I was given the gift of very arched feet. This is just how they came. Ever since I was a very young baton twirler, I can always remember receiving praises for how well-pointed my feet were. I didn't understand why others couldn't point their feet the same way, because it was natural for me. "Just point them," I would say when my peers would ask how to point their feet like mine. In retrospect, that was probably not super helpful advice.
Nonetheless, the grass is always greener on the other side. As many of my teachers and peers have complimented my feet for their natural pointy-ness, I have had to work a considerable amount on the strength of my feet.
I am quite grateful for the gift of arched feet, but with this post I aim to discuss how I overcame some of the challenges that I faced with my feet in hopes that these learnings can benefit others with similar feet.
While these feet look beautiful in many ballet positions, I would describe them as floppy. One does not want floppy feet when trying to feel stable on pointe, or while jumping or turning. My releve is very high, but it's difficult to stay up on releve. My feet and ankles are prone to wobble a considerable amount, throwing off any semblance of balance.
With novelty feet comes lack of experience and understanding. Since a small number of teachers I have worked with have similar feet, it can be a challenge to diagnose problems and discover solutions, as it's not as common of a problem that is faced.
This type of foot requires very little effort to stand in a high releve. While classmates will complain about their feet getting tired from many releves, I don't necessarily share that sentiment (although my leg muscles will tire). This makes it difficult to find the right exercises in order to build the foot strength needed for jumps and the balance needed for turns. I had spent lots of time with a theraband trying in vain to add strength to my ankles, but didn't find a whole lot of success with many of the suggested exercises.
Especially when it comes to pointe class, it can be a challenge to solicit corrections. Often teachers won't have a lot of experience identifying and helping with problems associated with the feet, likely simply due to the rarity. Plus, this type of foot will just naturally look quite nice in pointe shoes, so there could be an assumption that I don't need any guidance.
Pointe shoe fitters don't always know what to put me in either. I've tried numerous brands of shoe, shank lengths and hardnesses, elastic placement, ribbon placement, heel size, vamp length, etc.
Experimenting and practicing
In the recent past, I've made some important discoveries during private training with Beth Kurtz. We noticed a decrease in foot stability, and she assigned me to work on my feet for homework. While it had always been an issue during my training, I was newly excited to tackle the challenge. Every day for 2 weeks I would set a timer for 10 minutes and do various releves until that timer went off. Beth mentioned that she noticed improvement in my lessons, so I was more determined to continue.
Then I began to do extremely slow releves while video recording from all different angles to figure out what was going on. What I discovered was that there was a substantial disconnect between releves holding on to something and releves not holding on. As soon as I would let go, the path of my foot during the releve changed drastically. There was seemingly too big of a gap in my strength between holding on and not holding on, and I needed to figure out how to work in between that gap. Practicing releves without holding on was possibly dangerous and would reinforce bad habits, because my feet were just too wobbly. But practicing releves while holding on didn't seem to be able to progress me enough to get me over the gap of being able to releve without holding on.
One day, I had an idea that I just needed to make it harder for my foot to perform the releve while I was still holding on, so that my foot could get stronger before having to let go. With "floppy" feet, there's nothing to push against. The foot just goes to demi pointe without a whole lot of effort. I think that's why most exercises for my feet didn't seem to help all that much.
To work on this, I decided to put on a pair of pointe shoes and try the releves (only to demi pointe) with the shoes on. With the pointe shoes on, there's actually something to push against. Perhaps, I thought, if I could locate and strengthen the right muscles while wearing my pointe shoes, it would translate back to soft shoes.
Finding the root of the problem
What I found from this experiment was rather unexpected. I noticed that my legs turned in as soon as I started the releve. Because the pointe shoes are more slippery, I could see that my legs were not holding their turnout. Apparently, the grip of my soft shoes on the floor was helping me hold my turnout. And, because my feet could so easily go up to demi pointe and I never have to push against my feet to get up to releve, I likely never had to learn to use turn out muscles properly in order to releve.
I reported this discovery to Beth, and she gave me more exercises to work on holding turnout during releve.
Stand facing the barre a few steps back in 1st position. Tendu, plie, and pique towards the barre to coupe back. Plie and releve in coupe 8 times, very slowly. Step back to 1st and repeat.
Do the same exercise in arabesque.
I went back home to practice this with my pointe shoes on and, when I focused on not letting my legs turn in, could barely make it through 4 releve onto demi pointe. My calves, inner thighs, and core were exhausted. My feet were a little tired, too. I was so pleased that I finally found a challenge to work on this issue.
After only a week of this kind of practice, Beth and I were both very pleased with the progress. It was noticeable and I had never felt stronger on releve.
Canary in the coal mine
Interestingly, I've found that the root of the issue was more likely related to placement and turnoug than foot strength. My feet and ankles have no way to compensate and hold me up if I'm off balance or off center at all. So while fixing the issue is in part a matter of strengthening my feet, it is also a larger matter of strengthening my core, turnout, overall placement and being in center. When I learned to hold my hips and turnout properly, my feet were able to hold me up.
* Side note: After learning to releve and hold turnout, my knees started to have a slight bend. This, of course, had to be addressed as well. Solving one problem usually reveals another, which I'll get to in another post.
I can only imagine what it is like to have different feet, but I always remember watching beginners turn and jump so easily, but with very low releves. This always baffled me, but perhaps this in light of this discovery, it makes sense. Beginners don't understand the concepts of turnout and placement yet, and where my feet would collapse due to that, perhaps their feet were able to support them because their feet may naturally be tighter and more stable.
My wobbly feet were the canary in a coal mine for the rest of my ballet technique, even though I (and other teachers) didn't realize it. While it seemed like my feet and ankles were the problem, they were a symptom of a bigger problem that needed to be addressed.
For me, my feet have felt like they held me back in some ways because of the constant struggle against them for balance and stability. With this discovery, I am grateful they have forced my hand at learning to better my technique and placement. The improvements that I've been forced to make have made big improvements and have allowed me to learn key pieces about my body and placement.