“I think I’ve sorted it all out and I’m still kind of dancing,” she adds, laughing. “Even if it’s not always easy.”
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In the summer, our feet face a variety of challenges, from increased activity – we’re more outdoors, walking, running and hiking – to minimalist footwear. Once protected, toes and arches can be freed in thin flats, sandals and flip-flops, but all of these can put our hard-working lower extremities at risk.
Imagine taking on these challenges, going beyond normal human ability because your livelihood depends on it. This is the dancer’s dilemma.
Aside from debilitating pain, dancers usually cannot stop working because of sore or blistered feet. They face foot problems every day, from relentless physical demands in shoes that can be extremely constricting, flimsy, or non-existent.
As a result, dancers tend to be very hands-on when it comes to foot care, with hard-won knowledge of wounds, shoes, exercises, cures for everything from friction to funk, and ways to turn drugstore items into therapeutic tools.
I recently spoke to a number of dancers to hear what lessons they’ve learned about taking care of their feet. And what they can teach the rest of us as we step into the day.
“As a dancer, a big part of our psychology is overcoming the pain,” says Burke. “That’s largely our culture.” But to soften the blows, her first requirement is arch support, especially since she has flat feet. As a child, she suffered from leg pain because her flat feet caused her ankles to roll inward, which put strain on her knees. Support inserts solved the problem.
“I never wear a shoe that doesn’t have a supportive feature in it,” says Burke. “I just won’t do it.”
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For many dancers, flip-flops and ballerinas are also an absolute no-go.
“Even Shoes? Oh my god,” says Tiler Peck, star of the New York City Ballet. “Our physical therapists are constantly telling us to make sure you have arch support.” She uses drugstore inserts in her sneakers and tops them off with a heel lift from AliMed, a medical device company.
“You’re giving your calves a break,” says Peck. “It’s just a little semi-circular thing that lifts your heel a little.”
Burke is also a fan of inexpensive insoles and uses Dr. Scholl’s in their street shoes. For her tap shoes, she likes SuperFeet, a brand for runners.
“The effect we experience as tap dancers is not that dissimilar to that of a runner pounding the pavement,” she says. The low arch insoles “have a slim profile so they fit nicely in my tap shoes. They are not so much rooted in comfort as in correcting the foot.”
After breaking a big toe by stumbling on her coffee table, Burke never goes barefoot. She wears Adidas “Aissage” slides throughout the house; otherwise strictly stable, closed footwear. “Because if you don’t deal with pain now, you could face problems later,” she says.
New tap shoes can cause blisters. To prevent this, Burke tapes squares of Elastikon rubber band to her heels “like a band-aid,” she says. “It works wonders.” When she gets a blister, she covers it with Compeed hydrocolloid blister pads. As tap shoes get sweaty and bohemian, she airs them out on a windowsill and stuffs them with charcoal bags made for shoes.
Burke also wipes her feet with a baby wipe “to take the edge off so you don’t offend everyone,” she says, and dips them in a bucket of warm water and Epsom salts every night.
Where would dancers be without the humble bucket? If there’s a takeaway, it’s this: soak your feet. Religious. American Ballet Theatre’s corps de ballet member Kathryn Boren orders ice cream cones from Door Dash to be delivered to her apartment after shows. The bucket comes out, the ice in, and she buries her legs up to the calves.
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I spoke to her on her first day off after four weeks of dancing. During the company’s summer season, she performed nightly in ABT’s Swan Lake, Don Quixote, and other ballets at the Metropolitan Opera House.
As a result, their feet feel “awful,” Boren says. “So it’s a really good time to talk about it.” She’s just recovered from the worst foot problem she’s ever had: a painful sore corn between her toes caused by rubbing of the toe bones caused by sweaty, swollen feet in pointe shoes. She missed a few rehearsals and the corn got better, then it flared up again after “Swan Lake,” making the rest of her performances a torment. (Dancers aren’t the only ones affected; any tight-fitting shoe can cause corns.)
Antibiotics and Epsom salt baths eventually healed Boren’s foot. To keep the site clean of city dirt, she avoids open-toed shoes, preferring to cover her toes with sterile gauze and tuck them into sneakers.
“I would prefer a white sneaker to almost anything,” she says for off-duty. Or fashionable sneakers, like the colorful Vejas that her boyfriend recently gave her. Another must-have is a flat bootie.
“That’s about enough for my dress shoes,” says Boren. “I had to wear a pair of heels to my sister’s wedding and I hated every minute of it. For me and most of my friends, they are more painful than pointe shoes. I think it’s the uncomfortable pressure and position and your calves aren’t stretched.
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Peck recently dared an athletic wedge-soled sandal called the Sorel X Prana Explorer Blitz Stride with thick cushioning. “I find it difficult to find something as comfortable as sneakers in the summer,” says Peck, “but they’re the most comfortable things I’ve ever worn.”
When a pain flares up, she likes T-Relief Arnica +12, a homeopathic cream to soothe joints and muscles, and a dab of Orajel, the toothache cream, can help numb an angry corn. But her “key secret,” says Peck, is regular pedicures. Her father, a college football coach, taught her the importance of trimming toenails square to prevent ingrowth, so that’s reason #1. And you can’t beat the aesthetics.
“I don’t know if I have the most beautiful feet in the world,” says Peck. “But people see them and they say you’re a dancer — you really should have ugly feet!”
Jordan Spry, Associate Artistic Director of Step Africa, is also a fan of pedicures. After a hard-hitting performance of the percussive art of tap-tapping, “it’s one of my favorite things to do,” he says. “Having someone roll my feet and massage them — that might be the last place we think of a massage, but dancers love them.”
Especially steppers, because there is no specially made dance shoe for them. Step Africa dancers occasionally perform barefoot, but more often than not they wear hard-soled dress shoes “like what you wear to church,” says Spry. “We prefer sound over comfort, which can be difficult.”
Spry fell in love with stepping after running at Howard University. He spotted some similarities: the intense physicality, the need to ice his feet like he had done after the track meetings. But no bespoke shoes? “With running track you’re on the same surface most of the time and there are shoes for runners. But since there is no such thing as a tap shoe, all you have to do is figure out what works best. And I find that as a dancer I pay more attention to my body than I ever did as an athlete.”
Dancers are very aware of the interconnectedness of all their parts. That’s perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from them: often, aching feet aren’t the whole story.
“Everything is woven together,” says Ashwini Ramaswamy, a performer and choreographer with Minneapolis-based Ragamala Dance Company, which specializes in bharatanatyam, an Indian classical dance performed barefoot.
The dance “is extremely associated with yoga; they have common origins,” says Ramaswamy. “This idea of mind, body and spirit, where a movement is aligned in the body and energy is going through the whole body — that’s what’s happening all the time.”
The art form has taught her that happy feet come from paying attention to the entire musculoskeletal system. To help her feet, she trains her glutes and outer legs. Simply stepping on and off the ball of your foot works the outside leg, and forearm side planks strengthen the underfoot tendon and leg muscles. Exercises that work the inner and outer thighs support the knees, which can be stressed by poor alignment over the feet.
When her feet complain after dancing, Ramaswamy likes to roll her over a frozen water bottle. “But I find I have to do that less and less now that I’m working on these other muscles,” she says.
Foot health “isn’t just about the feet,” says the dancer. “It’s about other parts of the body and keeping everything in good shape.”