Advice for Dancers

June 19, 2007

Is it possible to create a better arch? Unlike some dancers with great feet, I never got the chance to sculpt my body because I started ballet late. Now I’m 16, I’ve been studying three years and I want better feet. Do you think it can still happen?

Taylor Chapman-Sutton
Portland, OR

If I were to do a survey, I bet most dancers would put “better feet” at the top of their wish list, even ones who get asked to model ballet shoes. Dancers tend to forget that talent is what matters most. Still, I understand why you want to have a more pronounced arch. While you’re right that early dance training can help a certain amount, this option lasts only while your feet are growing. Then you need to switch strategies. Podiatrist Tom Novella, MD, says that physical therapy can help to increase front ankle mobility, giving you a slightly better pointe. The catch is that it may take two years to achieve, and it can create an unstable ankle if you push too hard. The same applies to “toe stretchers,” which are not an option for dancers with loose ankle ligaments that predispose them to sprains. My advice: Avoid possible injury by resorting to illusion. Today, there are specially designed pads that you can attach to the top of your feet to create the appearance of a better arch. No kidding! To find out more, log onto Whatever you decide to do about improving your arch, please see an orthopedic foot specialist first. The best course of action differs for each dancer.

I think I’m going through an identity crisis. For most of my life, all I wanted to be was a ballet dancer—pink tutus, tiaras, the whole works. Then, I discovered modern dance. Graham, in particular, feels so right for my body. I’m confused. Most of my dance training has been in ballet. Is it weird to change course after training in one technique for eight years? Am I being foolish to switch midstream?

Teenager at a Crossroad

Chicago, IL

No, no, no! Even dancers (who are supposed to be true blue) can change their minds. The hard part is that we often don’t get reinforcement for questioning our choices. How many times have you been asked: “What kind of dancer do you want to be? Why don’t you try a different technique? What are your natural strengths and weaknesses?” It’s healthy to explore and experiment. Never forget that asking questions is a sign of intelligence. While most modern dancers have a background in ballet, they chose not to pursue it professionally. Like you, they switched gears. Meanwhile, world-renowned ballet dancers, like Mikhail Baryshnikov, have successfully branched out to explore a variety of dance techniques, including modern. Corny as it sounds, the key to any meaningful career (including dance) is to grow by challenging yourself rather than becoming complacent. Yes, this approach involves a moderate amount of risk. Still, the crucial word here is “moderate.” You should never put all of your eggs in one basket, nor play it so safe that you do nothing. Translation: Keep up the ballet classes, as you explore your new love. That way, you can’t lose.

I love reading your column because there’s always so much great information about how to be a healthier dancer. I’ve found it a challenge to eat right after I became a vegetarian. I took your advice and saw a nutritionist who helped me get more protein in my diet. Every day I apply my knowledge to improving myself and my technical ability. The problem is I’m still not happy. Should I care?


Charlotte, NC

Of course, you should! Being a dancer is more than following orders. It means being true to yourself as a person and as a performer. Every high achiever wants to be their best. The key is to discover your special niche. While it’s difficult to assess your particular needs, I am happy that you sought nutritional counseling to find the correct approach to your new diet. Your health is crucial, and that can’t wait. You need to care about being strong as much as you care about improving your technique. The next step is to find out why you remain unhappy. Sometimes, it has more to do with seeing the glass half empty versus half full. When in doubt, see a counselor who can help you decipher the two. If you want to find someone who has experience working with dancers and athletes, email the board of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science ([email protected]), who will try to locate a qualified person in your area. Your current unhappiness could be related to your diet, which may need a bit more tweaking. Or it could stem from a psychological situation that may take time to sort out.