Q: I have a 15-year-old student who has problems keeping her heel fully on the ground during a demi-plié. How can I help her?
A: Her problem is tightness in the calf muscle. Start by having her roll her foot on a tennis ball or pinkie ball. This will wake up her feet so she can be more aware of them. Next, you’ll need to create more elasticity in the calf muscles, and finally stretch out the tightness.
Have your student stand facing the barre, or between two barres with one hand on each one. Then, have her begin to jog lightly in place, using the barre to help soften her descent so she rolls smoothly through the feet both on the way down and up. Once jogging becomes smooth and elastic, have her begin to jump off two feet in parallel and then again in turnout. The goal is to keep light and feel the elasticity—no landing hard or loudly onto her heels. That being said, her heels will need to touch and momentarily take weight without losing that elastic feeling.
After warming up and creating more elasticity in the muscles, it’s time to try and stretch out the calf muscles. Begin in a downward dog position and bend one knee. If she cannot place her heels down in downward dog, then do this in a traditional calf lunge position. Roll slowly from the little toe to big toe side of the foot and back. The stretch sensation in the calf will shift from place to place. Tell her to feel free to stop wherever it feels like a particularly good stretch. Then, repeat on the other leg. Have the student try this stretch one last time, but barely bend the knee of the leg she is stretching, and the stretch will move down toward the Achilles tendon. That’s the area of the soleus muscle.
It’s going to take time, perhaps months, to have a measurable change happen in super-tight muscles, but encourage her to be patient with her progress.