familiar reality. But it doesn’t have to be, according to Kathleen Davenport, MD, a dance medicine specialist and company physician for Miami City Ballet. “People think there is nothing you can do about it,” she says, “but that is just not the case.” In a report published in the July 2014 Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, Davenport and her colleagues explain that proper technique, strength and flexibility in a dancer’s core, hips and calves can impact the formation of a bunion.
Also called hallux valgus, bunions are progressive deformities of the big-toe joint. Although they typically develop in middle age due to genetics, Dr. Jeffrey Oster, a podiatrist who has worked with dancers at BalletMet Columbus, says he has seen bunions in patients as young as 12 or 13. “For the unlucky who have early onset,” he says, “there are usually biomechanical factors at play.” One of those factors may be wearing shoes that are too tight or taper too narrowly at the toe—pointe shoes, for instance.
The first stage of a bunion’s development looks like a small bump. In stage two, the bump grows bigger. In stage three, the toe joint begins to buckle because the end of the first metatarsal begins to angle outward while the toe is pulled inward by tendons and ligaments. “There is often a constant low-grade ache and signs of arthritis,” says Oster. Stage four bunions require surgery to cut the two bones of the joint and pin them together, which can result in a limited range of motion. “It is very difficult to perform ballet after surgery,” says Davenport. “You are probably not going to get that full demi-pointe where it was before.”
That’s why prevention is key. Taking a closer look at alignment throughout the body can both help prevent the formation of a bunion, and keep small bumps from growing. “I see dancers rolling in on their feet constantly,” says Davenport. “This puts so much stress on the part of the foot where a bunion can develop.” Strategic cross-training can help a dancer avoid this pronation so they don’t aggravate the joint and make a bunion worse.
The core of the body is a dancer’s control center. When it’s weak, turns are sloppy, lines are disjointed—and the feet don’t stand a chance. The pelvic bones tilt forward and the hips internally rotate. This rotation continues down the legs, resulting in pronation at the feet, shifting the distribution of weight to the big toe instead of spreading it evenly across the foot.
To strengthen: Performing crunches and leg lifts on a large exercise ball engages your entire core. First, do three sets of 15 to 20 crunches with your back on the ball and feet on the floor. Keep the elbows wide. Next, in a “plank” with the ball under your stomach and hands on the floor, lift one leg and the opposite arm. Hold for 10 seconds, and repeat 10 times, alternating sides.
The range of motion in the hip joints directly affects the alignment of the feet, particularly in first and fifth positions. When rotation is limited, dancers often find 180 degrees at the feet by “sticking” them to the floor, twisting at the knees and rolling in at the ankle.
To stretch: Lie on your back, bending the hips and knees to 90 degrees and opening the legs wide. Rest your hands on your open knees, and hold for 30 seconds.
To strengthen: Tie an elastic band around the knees while lying on one side, then open and close the knees, clam-style, keeping the feet together. Do three sets of 15 to 20, then repeat on the other side.
Because the calf muscles and the Achilles tendons push dancers high into the air, and absorb shock upon landing, they need to be strong. But they also require flexibility to distribute the force through the foot, says Davenport. Otherwise, demi-plié will become limited, so the foot will roll in to compensate.
To stretch: Standing with your toes on a step, lower one heel down at a time. Wear shoes for comfort and hold on to a railing for balance. Keep the working knee straight and turn the toes in slightly, making sure that the foot does not roll in. Let the standing leg bend to allow the other heel to lower fully. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
What About the Foot?
In addition to cross-training, local remedies can also help relieve bunion pain.
Doming Exercises: Keeping the toes long, slowly pull a towel toward the heel by bending at the base of the toes. Widen the toes to straighten the big toe. Strengthening these intrinsic muscles can increase joint stability and improve shock absorption.
Toe Spacers: A spacer or makeup sponge between the first and second toes can improve the alignment of the big-toe joint.
Bunion Pads: These doughnut- or horseshoe-shaped pads can help decrease the surface area of the inflamed bunion that comes into contact with your shoe.
Proper Fit: See a professional pointe shoe fitter. A too-short box may not offer enough support, allowing more angling, while one that’s too tight can irritate an inflamed bunion.
Ice: The American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons recommends ice as one of the first lines of treatment for bunion pain. —RBM
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But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
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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."
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Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
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"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."
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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: