The achilles tendon and important pointe(s)


This is not what you think. I am sure by now I appear like some half-psycho wandering mother with her children living out of a car, and dragging her little girl to ballet classes a la Rosalind Russell (Gypsy, 1962-the year I was born). But I am not. I do have a little trouble paying all the bills for her ballet class and no one in our household is very supportive of her dancing. She was feeling bad because I bought her a new pair of point shoes-well, she cannot very well dance without them, can she? The ones she had were too soft, so she ran the risk of hurting her achilles tendon, again. Ballet, I repeat is NOT for poor people. You have to be really smart to juggle classes, clothing, photos, point shoes and other shoes, transportation, fees for costumes, etc., and privates. It’s around $1,000 per month and if you have a lot of discretionary income, that is fine. Before ballet, there is usually gymnastics-we skipped that part-or other kinds of dance. We did one half-year of tap and jazz at a small studio by our house with her friends.

The truth is, I danced for two years in modern and ballet, when my teacher said, let’s get point shoes! I was not sure whether to be excited or dismayed (ha, betcha thought I was a ballet dancer!) Well, I was. But the point is, point was not my primary interest in the art form at age sixteen, and to be honest, all of the women in my class were college students or beyond and were looking forward to it. They all went down to the local dance shop and bought point shoes right away. To me, it was like a strange beast you put on your foot and tried to walk around in-nothing could have looked more alien to me than a point shoe. I studied them in the magazines, I went and gawked at the store window (we only had one shop) at the Capezios (one brand-life was simple in Ohio). I had a very straight foot. Physically, I was built very straight up and down. No chest until I was about 16-at all, none. I wasn’t exactly skinny, I was muscular, but slim. My feet always seemed to stare up at me like that comic character, L’il Abner, and I could raise one toe with what seemed to me a large nail. I quickly looked away hoping no one else would see me do that. I think the stigma came from my mother telling me that she was going to have to start buying the shoeboxes for me when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade. By the time I was in the eighth grade I wore a size 8.5. Like Catherine d’Medici, I learned that my feet looked much better, well—pointed. Shoes were flat then, in grade school. There was no little heel to disguise my seemingly big feet, and my compressible foot had spent several years in a cheap converse which didn’t do my arch any good. I got shin-splints in my 2nd year of ballet for which there was no Internet, Ballet Talk or other source of advice and a gym teacher gave me the exercise to roll a tennis ball with my foot. I did. For whatever reason, in my third year of dance the splints went away.

I remember standing between our pool table and the sofa and jumping up in the air in a leap when I was in grade school. What intrigued me was the feeling of weightlessness and what made me stay up in the air which I could do for the longest time. Like a bird and I would go leaping around in the yard to see how long I could stay up there, what made me stay up longer, stretching myself longer and longer to achieve the greatest height and distance. I did well in standing long jumps in school (second place again to Nancy!). Nancy still looks fabulous and thin. But I also ran. I had stamina, I walked miles everyday. I had nice carriage and good posture. But I did not feel proud of my feet. The toe turned up when I pointed and was forever looking at me, just a little bit past my tights in my bare feet and I could imagine it in my ballet slipper, turned up, so that my shoe even had a little place in it where the toe rubbed the top! Point shoes.

Tatiana Riabouchinska darning the ballet shoes...

Tatiana Riabouchinska darning the ballet shoes, Sydney, between 1938-1940 / photographer unknown (Photo credit: State Library of New South Wales collection)

