If The Shoe Fits: Understand Your Foot Type
Dancers come in all shapes and sizes. So do dancers’ feet. Variations in foot type have two distinguishing factors: the arch, and the relative length of the toes. With arches, there are two extremes: high and low (in its most pronounced, flat feet). Your feet probably fall somewhere in between. For toe length, there are four different configurations: Grecian, Egyptian, Peasant, and Simian. So, what type of foot do you have, and what challenges does it pose for you? Dance Magazine spoke to medical professionals and dancers to get practical information about foot types.
This foot type has a beautifully curved point. However, the mid-foot typically is rigid, may lack a good plié, and does not easily absorb shock when running or landing from jumps. Also, it tends to be associated with “hammer toes,” a condition where the toes remain partly flexed. This can cause bruising in the ball of the foot.
Strengthening the small muscles in your foot is key, says Dr. Remy Ardizzone, a consultant with San Francisco Ballet. She recommends picking up marbles with your toes or placing a towel on the floor and scrunching it towards you. If you need more give in your plié, do exercises that stretch your calf muscles and Achilles tendon.
According to Dr. Thomas Novella, a consultant with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, if you have a very high arched foot, pointing your feet too much can cause painful pinching in the ankle. If your pointe shoe is rounded, rather than squared off around the top of the box, you’ll tend to roll too far into pointe. A squared shoe will give you a little “stop” when you get up there.
Choosing a pointe shoe:
Maria Chapman, Pacific Northwest Ballet
“I look for a flat, squared shoe. I don’t like an angled platform that pushes me over in the box. With a square tip, my shoes last longer because the shank gets less strain. To test for this quality, I stand my shoe up on a flat surface and hope to see the shank in a straight vertical line, perpendicular to the surface.”
This puts stress on the muscles that support the arch so the dancer tends to roll in, which causes strain on the inside of the foot and knee. Often flat feet tend to be hypermobile and fatigue easily. However, they can absorb shock better than high-arched feet.
As with the high arch, you need to strengthen the foot muscles. But it’s more important to focus on core strengthening, which can reduce the stress on the inner part of the foot. Karen Clippinger, a consultant to PNB’s school, says this helps dancers lift out of the hips rather than compensate at the extremities. In extreme cases, manual physical therapy may be necessary.
Choosing a pointe shoe
: Courtney Necessary, Atlanta Ballet
“My main concern is that the shoe tip be fairly wide and flat. I like the box to be as big as possible, and with a flat, hard platform. I cut the satin from the tip to make it less slippery and give me a good sense of balance. I’ve recently switched to a V-shaped vamp. To me, it’s more aesthetically pleasing; it makes a better shape. I normally get leather insoles since they’re a little more flexible than cardboard.”
There is a longer second metatarsal and shorter first metatarsal (so the dancer has a longer second toe), making the foot less stable in relevé. Peter Marshall, physical therapist at ABT, says that these dancers tend to shift their weight to the inside of the foot, and that repeated relevé in this winged position can lead to injury.
Your shoes should be fit to the length of your long second toe, not your big toe. To relieve any pain on pointe, Dr. Novella suggests using padding such as 1/8″ felt or a few layers of moleskin to even out the weight. Fix small-sized pads under your first, third, fourth and fifth ball joints, but not under your second.
Choosing a pointe shoe: Debra Rose, San Francisco Opera
“I wear a special-order pointe shoe with a thin, 2.5 mm shank, which is relatively wide in the box and thus more stable for me when I am on pointe. My long vamp, which covers both my first and second toe joints and cuboid, is in a U-shape. I also tape a piece of a mouse pad to the tip of my big toe to match the length of my second toe. This distributes my weight more evenly.”
The first metatarsal and big toe are long, which puts undue pressure on that area. This may limit range of motion or contribute to arthritis of the metatarsal joints. Customizing your pointe shoes can accommodate this.
If you have difficulty with limited relevé in your big toe joint, place a pad of felt, again about 1/8″ thick, under all five ball joints. Take care not to put it into the skin creases of the toes.
Choosing a pointe shoe: Alyse Clacy, Northwest Ballet Theatre “The challenge is finding a shoe that makes your footwork seem as natural as possible. I look for a pointe shoe that alleviates pressure on my big toe, in which I’ve had tendonitis in the past. I look for a U-shaped box and a longer shank because I have a longer foot and high arch. I want a longer vamp, which will fully cover my toes. I also look for a lighter shank, which allows me to build strength in my foot.”
With this type, also called the squared foot, the toes are similar in length (either the first through the fourth, or the second, third, and fourth toes). Wearing padding in the shoes and/or between the toes can help relieve the pressure that builds up. Because of the wide ball and narrow heel common with this foot type, street shoes may be difficult to fit. But the peasant foot can give the dancer a broad, firm base of support, especially in relevé.
Avoid pointy street shoes and use pointe shoes with a squared toe box. Test the fit by rolling the heel portion of your pointe shoe down and go up on relevé. Have someone look at the back of your heel. If your heel and the shank of the shoe are not centered, but the shank veers off to one side, then there’s not enough room in the toe box for the front of your foot. Get a wider shoe. If you have a painful pinched nerve between the metatarsal bones (“Morton’s neuroma”), a small gel or foam spacer between those toes may help keep the nerve from being pinched on pointe.
Choosing a pointe shoe:
Kristine Necessary, Atlanta Ballet “I need a box that’s very square for better balance, and with an extra long vamp so it covers my bunions and toe creases. I have one-layer 1/2 shanks that are medium-hard, to which I add Jet Glue or similar products in the tips and arch so that they stay hard. The shoes have an elastic drawstring and are low on the side, with a low heel as well.”
This is the one that is bunion-prone. It results from a congenital condition in which the big toe tends to drift laterally.
Dr. Pierce Scranton, a consultant with PNB, recommends using a foam or gel toe spacer between the big toe and the second toe in pointe shoes to decrease the pressure on the big toe.
Choosing a pointe shoe: Ariana Lallone, PNB
“I like a shoe that is not too tapered so it doesn’t cause a bunion on the outside of the foot. I have a wide foot and have always had bunions. Having a poor-fitting shoe makes them worse. I also have a box with not much paste so as not to irritate the bunion. I wear a bunion cushion on my left foot to protect the bunion from rubbing directly on the inside of the shoe.”
There are advantages and disadvantages to each foot type, and you may have a combination of two or more of these types. You cannot change your given arch, but you can optimize foot function by using common sense. Avoid tight-fitting pointe shoes and high heels that severely restrict your toes. Use toe spacers and padding, employ good technique, and do core conditioning exercises to build lower leg strength.
And if you have a perfect foot—no injuries, no problems—please appreciate that fact. According to Dr. Novella, there are only about 10 of you out of every 100 professional dancers.
Gigi Berardi is an assistant editor for Journal of Dance Medicine & Science and the author of Finding Balance: Fitness, Training, and Health for a Lifetime in Dance (Routledge).