Below The Knee: A Primer on Feet and Ankles for Belly Dancers
Bellydance puts a lot of focus on the hips and torso, but like a house with a beautiful second floor balcony, it needs a strong first floor to support it. We may not be as hard on our feet as ballet dancers, but we depend on the muscles and ligaments of our lower legs and feet to help us glide gracefully, turn safely and transfer weight smoothly.
Some basic understanding of the structure and musculature of the parts below the knee that we’re hiding under our chiffon skirts can help us enhance our movement quality, solve problems in faulty movement patterns, prevent acute injuries such as ankle sprains and chronic problems like plantar fasciitis.
A tour of a dancer’s foot and lower leg
We’ll start at the forefoot which includes the bones of the toes and their metatarsals. The front of the foot is controlled by both intrinsic and extrinsic muscles. The intrinsic muscles have both their origin and insertion within the foot itself. The extrinsic muscles originate from the lower leg and run into the foot. The intrinsic muscles of the forefoot give us stability and help us balance in relevé. The main extrinsic muscle in the forefoot is the flexor hallucis longus which makes the big toe so powerful. However, if the intrinsic muscles of this area are weak, your toes may “claw” the floor instead of lengthen which will inhibit your balance and can make the big toe muscle do too much of the work.
Exercises for the Forefoot
Moving along to the midfoot, we have the part we consider the instep or arch. Not only is this the “pretty” part of the foot, especially when pointed, it is also the part that helps us make graceful and smooth weight transfers. The midfoot is the shock absorber and allows the foot to act as a segmented lever for finer control. It has 5 oddly-shaped bones and a very strong ligament, the plantar fascia. This is what gets inflamed in plantar fasciitis, causing heel pain.
The intrinsic muscles of the midfoot need to be strong to support the structure of the arch and help execute and stabilize fancy footwork like grapevines in relevé. A weak and sagging arch is not just an aesthetic problem, it sets ups a chain reaction of misalignment that runs up the inside of the leg to the knee and can cause or exacerbate problems there. The shape of the arch also protects blood vessels and nerves on the bottom of the foot from being compressed.
Exercises for the Midfoot
Making our way to the rear or hindfoot, we have reached the part of the foot that transfers our bodyweight to the wider support base of the foot and helps us articulate movement. Of course, the heel is the where we have the Achilles tendon which delivers the action of muscles higher up the back of the leg to foot.
Before we leave the foot, let’s talk a little more about arches. The transverse arch is the one that is most visible that we addressed above, but there are two more. The medial and lateral arches run the length of the foot on the inside and outside, respectively. The purpose of the arches is to distribute body weight proportionately to the structures of the foot – the smaller bones of the forefoot bearing less than the larger bones of the rear and midfoot. A strong lateral arch is important because it must bear weight in order for the medial arch to be able to lift. As mentioned before, arch problems can lead to other problems up the kinetic chain of the body.
A dancer’s ankles are the hidden mechanism of many larger movements. Consider a “cross turn”. Stand on one foot and cross the other in front with the ball of the foot on the floor. Rise up onto the balls of the feet and by unwinding your legs and feet, you have turned yourself around – tah dah! During the turn, the muscles that surround your ankles on all sides need to support the joint to prevent strains or sprains. While we’re considering this example, the muscles of the arch need to work to stabilize against the torque of turning too. Chains of multiple travelling turns and quick direction changes also require strong ankles for safety. Face it, when your ankle gives way and you go down, much more than your ankle can be injured. You can twist your knee or injure your wrist when you instinctively try to break your fall.
Exercies for the Hindfoot and Ankles
Our last stop is the lower leg. The gastrocnemius and soleus are the two calf muscles that arrive at the heel through the Achilles tendon. They lift us into relevé. The gastrocnemius crosses both the ankle and the knee and is the more powerful of the two. The soleus lies underneath it and originates below the knee. It has more slow-twitch fibers and is geared more for endurance than power. The soleus assists in balance at the the ankle.
Another lower leg muscle that we talk about less often is the peroneal group (a duet of longus and brevis). These run down the outside of the lower leg and support the ankle by preventing it from rolling outward. Face the mirror with your feet parallel and rise up on the balls of your feet. Do your ankles sag outward (see photo)? If not, your peroneals are doing their job!
Exercises for the Calves
Like a house, you need to be strong from the ground up. Dancing in itself, does strengthen our feet but sometimes additional exercise is needed too. There are many exercises designed to address very specific areas and actions of the feet and ankles – far too many to go into right here – but we will be going over some in coming weeks of the “Daily Bellydance Quickies” so be sure you are a subscriber if you are interested in learning them.