Joffrey's April Daly. Photo by Quinn Wahrton

Why You Should Rethink How You Stretch Your Feet

Go into almost any dance studio, and you'll find students anxiously trying to stretch their feet. They'll force their body's weight over their toes, or ask a friend to sit on their arches. But stretching your feet might not actually be the most effective strategy to improve your line.

"Stretching is a strategy to go after a tight muscle," explains Mandy Blackmon, a physical therapist for Atlanta Ballet. "But a better-looking foot is not just a range-of-motion issue. What most dancers are after when they want 'better feet' is more about strength and support of the bony structure."


To that end, Blackmon recommends that dancers stretch their calves as well as pushing their pointe. Having a good range of motion in dorsiflexion (flex) and plantar flexion (pointe) is key to keeping your feet and ankles healthy, and tight calves can restrict movement in your ankle joint.

Working through your full pointe while seated on the floor with an exercise band is a time-tested warm-up, stretch and strengthener all in one. Blackmon notes that exercise-band work is not just for ballet dancers: "Modern dancers need that strength, too, maybe even more because they don't have the structure of the pointe shoe to work against."

Matthew Murphy for Pointe

For Kathleen Breen Combes, a principal dancer with Boston Ballet, the best foot stretch comes with the process of shaping her pointe shoes. With new shoes on, Combes uses her body weight to push over her pointe shoe, getting a stretch for the top of her foot, even as the underside works to shape the box and shank of her shoe. Blackmon notes that this can be a safe and effective method because it is not simply a passive stretch, but requires foot strength, as well.

As for the controversial foot stretcher? "It can be safe to use a foot stretcher under the supervision of a teacher, say, in a tendu exercise," says Mariaelena Ruiz, director of the professional program at Cary Ballet Conservatory. "But don't sit there for an hour. Every stretch has to be a movement to be useful, and there is no stretch without strength."

A block in either end of your range—whether flexing or pointing—can be an early sign of injury. Get treated before you develop compensations, says Blackmon. Soft-tissue work in the calves and mobilizations performed by a physical therapist can open up your range of motion and keep your limbs healthy.

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Stark Photo Productions, Courtesy Harlequin

Why Your Barre Can Make or Break Your At-Home Dance Training

Throughout the pandemic, Shelby Williams, of Royal Ballet of Flanders (aka "Biscuit Ballerina"), has been sharing videos that capture the pitfalls of dancers working from home: slipping on linoleum, kicking over lamps and even taking windows apart at the "barre." "Dancers aren't known to be graceful all of the time," says Mandy Blackmon, PT, DPT, OSC, CMTPT, head physical therapist/medical director for Atlanta Ballet. "They tend to fall and trip."

Many dancers have tried to make their home spaces as safe as possible for class and rehearsal by setting up a piece of marley, like Harlequin's Dance Mat, to work on. But there's another element needed for taking thorough ballet classes at home: a portable barre.

"Using a barre is kinda Ballet 101," says 16-year-old Haley Dale, a student in her second year at American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. She'd bought a portable barre from Harlequin to use at her parents' home in Northern Virginia even before the pandemic hit. "Before I got it, honestly I would stay away from doing barre work at home. Now I'm able to do it all the time."

Blackmon bought her 15-year-old stepdaughter a freestanding Professional Series Ballet Barre from Harlequin early on in quarantine. "I was worried about her injuring herself without one," she admits.

What exactly makes Harlequin's barres an at-home must-have, and hanging on to a chair or countertop so risky? Here are five major differences dancers will notice right away.

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December 2020