Dancers are trained to think often about the range of motion, stability and power of their extended lines: the point of the foot, the reach of the penché, the explosion of the sauté in the air. But finding that same mix of flexibility and strength in the flexed foot is just as integral to technique and injury prevention. Without adequate dorsiflexion mobility, it is nearly impossible to find the kind of supple demi-plié needed to bound into the air and land safely.
“Dorsiflexion assists in absorbing load and impact when landing turns and jumps,” says Jenna Calo, senior physical therapist at Body Dynamics Inc., in Falls Church, Virginia. “Because the foot is the first thing to hit the ground, it sets up how this force will be absorbed up the chain.” In order to lessen the amount of this force, a dancer needs an adequate amount of foot mobility. When the dorsiflexion range of motion is restricted, the foot and ankle cannot adequately adapt to the ground, and the force can shift higher up the body, affecting other joints and areas such as the knees, hips and low back.
The issue is not limited to ballet dancers. “In all dance styles that utilize repetitive relevés and jumps, you will likely find adaptive shortening of the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles [the muscles known as calves] from the repetition,” says Calo. “Even with modern dance and more grounded work, repetitive relevés and jumps are still involved.” Fast footwork and petit allégro are ubiquitous in both contemporary and classical repertoire, and these sequences can make it difficult to utilize the full range of the ankle in demi-plié.
To increase dorsiflexion mobility, Calo first assesses all of the components that influence the foot and ankle, looking for stiffness in the joints as well as tightness in the surrounding muscles. “We typically check the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles for trigger points or general tightness,” says Calo. “It is also important to examine the mid-foot and rear-foot joint mobility, as well as tissue on the bottom portion of the foot, to ensure they are contributing effectively to allow for the full ankle to move into dorsiflexion.”
Finding the root cause of what is contributing to the limitation is key, and Calo has found it can be different in every dancer. “Since we are bipedal creatures, assessing the entire lower extremity as well as spine and hips is needed to fully address all the contributors.” Addressing proximal weaknesses in the glutes, core and deep rotators of the hip can also help to alleviate ankle dysfunction and pain in dorsiflexion.
After loosening up the soft tissue with manual therapy, she teaches dancers these self-massage techniques and stretches to use for ankle maintenance.
1. Set one foot on a stable elevated surface, like the seat of a chair.
2. Gently and slowly, rock forward into ankle dorsiflexion and back while maintaining the other foot flat on the floor. “Ankle rocking is a great way to mobilize the ankle,” says Calo.
3. Repeat on the other side.
4. If you are able to do ankle rocking in this setup without gripping in the front of your ankle, you can try a variation of the same sequence, with more load, in a kneeling lunge.
Self-Massage for Calves
1. Put a tennis or lacrosse ball under the tight spot, or trigger point, on your calf muscle. If you are looking for more pressure, you can put the ball on an elevated surface, such as a yoga block, and/or weight your leg with your free leg crossed over it. Be sure that you don’t put too much pressure into the knee’s hyperextension if elevating.
2. Keeping the ball in place, move your ankle back and forth between a pointed and flexed foot to work the calf muscle.
3. Move the ball to another tight spot and repeat. Try the other leg. Follow up with a calf stretch facing the wall.
Still feeling tight in the front of the shin when you flex your ankle?
“Typically these anterior muscles are being over-recruited in dorsiflexion to fight against the tightness in the back of the leg, and perhaps at the ankle joint,” says physical therapist, Jenna Calo. Massage, trigger-point therapy and/or dry needling are all tools that can help relieve this muscle overuse. You can also see a practitioner who specializes in teaching dancers to find the root cause of tightening.