Ballet dancers appreciate the importance of maintaining strong, supple feet and they typically value high, flexible arches. Dancers subject their arches to tremendous pressure; they must be sufficiently pliable to absorb the shock of endless jumps and work en pointe. While it is wise to include arch stretches in your overall dance conditioning program, be sure to choose sensible exercises that help to prevent – rather than invite – injury.
One way to stretch the arches of your feet is to take a manual approach. Begin by seating yourself comfortably in a strong chair and resting one foot across the opposite thigh. Taking the working foot in both hands, apply gentle pressure to the top of the toes to stretch the bony arch of the foot. Release your grip and attempting to maintain the position of the foot. The manual stretching technique allows you to gauge and fully control the amount of pressure you apply to the arch, which is a key safety consideration.
Work Through Your Foot
You can also stretch your arches safely using familiar ballet exercises at the ballet barre. Learn to consciously work through your feet, holding your point when the arch is at its peak. Begin by facing the barre with your heels together and your feet in a turned-out first position. Lightly grasp the barre with both hands, engage your core muscles and lift up from your center to allow greater freedom of movement in the working leg. Working the right foot first, slowly tendu -- or slide -- the foot to the side, keeping the entire underside of the foot on the floor as long as possible. Continue to slide the foot, pressing the ball of your foot into the floor as your heel lifts up. Slide the foot still further, keeping the big toe on the floor as the ball of the foot lifts up. Take a complete 32 counts to arrive at a fully stretched foot. When your arch is lifted as much as possible, hold the stretch for 4 counts. You can then reverse the direction of the foot, slowly working back through the metatarsal as you slide the foot back to first position. Repeat 8 times on the right before switching to the left.
Use an Elastic Band
Elastic bands are inexpensive, convenient to transport and easy to use safely. Before beginning, conduct a safety check to ensure that your band has no holes or tears. Seat yourself on the floor with your legs extended in front of you and your spine lifted. Working one foot at a time, loop the band around the bottom of the foot and grasp the ends of the band in both hands. Starting in a flexed position with the toes pointing upward, slowly and deliberately articulate through the foot. Using the band as resistance, press the ball of the foot and then the toes away from your body and into the band. When you reach a fully pointed position, hold for 5 seconds before reversing the direction of your foot. To reverse, pull back your toes and then the metatarsal until the foot is fully flexed. You can repeat the exercise 10 to 15 times before working the other foot.
Megan Richardson, a certified athletic trainer and clinical specialist at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, warns dancers about the dangers inherent in extreme stretching techniques. She points out that tucking the feet under a low couch or piano, as some dancers do, places undue stress on the bony arches of the foot and can lead to injury. According to instructor Dana Hanson, it is also wise to avoid mechanical devices designed to stretch the arch. Hanson concludes that such devices take control away from the dancer, preventing her from adequately gauging how much pressure she is applying to her arches. Hanson notes that extreme stretching techniques such as these can lead to overstretching, which can strain the tops of your feet.