Well, I got mine. But I was not looking forward to that class. I just knew. I sewed the ribbons on, elastics, and went to class. There were no dreams in my head of becoming Heather Watts or Cynthia Gregory. I loved the ballet, was moved to dance, and was good at ballet in certain respects. I had very good technique, good turnout, balance. I simply missed the prima ballerina train. I was even flexible and could jump up and touch my toes, perfectly. Cheerleading practice. I loved ice skating and bicycle riding (it was my car). I did not have big hamstrings, or behind. I was rather built like a boy or a flatsy doll. I put them on. They hurt right away. The princess and the pea. It burned! Like the witch in The Wizard of Oz, I threw them off mentally, 1,2,3. I was melting. They were rough inside. I could feel every hard surface and crevice, pinching my probably swollen peds and I stood up. Wobbly!!!What was this? How could I…..walk? It just got worse from there. I vocalized the gnawing, searing pain during exercises. I had no control. Pull up, up, up! I was really angry. I quit trying to find a comfortable hiding place in those shoes and they looked at me evilly from the shelf. My teacher actually had to repeatedly hush me and give me warnings. The first class was murder, and yet when it was over, like having a baby, you think next time won’t be so bad. It was-worse. This time she corrected me repeatedly, but I turned around at the barre several times and actually made it to one foot (yes). I cursed under my breath and grimaced. How can dancers go on? They must be c-r-a-z-y. I stopped again. Once you start on that negative swing you are doomed. Lie, lie, lie (the 3rd time). Made it. Center, pirouette. But, I knew after several classes, watching others steadfast and determinedly go through this agony, that point was just not worth it-for me. I realized they did not feel what I felt. They actually liked it! One or two were very good, some had had point as children or teenagers. I did not care, no jealousy really. Just no-zero-desire.

I lost some interest in ballet after that for awhile, not wanting to see the torture. Disbelief and denial set in. I saw dancers and their feet an extension of their legs and tried NOT to see what was on their feet. Pointed, good enough. Okay. Let’s move on to the modern. I was made for modern. No question. I could rise up practically on my toes, no point shoes, roll neatly through my foot. Connect with the floor. Me very happy….I truly admired ballet dancing and went back to drooling over lithe dancers, in unitards with tremendously long feet in point shoes and happily imagined myself like that without point shoes, perfectly content to live vicariously ever more. That did not stop me from taking ballet, being really good at it, but not dancing on point. They continued their class and many adults pursue ballet just to go on point. I blame my father for his upturned toe, my grandfather’s delicate feet and perhaps a late start. My mother was a whirling dervish en pointe and my grandmother had natural bunions-nothing phases her, 92 and still going.

Well, my daughter is like them. Not me. I never told her this until she was in point for well over one year, because I did not want to jinx her, but there was no synergy or moment of dancer-to-dancer bonding when I saw her first in point shoes. She wanted to try them and I helped her a few times. I know a lot about feet. But, I never said a word as she seemed born to them, to the blisters and pain, balance and pounding that I remembered vividly. It hurt to watch at first and I kept expecting her to come home crying, admitting that she, too, was not cut out for point, didn’t like it and it was to never be. But she did not. I waited. No. I became a little bit jealous. She has no turned up toe, but her feet are my baby’s feet with her pretty little turned up toe. No! It is flat and straight and the first three are about the same length. I blamed my almost longer 2nd toe. She threw away spacers after 3 months, pads after six, and even wool. She tapes her toes, liking the feel of the shoe (yuck!), and uses the littlest, tiniest, bit of wool in the toe to even it out. She looks so pretty, and is so tough. I really have admiration of the highest sort for her and all other dancers, pads, wool, spacers and everything. They are really special. I was not, at point.

The thing that concerns me are the other aspects of the point shoe. Pulling up is sooo very important. Light and articulate is the way I would describe the prettiest pointed dancers. But I see Maria Tallchief doing things on those feet that (ouch!) I can still almost not bear to watch, but I do with strange fascination, now. I know what to look for and I can see inside those point shoes with my x-ray eyes, and know what is real and what is an illusion. Alina Somova has an interesting and pretty point, even though she has corkscrew legs (hyper-extended). I just see her feet, articulating and pawing the ground like a little horse. Lightly and in so many pieces this is what I want to see, but not what I do see. You need feet the audience can’t take their eyes off of. Something the audience cannot stop watching, studying. I do not know what advice to give my daughter, who so wants to dance. Daily, I see her practicing and stretching. She has so many things to work on. There she is crying because her point shoes do not have a long enough vamp for her long toes. We got the wrong ones again.

