Ever since her first modern dance class, Adelheid B. Strelick has had to keep an eye on her toes for splits. “The seam just opens at the base of the big toe about a quarter of an inch, and you always worry about it ripping more,” she says.
At the beginning, Strelick’s ballet student feet weren’t used to direct floor contact and she got splits regularly. Now an independent dancer, instructor, and choreographer in New York City, she still finds herself with occasional splits, ingrown nails, bunion pain, calluses, and blisters.
Shoeless dancers can expect foot issues. However, if you don’t take time to monitor what’s going on with your toes, very painful injuries can result. Who wants to dance barefoot on a ripped callus? Proper preventative care starts with soaping feet daily and drying them well, especially between the toes. “It’s very important, especially for the barefoot dancer, because otherwise the skin will become overly soft,” potentially leading to athlete’s foot and skin cracks between the toes, says Brion R. Charles, physical therapist at San Francisco Conservatory of Dance and Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet.
Here are some tips for healthy toes:
Calluses Dancers need calluses, which are a thickening of skin resulting from friction and pressure, because they help protect the feet, especially for modern dancers. “It’s like wearing a shoe without a shoe,” says Strelick. “You turn better; you slide better.” But a callus can be painful if it becomes overgrown, so keep it in check with a pumice stone. “You wouldn’t want to mess with it too much unless you felt it thickening up,” Charles says. “You want it even and contoured with the softer skin around it.”
Cracks and Splits If a callus gets dehydrated, it can split. Strelick uses petroleum jelly, an ibuprofen cream she gets in Europe, or Neosporin to treat cracking or tearing from dancing barefoot. Use an emery board to gently file down the edges of a crack on the bottom of the foot, says Dr. Elliot Diamond, podiatrist for the Pennsylvania Ballet. Then use a piece of tape or bandage on one side of the wound, pull the split closed and tape the other side.
“If it’s in the inner space between toes, keep it impeccably dry,” he says. Take a square bandage and fold it in half lengthwise, place it in the split area and tape it on the bottom and top of the foot. Ask your physician about the drying antifungal solution Gentian violet, since it can be difficult to find in drug stores. It can be swabbed on the skin two or three times a day for a few days to fight fungal infections.
Blisters If you feel a blister developing, prevent it by padding the area. Charles recommends Elastikon, a brown elastic tape that moulds and sticks well to skin, to build up a protective layer around the blister until it reabsorbs. He does not recommend draining the blister because of the infection risk. If a blister pops, treat it like a cut to prevent infection. Strelick relies on 2nd Skin Moist Burn Pads from Spenco for flexible, waterproof antiseptic protection.
Bunions Although bunions are largely hereditary, joint deformity can happen if a dancer consistently rolls forward into the front edge of the big toe, either in relevé or in turned out positions. Use spacers or tape the toe to keep the joint in a normal position to help with pain. Diamond suggests elastic, therapeutic Kinesio tape. Strelick finds it helpful to focus on alignment outside the studio by walking in parallel. Diamond also notes that young dancers might benefit from the Bunion-Aider (www.3pointproducts.com/bunion-aider), a device worn at night to help reverse the beginnings of bunion damage. It slips over the big toe and creates a corrective, stabilizing stretch to reduce bunions.
Stretches and Exercises Keeping toes and feet in peak form and correcting alignment helps your feet remain injury-free:
• Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you. Reach and gently pull the toes, either one at a time or as a group, toward the body.
• When you are standing, relevé and arch over your toes in a plié, keeping them long and straight.
• Cup the foot, or lift the arch ligaments up, and then relax, either in a seated or standing position (20–30 repetitions).
• Use a Thera-Band to wing and relax the foot (100 slow repetitions).
• Sit on a chair and use your toes like a cat to spread and retrieve a towel (20–30 repetitions).
Gentle massage helps release built-up waste products that cause toe cramping, Diamond says. And toe-stretching devices such as YogaToes can help provide spasm relief.
Sole protectors Devices like FootUndeez or Dance Paws can help, too, while dancing. These sole protectors allow a respite from friction, especially if you feel the start of a split occurring. “They are useful for a less-experienced dancer who wants to slowly build up her endurance,” Charles says. “They are also useful for the working dancer who needs a break from rehearsing the same movements over and over, or from dancing on floors that may not have an evenly smooth surface.”
Hannah Maria Hayes is a NYC writer and flamenco dancer.
Photo by Erin Baiano.