Building Strength for Pirouettes … Safely

December 18, 2014 Caroleeena DancehoopdanceMovement

demi pointeDemi Pointe is a ballet term that means to support the body’s weight by balancing on the balls of one or both feet with heels off the floor. Being able to lift the heel or heels is essential for pirouettes because you literally spin on the ball of the foot. Having a lot of strength in your demi pointe not only helps with your pirouettes, it helps prevent many, many foot and ankle injuries. It also helps considerably with balance, which also helps prevent many foot and ankle and other injuries. Balance is what helps us recover when we stumble or trip so we don’t fall down and hurt ourselves. This becomes more and more important as we age.

To achieve full demi pointe the metatarsal phalangeal joint must be able to make a 90-degree angle. Those of us who started dancing later in life may lack this much mobility at first but most us can gain it with proper training using good technique. In this post, I will explore proper technique, improper technique and some simple strength exercises.

Metatarsophalangeal JointWhen in demi pointe, the weight is balanced on a sweet spot on the ball of the foot in between the 1st and 2nd metatarsal phalangeal joints (in between the big toe and the second toe) and the heel is lifted so these metatarsal phalangeal joints are at a 90-degree angle.

If you find it difficult to raise to this position, do not force it! A dancer who forces a high demi pointe will force the bones in this joint to impinge upon one another. Done repeatedly, this can cause painful spurs that further inhibit mobility in these joints and can eventually cause joint degeneration.

sicklingSome people compensate for difficulty raising to this position by rolling onto the outside of the foot, putting undue pressure on little toe, or more specifically, the 4th and 5th metatarsal joints. This is called sickling. While this does decrease impingement, it puts the dancer at risk for ankle sprains and other injuries. It’s also not pretty. Don’t do it!

A safe way to compensate while you increase mobility and build strength in your foot, one that will also allow you to spin right now, is to rise into a half demi pointe position. This involves raising the heel but not trying to go up to 90-degrees in those joints. All you have to do is get your heel off the floor to spin!

This is one example of a half demi pointe position:

half demi pointe

Exercises to Build Strength and Mobility

Here are some exercises you can do at home to increase strength, mobility, and flexibility in your feet. I usually do these in the morning while my coffee is brewing. They only take a minute and the benefits are enormous.

1. Elevé: Face a counter or dresser and lightly rest your fingertips on it. Allow your feet to turn out as far as is naturally comfortable. Make sure your knees are over your feet. Your feet may be together (1st position) or apart (2nd position). Tighten your abs and then tighten your bum. Keeping your legs straight, slowly rise up onto the sweet spot, balance for a moment, and then slowly lower your heels. Do this 10 times with straight legs. (This is called “elevé”.) Again, rise slowly. Come down slowly. Slow = Control = Strength.

2. Relevé: Once you can do that comfortably 10 times without sickling out onto the pinky toes, begin to repeat this exercise with your knees bent. (Lifting the heels with knees bent is called “relevé”.)

3.  Once you can comfortably do 10 repetitions of elevé or relevé, slow and with control, begin to hold the last repetition as long as you can. You will really start to feel this in your calves!

4. Once you are ready to increase your strength training you have a few options:

  • Increase repetitions
  • Coupé – Lift one foot and place it behind or in front of the ankle of the balancing leg, but not on the ankle (the ankle is not meant to bear your weight while you balance), and then lift the other heel so you are balanced on the ball of one foot. (This is called a coupé) Again, technique is important. Ensure you are not sickling or forcing your demi pointe. Build up to 90-degrees if you can but don’t force it.
  • Choose a place of balance in elevé, relevé, or coupé and hold it as long as you can but release and lower yourself before the point of exhaustion or losing balance.
  • All of the above

Remember to use the counter or dresser for balance but do not lean on it. You want to rise through the top of your head while lifting from the heart.

These exercises only take about two minutes. I usually have a pot of hot coffee ready for me when I’m done.

yoga toesOne last thing. Toe spacers between the toes can help align the toes for optimal motion in the joint. We in the western world wear shoes that are the modern day version of foot binding. They contribute to hammer toes, claw toes, calluses, bunions, plantar fascitis, crossed toes and flat feet! Our toes were straight when we were kids. They didn’t just mutate with age. But I have found a product that has helped restore my feet to good health despite years of wearing crappy shoes…they’re called Yoga Toes from YogaPro.com. They cost about $30-40 but they are worth it! They are passive toe stretchers, kind of like the spacers you wear for painting your toenails, but larger and cushier. They not only relieve foot pain, they have straightened my big toe and my pinky toe, both of which were starting to turn in. I wear them for about ten minutes while watching tv every once in a while, usually when my feet hurt. They have also helped improve my balance by aligning my toes and spreading them back out where they are supposed to be. I am a huge fan and I recommend them.

That said, if you can’t afford them, or don’t want to go looking for them, there is a do-it-yourself alternative. cork toes

balancedemi pointehalf demi pointehoopdancepirouettetrainingyoga toes

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