Do I Really Need to Put My Heels Down When I Jump?

            The dance, just as the performance of the actor, is kinesthetic art, art of the muscle sense." - Rudolf Arnheim

          A pointed foot, a high relevé, a fully stretched foot in a jump – these are all sought after in dance.  Whether dancers study ballet and are constantly on their toes, study tap and dance on the balls of their feet, study Irish dance and are always in a relevé, or study modern and jazz and are stretching their feet in jumps, they demand a lot from their calf muscles.

            There are two calf muscles that are responsible for plantar flexion – what dancers call pointing their feet – the gastrocnemius and the soleus.  Each time a dancer relevés, points his or her feet, or stretches the foot in a jump, these muscles contract to make the action happen.

            The gastrocnemius is the bulging muscle that we see at the back of every dancer’s calf.  This muscle attaches to the femur, or the thighbone, crosses behind the knee, and connects to the calcaneus, or heel bone, via the Achilles tendon.  Its jobs are to flex, or bend, the knee and plantar flex the ankle.  The gastrocnemius is responsible for the movement required in walking, jumping, pointing the foot, and performing a relevé, and is strongly relied upon in fast moving exercises.

            The soleus is located underneath the gastrocnemius, closer to the bones of the lower leg, the tibia and fibula.  It is attached to these two bones near the knee joint, runs the length of the calf, and also connects to the calcaneus by way of the Achilles tendon.  The soleus is a stabilizing muscle that is responsible for maintaining proper alignment at the ankle joint.  This muscle is the one that holds the foot in relevé or in a pointed position.  The soleus is used extensively in adagio exercises or any movements that require held balances.

            Since these muscles are constantly worked, they grow stronger, and if they are not stretched, tighter.  Tight calf muscles create a muscular imbalance in the body that can lead to other issues.  The tighter the calf muscles are, the stronger the pull on the Achilles tendon.  An irritated Achilles tendon becomes inflamed and develops tendonitis. 


  A strained Achilles tendon exerts a strong pull on the calcaneus, which causes the bone in front of it, the talus, to tilt.  As the talus tilts, the joint between the talus and the navicular bone becomes misaligned and causes the foot to pronate, or roll inward.

             When tight calf muscles pull upward on the heel, the body weight is shifted forward over the ball of the foot.  To compensate for this weight shift, the curve in the lumbar spine increased to help maintain an upright posture.  This increase curve, however, results in lower back strain and causes pain.

            Although this muscular imbalance is a common one in dance, it is not unavoidable.  Dancers can work on maintaining flexibility in the calf muscles without sacrificing strength.  Being sure to keep the heels on the floor during demi-pliés stretches the calf as does making sure the heels connect with the floor after all relevés and jumps.

                                           Additionally, regularly stretching the calf muscles is a good idea for dancers.  The yoga position downward  dog is an excellent exercise for lengthening the calf as is lying on the back, extending a leg upward, and using a theraband around the foot to pull it into a flexed position.  A standing lunge will also stretch the calf.

All of these exercises should be done with a straight leg to stretch the gastrocnemius and repeated with a bent knee to stretch the soleus.  

These stretches should all be done in parallel positions to be sure that all the muscle fibers are stretched equally. 

            By simply being sure to keep the heels on the floor whenever possible, landing on the entire foot after jumps, and adding a few stretches to their routines, dancers can avoid the problems that tight calf muscles can create.