She needs the long vamp and the low profile, otherwise her sweaty little feet go sliding down, boom and she jams her achilles. This happened with the last pair of Repetto’s we bought; perfect in every way, but very soft shanks. A performance shoe, no doubt. I really need to learn some French. You can’t talk to them otherwise and you cannot read the catalogue. None of the shops know anything about feet or shoes, it seems. They don’t dance on point. It is up to the dancer to be smart. To educate herself about the shoe she needs, to know her foot. Mother’s really cannot go around blaming themselves. But it is so much for little girls to know and to learn. They take their futures and their careers in their hands dancing en pointe. But she suffered a pretty serious pain from the achilles jam. Not a serious tendonitis, but enough to keep her off from dancing for almost two months now. She has danced off and on, but one recital and the next week she’s down. It will heal and if she practices preventative exercises and is very, very careful not to overdo it, she will avoid it becoming chronic (I hope). But just one pair of shoes that were too soft, and a propensity for the injury. Not putting your heels down can be a cause, twisting while on point can be a cause, overdoing it can be a cause. So many other things. Good street shoes. A low heel. Exercises to stretch and strengthen the feet, diet. Fatigue. Too hard a shank for the reason of always fighting to get up on the box. Popping up. Jumps-not landing in a plie properly, pointing too hard, and possible a heel spur. Where to start? It’s like being a med student/hypochondriac. Dancers go through the list of things they might have, every time they have a new feeling or injury. It’s just the dancer and herself. No one else can really give advice, except medical advice and not very many dancers listen to that. Caution and proper technique. Physical therapy, if necessary, to massage out the adhesions (knots) which cause strains and tears-not just in the achilles tendon, but in all tendons!

Achilles tendons heal very slowly due to the low vascularization-no blood vessels-so massage also helps heal-don’t practice this yourself-you need a licensed physical therapist. We are going to try yoga for her. It is supposed to be good for ballet students and healing. Whatever you do, do not put your children up on point too young. I have been reading about more cases of it with young dancers 8-11, due to going up too soon. It is not that you do not have other foot issues, such as bunions, and my daughter has a wide metatarsal. She now needs a spacer she realizes, when she dances a long time, such as in rehearsals. But most of all she needs the support that the shoe offers, flexible wings and a strong box! Her shank is still medium to soft as she is only three years dancing, and her feet have gotten much stronger, but working the foot is good-not too much. Her straight foot is now pleasantly arched a little and she does not use a stretcher. Once upon a time, she did not believe she would ever have an arch and she looked down at her straight little feet and pronounced aloud that her toe turned up (hehehe). But it really does not.

The dance store should have seen that little toe winking out of the side of the shoe and known that all of her toes were not in the box. She really has a tapered foot. But they say all these things to you, and it is just so much information, not really making relevant sense until over time, piecing itself together, and becoming useful information, but as you learn with it and it slowly falls into place. Like French. Reading is very important, but you really learn one pair of shoes at a time. Hopefully with no injuries. Keep on Dancing!

The Perfect Pointe

Pointe-shoe-brands | Pointe Shoe Brands | Page 8

Pointe of view: bring your perfect shoe into focus. – Free Online Library

The Master List Of Pointe Shoe Specifications

Care of the achilles tendon – Ballet Talk for Dancers

Achilles Tendon Questions – Ballet Talk for Dancers

“Controlling” the Depth Of Demi Plie – Ballet Talk for Dancers

Pointing feet without pain – Ballet Talk for Dancers

Achilles Tendon Trouble – Ballet Talk for Dancers

Stretches, and pressure on the achilles tendon? – Ballet Talk for Dancers

Proper barre stretch – Ballet Talk for Dancers

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