Dancing Feet: Preventive Care and Maintenance

A dancer can control many aspects of their personal hygiene and dance habits to reduce the risk of injury. Fatigue, for example, is one condition a dancer should try to avoid. When the body fatigues, the chance for injury increases greatly. The body reaches a plateau after which continued exertion is counterproductive. A dancer should be disciplined enough to stop when this upper limit is reached.

To distinguish the time when fatigue sets in, a dancer should recognize the signs of overwork like persistent soreness and stiffness in the muscles, joints and tendons, or a feeling of resistance or heaviness when lifting the lower extremities. Dancers can experience frequent headaches, loss of appetite, sluggishness, absence of menstruation and a drop in performance ability as well. Emotional responses also point to fatigue and include a loss of interest in dance class and performing, nervousness, depression and an inability to relax. The end result of overwork will be dancing at a level much lower than the dancer’s normal abilities.

Poor nutrition and vitamin and mineral deficiency contributes to fatigue as well. Medications and drugs also cause problems. Amphetamines, for example, don’t retard or reduce fatigue, but instead reduce the feeling of fatigue and mask pain. Significant damage can be done to body if pain is masked and fatigue goes unnoticed.

Fatigue leads to many injuries, among them plantar fasciitis, shinsplints, stress fractures, ankle sprains, and overuse compartment syndrome. Increasing muscle flexibility and strengthening exercises can prevent acute reactions to stress and overuse. Rest the area involved as soon as signs of fatigue are present. Apply ice or a gel cold pack to the painful area for about 20 minutes. Compression and elevation are also recommended treatments.

Most fatigue and overuse injuries occur to novice and beginning dancers who have not developed adequate muscle coordination and stamina. Professionals, however, are also susceptible to injury. Constant pressure of repetitive force causes fatigue to the metatarsal, arch and fascia of the foot, leading to more serious injuries like stress fractures, tendinosis and plantar fasciitis, underscoring the need for rest.

Stretching enables a dancer to maintain a flexible body and is probably the most important step a dancer can take to avoid injury. 75% of all overuse syndrome injuries can be avoided with proper flexibility training. The feet are not independent parts of the body, they are connected to it and affected by it. Increasing flexibility to the entire body makes a dancer more limber and lessens the chance an injury.

A tight hamstring muscle, for example, will cause additional stress on the calves. This strain could then cause a compensation of movement that affects the ankle. With repeated force to this area, ankle pain develops. Proper stretching and flexibility training of the entire body with an emphasis on the hamstrings can prevent ankle pain. Stretching should be done before and after dancing. If there is a break in the middle of class stretch again. It is important to develop a stretching routine that is suits the body and its individual needs.

The no pain no gain philosophy does not apply to stretching. Stretching should not produce any pain or strain. Stretch within the body’s individual limits; there should be no competition to outstretch another dancer. A normal stretch should last 60 seconds. The first 20 to 30 seconds should be easy and relaxed. Then, slowly start to intensify the stretch and hold it for an additional 30 seconds, there should be no pain or excessive strain, gradually release the stretch.

Breathing should remain under control, slow, and in rhythm. Do not make abrupt changes while stretching, every movement should be gradual and slow. Bouncing or jumping can be harmful to the muscles. With time, the feeling of the stretch changes and more time may be needed to accomplish the desired effects. If one starts out very tight, modify the time of stretch accordingly. Instead of a total of 60 seconds, start with 30. After a few weeks, increase to 40, then 50 seconds. Time isn’t as important as form. The body will determine the correct time needed for a proper stretch.

Massage is also a very valuable addition to a dancer’s treatment plan. For aching and tired feet, massage can help relieve stress and strain. It can also be used as a therapy for certain inflammatory conditions. Massage after applying heat to feet, the best time is after a hot bath. Rest one foot across the other knee and massage the foot in a circle motion using the heel of the hand. Start at the toes and work backwards. Bend each toe separately in each direction and gently rotate accordingly. Tug at the toe carefully and move up along the sole and sides of the foot. Knead the arch area using the thumbs, then repeat the massage for the other foot.

Proper hygiene is also an important form of preventive medicine. Many problems or potential injuries can be avoided if the dancer maintains their feet and legs. Wash and dry feet daily and apply powder after feet are dry, paying particular attention to the areas between the toes. Trim toenails to a slight rounded edge, but don’t cut into the corners of the nails. Wear natural fiber socks, cotton or wool, and change daily. They will absorb perspiration, allowing the feet to breathe and reduce bacteria that can cause foot odor.

Smooth hard, rough skin with a pumice stone after bathing to soften feet and then apply a skin moisturizer. Use moisturizer nightly to prevent dryness and the possibility of developing fissures. A certain layer of hard skin is necessary for dancers, but don’t allow the skin to thicken too much or it will cause pain and pressure.

Make sure dance shoes are comfortable and fit correctly. Improper and ill-fitting footwear can cause tremendous damage. Avoid smoking and nicotine, and excessive intake of caffeine as they all reduce circulation to the feet. Don’t perform home surgery for corns or calluses and do not use sharp instruments or strong chemicals on the feet for any reason. The health and wellness of a dancer’s feet is critical to the longevity of their career so proper care and maintenance is essential.