How to get strong enough for toe work
Going up on toes, or en pointe, in hard shoes for the first time can be confusing and scary. Will I fall? Is this safe? Is my foot even meant to do that?! There are rules* in place about when a dancer is allowed to go up on toes in hard shoe, and with good reason – when growth plates are still developing in the foot, toe work can cause growth-plate fractures, which can lead to foot deformities. No thanks.
Similar to ballet dancers going en pointe, Irish dancers must be trained in correct technique and gradually build up to toe stands. Toe work, with the momentum of Irish dance, puts the weight of the entire body onto the feet, toes, and ankles with great force. Not only do dancers need strong toes, ankles, and feet, but they need strong cores to maintain correct posture and distribute weight evenly – poor posture can put undue stress on the weight-bearing joints.
The key to toe stands is strong ankles, calves, and feet. Stephanie Geraghty, Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist at Queen Street Physiotherapy, points out that “Ankle and foot exercises are very effective for dancers, and are often administered by physiotherapists.” Whether you’re preparing to do toes for the first time, or you’re a seasoned dancer, these physio-approved exercises will help you build and keep the strength you need.
According to Geraghty, “calf raises to strengthen the calf are number one”. Standing with feet hip width apart, slowly raise up onto toes and slowly lower back down to return to standing. This exercise can be made more challenging by standing on the edge of a step, heels off the step, raising and lowering.
Toe walks and heel walks
Walking around on toes and on heels is great for “co-ordination and strength”, says Geraghty. This exercise is simply walking around the room up on tip toes and then down on heels, being mindful of balance and foot placement. Balance is crucial when up on toes, as wobbly balance or poor foot placement to compensate for bad balance will put needless strain on joints.
“Toe scrunches are an exercise we often use to build the strength of the intrinsic foot muscles and to create a natural arch at the foot”, explains Geraghty. Either sitting or standing, place a towel under the foot, and scrunch it up just using toes. A strong arch is important for the foot holding its shape when on toes, rather than being bent by the shoe, particularly if a dancer is wearing a super flexi shoe.
Balance exercises are important to “work on proprioception, which is a person’s ability to know where their body is in space”, says Geraghty. Drills such as standing on a wobble board or catching a ball quickly while standing on one foot help increase balance and will give better control when going up on toes.
What about taco toes?
There is a common phenomenon amongst dancers known as ‘taco toes’, where feet overbend in toe stands, rather than being straight and strong. This is caused by a combination of unsupportive shoes, and weak feet and ankles. This poor technique causes repetitive strain, with both short and long term damage taking place. Geraghty explains, “Overstretching the ligaments and tendons can be very debilitating and painful in the short term and in the long term; ongoing stress of this position on the joint can put the person as risk of developing osteoarthritis at an earlier age at that particular site.” (editor’s note: I developed osteoarthritis in both big toes in my early 20s as a result of years of poor toe stand technique, and standing on the knuckles of my toes in my soft shoes – don’t ever do this!)
Do you do toe work? Do you have any advice or exercises you can share with dancers who are just starting out on toes? Share in the comments below, or join the conversation on our Facebook page.
*An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha rule 4.6 on Toe Movements reads: 4.6.1 No block, en Pointe movements, stationary or moving, are allowed to be performed for all ages up to and including the under 12 age group. 4.6.2 However dancers who are moving into the under 13 age group in January will be permitted to do block / en-Point work from September 1st of the year prior to this date. For Regions in the Southern Hemisphere a different date may be applied in the case of this rule, on the advice of the appropriate Authority.