The ankle and foot are among the most common site of injuries in dancers, and is it any surprise?
The desired aesthetic for dancers to point their feet, pull up their arches, and push their knees out as far as possible can create the avoidance of some important joint movements (listed a bit further below) which are necessary for shock absorption upon landing a jump.
I have landed from jumps feeling shooting pain through my ankle, but put on a smile and “danced it off” to keep going. Landing a jump well is pretty important.
Often in working with dancers, our initial instinct is to initiate plyometric training in an attempt to teach the dancer how to land more softly, with better mechanics.
Is this wise as a first measure?
What if reducing foot and ankle injuries was less related to training strength and power, and more to practicing the allowance of joint movements necessary to absorb shock upon landing.
Unfortunately, these movements that are commonly avoided for the sake of aesthetics. (I will refer to these movements cumulatively as “loading the spring”).
When you land a jump, you load your spring.
Consider that paradoxically, to clean up a jump, the landing might need to look a little more “ugly” (by ballet standards, anyway).
Guess what, pronation and valgus are not the evil step-children we’ve been avoiding.
Let’s let go of judging what the movement looks like for a moment, and honestly appraise what movements need to happen in the human body for optimal shock absorption to take place.
“Ugly” joint mechanics for optimal shock absorption (AKA loading the spring):
Rear-foot (calcaneus/talus): Eversion, plantar flexion, internal rotation. Yes, pronation! Which drives…
Tibia, femur: internal rotation (not turn-out!?)
Knee: flexion, external rotation, valgus
Hip: flexion, external rotation, adduction
Pelvis: lateral hike, anterior tilt
Lumbar/thoracic spine: extension, rotation towards landing leg, side flexion towards landing leg
Wait… Allow pronation, internal rotation, and valgus? Aren’t these “bad”?
In the human body, the above joint actions must occur to eccentrically load the muscles necessary for successfully absorbing shock (plantar fascia, medial quad, glutes, etc). These are not static joint positions, but brief moments (less than a second) that the human body must pass through.
What would happen if we helped dancers to experience these important moments in their bodies, rather than brace and control in conditioned avoidance of “ugly” positions?
5 ways classical dance training can alter landing position and limit optimal shock absorption:
1. Feet get stiff.
In a closed chain (foot on floor), the rear-foot and fore-foot need to be mobile and move in opposition in each plane, allowing joints to open and close to take the shock of the landing.
In dance, the foot can become very strong and rigid losing mobility and ability to oppose through pronation and supination. Feet can get stuck stiff and inverted or stiff and everted. Neither is ideal.
Add to this that many exercises dancers use to strengthen their feet and ankles are done with a band, open-chain, which does not allow foot opposition and is not specific to how the foot was designed to function on the floor, in gait.
2. Attempting to maintain perfect turnout in foot and leg while landing.
Upon landing, the rear-foot (talus and calcaneus) needs to evert and internally rotate (pronate!) to load the spring of the plantar fascia and windlass mechanism. The rear foot drives the tibia and femur to internally rotate and the knee and hip to open. This is what we want!
Dance often demands that we turn everything out: Foot, ankle, thigh, knee-cap; and by limiting this necessary internal rotation we also limit the ability of the knee and hip to open and absorb shock.
Landing with everything turned-out can limit natural movement and jam up joints rather than “load the spring” to manage impact.
Landing with the foot and leg turned out… Not the type of pronation we want!
3. Landing in hip ABduction rather than allowing ADduction (again, that turnout!)
To absorb shock optimally, the hip must adduct in the frontal plane, following what the foot is doing below. In dance, however, we are trained to avoid inward knee movement and deny ourselves this important moment of valgus.
Dancers, wanting to always be turned out to the maximum, tend to land with the knee pushed out and hip abducted, preventing that lovely shock absorption from taking place.
4. Trying to keep the pelvis upright, not allowing an anterior tilt to occur to with landing.
Upon landing, the hemi-pelvis on the landing leg side should anterior tilt to “load the spring” (which in this case is the glutes, which load with anterior tilt). Being cued to tuck under, or keep the pelvis perfectly level all the time and avoiding anterior tilt, again, denies the dancer of this important moment.
5. Chronic extension posture preventing dancer from extending further upon landing
Lumbar and thoracic spine extension is another way to “load the spring”, allowing the dancer to eccentrically load and then use the abdominals to enter and rebound out of the landing.
If a dancer is already stuck in an extended position with static lordosis and rib flare at rest (which is quite common…), this spring-like mechanism will not take place, and vertebrae may compress rather than abs taking load.
Do you stand like this at rest? Can’t get out of extension?
Now, you may be thinking…
“But I see so many dancers who land with their knees going in and over-pronating, and that is not a good look.”
“Surely asking a dancer to land with an anterior tilt and extended spine is not safe??”
These movements: Pronation, knee valgus, anterior tilt, and spine extension, are not bad. If you could not perform these movements, I would question how you are able to walk.
These joint movements only become a challenge when a) You get stuck in them, or b) You can’t get into them at all.
Landing WITHOUT permitting a brief moment of pronation will not allow shock absorption.
Landing already IN an anterior tilt and extended spine will not allow shock absorption.
I do not mean that we should coach dancers to land excessively pronated, turned-in, with knee valgus. These are subtle, fleeting moments in a spectrum of movement. Subtle, but important.
If we give dancers activities that allow them to experience naturally moving in and out of these foreign positions safely, they might just choose to store this as a useful pattern and use it in their dancing at the appropriate time without over-coaching and conscious effort.
A good place to start would be the “suspension” movement, which was created by Gary Ward and taught through Anatomy in Motion. Suspension simulates the shock absorption phase of gait following heel-strike. It could be used as a warm-up before class, or as a supplementary exercise as part of a cross-training program.
Notice I’m doing my best to pronate (not easy for me!), internally rotate my leg, and allow my knee to come inside my big toe, while slightly anteriorally tilting my right pelvis and extending my back?
Work in progress…
What you might feel while suspending:
- Front leg quad getting burny (this is eccentric loading- the muscle contracting as it lenghtens)
- Front leg glute getting burny (eccentric loading)
- Front leg plantar fascia stretching and opening
- Front leg achilles tendon area/calf stretching and opening
- Back leg hip stretching and opening
- Back of the neck stretching
- Abdominals stretching (rectus/obliques)
Give it a try and see what happens.
Please note, however, that I don’t feel it is wise to TRY to land like this. Don’t attempt to change anything about your landing. Simply give your body this experience outside of class, and trust that you have now shown your body some new landing strategies that it may chose to employ the next time you jump, with little conscious effort. Landing with a few extra degrees of real pronation and ankle dorsiflexion might make a huge difference.
And just for fun…
Exercises from Anatomy in Motion haven’t only been helping me land jumps feeling more safe, but I feel (subjectively, yes) that my developpe height and hip mobility are improved, both on the standing leg, and the gesture leg.
Here’s something I’ve been working on (believe it or not, this is actually easier with a weight over head- Lot’s of great feedback for not falling over):
Transition from side to back in a grand rond de jambe was something I could never do without crazy hip cramping. The other day, after working on some AiM I tried it out, and it felt pretty good! No cramping. Leg comfortably around 90 degrees. Had to take a video (don’t try this at home unless you feel solid about plain old Turkish get-ups).
Don’t think you’ll be seeing me in a ballet class anytime soon, though ;). These days, I’m loving parallel standing leg, and no one can convince me that turnout is prettier. It’s just a different aesthetic. My choice. My knees…