Improving the Dancer's Arch: Do Foot Stretchers Work?

"The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art." - Leonardo da Vinci

Dancers spend hours in the studio critiquing their bodies and comparing them to those of other dancers. One body part that receives considerable attention for obvious reasons is the dancer's foot. My last post spoke of the anatomy of the arches of the foot and the three most common types of feet - those with a high arch, those with a medium arch, and those with a flat foot and the implications that each of these have for dancers.

As each dancer works to create aesthetically pleasing lines, he or she often tries to find ways to stretch or increase the arch of the foot. A foot stretcher is a device that stretches a dancer's foot. The dancer places his or her foot inside the device which holds the foot in an arched position while stretching the ligaments of the foot to increase range of motion and presumably increase the dancer's arch.

There are some dancers who have a limited range of motion in their feet because of the bone structure. These dancers will not benefit from a foot stretcher since, no matter how much the foot is stretched, the bone structure cannot be changed.

For those who have a limited range of motion due to tight ligaments, it would seem that this type of device would be ideal. Unfortunately, foot stretchers work in a passive manner. Although range of motion may be increased, strength is not being developed at the same time. An increased range of motion may allow the foot to be placed in a new position, but if the dancer does not have the corresponding strength to move the foot into or hold it in such a position, it will be of no use.

It is important to remember two things about ligaments - their jobs are to hold bones together and to limit certain movements, and they are non-elastic; once they are stretched out, they will not return to their original lengths. If feet are overstretched with the use of a device like a foot stretcher, ligaments will become lax and will not be able to do their jobs effectively, and the dancer will no longer have the same joint stability that he or she once did. Overstretching the ligaments of the foot could lead to a greater chance of injury in the foot and ankle joints when the dancer's foot needs to bear weight in balances or when landing from jumps.

Another concern with foot stretchers is that they force the foot into an exaggerated pointed position. This position can lead to posterior impingement of the ankle. In this position the calcaneus, or heel bone, is forced against the tibia, or large shine bone, and pinches all of the soft tissue at the back of the ankle. Posterior impingement syndrome results in pain and irritation when doing almost anything. This irritation can also lead to tendonitis.

Avoiding exercises and devices that passively stretch the foot will contribute to healthy dancing. There are ways to actively stretch the arch of the foot while simultaneously strengthening the foot that will create an aesthetically pleasing line without sacrificing ankle stability or injuring soft tissue. My next post will offer examples of those exercises so that dancers can improve their arches in a healthy way.