During the early stages of life the human foot is continually developing and changing. Bone formation, called ossification, takes approximately 10 years for girls and 12 years for boys, but certain bones don’t completely form until age 20. The last bones formed within the foot are sesamoids and the base of the fifth metatarsal. The calcaneus or heel bone doesn’t fully develop until age 6 in girls and age 9 in boys. Dancing puts added stress on young, growing bodies and their ossification centers and dance training also affects the development of the leg and position of the knee.
Children should wear specific shoes for the dance form being studied or no shoes if appropriate. If a child does not have the proper footwear it’s better for them to take class barefoot. No child should be permitted to take class wearing socks as the risk of injury while dancing on a slippery floor is almost inevitable and can be avoided. Dance shoes should fit properly, with room for growth of the foot and its natural function. However, no extra room within the shoes should be available or the foot will not function properly and both foot and ankle support may be comprised.
Dance classes should begin with light a warm-up to increase blood flow and oxygen and minimize the possibility of injury, this includes stretching and flexibility training. Instruction for young children means teaching them how their bodies move and how to balance from a center point. For children ages 7 and up this technique training should emphasize correct posture and body positioning. Once a child has completed barre training, they should be prepared to work on center floor exercises. These exercises include walking, running, skipping and jumping. As children develop an awareness of movement improvisation may be permitted. Dance classes should end with cooling down exercises to allow the body time to bring down heart rate, temperature and breathing which allows the blood to properly redistribute itself to the heart.
It’s important to remember that for children learning to dance there’s great demand on the lower body. In order to minimize injury and undue strain, emphasis should be placed on alignment, coordination of movement, correct anatomical position with straight knees, strong ankles and feet and proper weight distribution.
If young kids learn proper stretching, technical and dance techniques they will avoid serious foot problems as adults. Students must work to hold their feet evenly on the floor and keep their toes stretched. While the feet are bearing bodyweight they should be holding the ground at three points; one behind the back of the calcaneus, and two in front of the heads of the first and fifth metatarsals. This triangle forms a base from which the muscles and soles of the feet can work to support the arch. The strength to control feet placement is not confined to the lower extremities. Placement begins with the head, followed by the back and pelvis and finishes with the thigh and leg. A well-trained dance instructor instinctively will recognize this interdependence of one body part to another.
In addition to feet placement several basic movements require attention. The feet must not sickle, especially in demi-pointe or relevé. Children should not curl their toes to give the illusion of higher arches when pointing their feet. A demi-plié should be taught to originate from the hips and not forced by pronating the feet. A half-toe position should not be held for an extended period of time as it can cause serious irritation to the bones in the feet. The heel must remain on the floor as long as possible in tendu in order to properly stretch the leg and foot. When the heel and arch leave the floor the muscles in the ankle must stretch and the muscles under the instep should tighten slightly to avoid sickling the foot. Repetition of harmful patterns eventually distort normal foot alignment and lead to injuries.
Students also need to understand the importance that the knees play in protecting the body from injury. The knees are pedestals that provide support for the body and serve as an intermediary for weight placed on the feet. The knees must always be straight and aligned with both the hips and feet, but never be in a locked position.
In ballet, a 180 degree rotation turnout is the main objective, but this should be achieved from the hips, not from the knees and feet. If a child is unable to rotate their hips properly, they will overcompensate, forcing their knees and ankles outward. Moreover, to accomplish fifth position, which is the most difficult to execute, children tend to bend their knees. A bent knee, besides being weak and aesthetically unappealing, will exert added pressure on the joints, causing instability and ligament strains.
Bent knees, however, are necessary for certain maneuvers. A demi-plié requires the knees to bend and must be done in moderation. Teachers should avoid having children sit at the lowest point of a plié so that they will not drop their body weight, subsequently forcing the body out of alignment. A good demi-plié must be even and flowing on the descent as well as the ascent, as undue pressure could lead to ligament and cartilage damage.
Dancing on pointe can also be harmful to young kids. Children should not begin pointe training until some basic technique training has been learned, as it’s both physically and mentally demanding. Children should be at least 11 years old before attempting to learn pointe technique. At 11 years old, bones should be in their proper positioning and should have formed to withstand the tremendous force exerted upon them.
Before beginning pointe classes, children should complete at least 3 years of dance training. By that time, proper alignment and technique should come naturally and the feet will have had a chance to develop and strengthen. It’s also important for the arches to be strong enough to support bodyweight. If a child’s first 3 toes are approximately the same length wearing a toe shoe will be more comfortable when learning pointe. Balancing will also be easier because of the stability and support provided by the 3 even toes. Each child’s physique and anatomy will determine how they adapt to training. As children continue to develop under a competent teacher’s guidance the chance of injury should be minimal. Most problems such as muscle cramps and fatigue are very common, but not serious.