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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.

The feet and ankles are the hidden mechanisms of dance movement.

The feet and ankles are the hidden mechanisms of dance movement.

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

foot

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.

Your ankles shouldn't look like this in relevé.

Your ankles shouldn’t look like this in relevé.

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.

 

 

February 21, 2015 3 Comments

Good For Your Heart & Everything Else – My Cross-Training Routine for Belly Dance

Bellydance is great exercise, but if you are a serious dancer cross-training is essential to your progress and longevity in dance. Even if  you put in several hours of practice and performing each week, you may not hit up all the muscle groups you depend on for a solid performance with enough intensity to keep them at their peak. Also, cross-training – designed properly – will work a wider variety of muscles than your dance so you don’t over-train or develop imbalances that can lead to faulty movement patterns or injury.

No one workout is perfect for everyone, because each dancer comes to it from  a different level of fitness and with different goals. These goals will certainly change over time and I find are often specific to what a dancer is working on stylistically. For example, if you are currently looking to improve or expand your floorwork skills, you may be concentrating on core and shoulder strength.

Here is one of my general workouts that I use as part of my own overall cross-training which also includes yoga, running and a weight lifting class that is geared for endurance rather than maximum strength or power.  By alternating jump rope with lifting or other exercises in this workout, I get both a cardio and strength workout in what is known as a “high intensity interval training”  or HIIT format.

How many reps you do of each exercise and which weight you use will be entirely unique to you. The “right” weight to start with is the one you can use with good form for about 8 reps. When your form goes bad, you should stop. With consistency, the amount of good reps you can do will increase. When you can do 15 with good form, it’s time to up the ante a bit (about 10% more weight is good) and go back down in reps again. Some of these exercises can be started without any weights at all and are noted as such. I’ve included some links for exercise descriptions as well.

Above all, listen to your body. It’s okay to feel like you are working hard, but not okay to feel sharp pain. If you have any pre-existing injuries or undiagnosed pain, you should consult your physician or physical therapist regarding any exercise that uses the body parts in question.

Start with 5 minutes of dynamic warm up such as walking with high knees and butt kicks, leg and arm swings or jumping jacks.  No static stretching here!

Yes, this is a challenging workout. Honor your body and start where you are – shorten the jump rope intervals, do the leg exercises without weights, go through just one series. Work hard and be patient with your body for best results for your dance and your health overall.

P.S.  The single-leg Romanian deadlift is my personal nemesis – but I keep at it! What’s your toughest exercise? Tell us in the comments below….

February 14, 2015 0 Comments

Let’s Get Specific: The Training Principle of Specificity and Belly Dance

As serious dancers, we should always be looking to grow, expand and improve on our skills. Sometimes this means taking on new physical challenges in strength, balance, flexibility and maybe even endurance.  The key to success in training for these kinds of belly dance achievements is to define a clear path of how to get there. In situations like this, some thought to the specificity of your approach will make your efforts more effective and less frustrating.

What is specificity in training?

Specificity is the relevance and appropriateness of training to a particular activity or skill. Usually, in academic publications this is discussed in terms of sports, but as dancers, we know that belly dance can be a seriously athletic endeavor! By relevant we mean it prepares the body for all the various demands of the activity. By appropriate, we mean that the volume and intensity of the training is sufficient to prompt the body to respond with gains in strength, flexibility or whatever effect we are after.

How does specificity in training apply to belly dance?

When you decide to tackle a new belly dance skill that will tax your body more than it is accustomed to, it is smart to start preparing yourself before even diving into the actual practice. Let’s take floorwork for example – this is one of the most physically demanding aspects of Middle Eastern dance. Floorwork requires core strength, shoulder strength, and for some moves, significant spinal flexibility.

Before beginning the learning and practice phase of taking on floorwork it would be very helpful to work on strength in the quadriceps muscles, shoulders and core especially. You would want to incorporate flexibility work for the spine, hip flexors and ankles (those kneeling crawls are tough!) Different skills require other attributes – that is exactly why specificity in training is so important. By preparing yourself to take on the task, you will make the learning process and your practice more comfortable and successful – and most importantly, reduce your chance of injury.

Specificity is also important in your pre-practice warm up once you have begun to dive into your new skill. Let’s look at the example of fan veils this time. Your warm up should include mobilizing the hands and wrists in all directions to lubricate the many small joints there. It should also include a full warm up of the upper body and shoulders to prepare for the large movements it takes to maneuver the fans.

Your pre-practice warm up can also be followed by more strengthening exercises to maintain and continue your progress in getting stronger, but they shouldn’t be so intense that you will fatigue the muscles you need to practice effectively. That just leads to sloppy form, a poor quality practice and potential injury.  Keep the more intense strengthening routines separate from your practice, or perhaps following it if that’s the only way it fits in your schedule.

Of course, warm ups aren’t only for class and practice! It is imperative that you warm up thoroughly before your show as well, both for performance quality and for your safety. This can be tricky, as your space may be limited and you will almost certainly be in your costume. Think ahead and figure out a warm up sequence that will serve your purposes while being able to be done in a small space without getting on the floor.

Step up to the challenge!

Does this sound like a lot of work and preparation? Well, it is. But if all skills were easy to achieve, they wouldn’t be so amazing to watch! Putting in the time to analyze the skill you are after and figure out your best and safest route there will give you the most satisfying results in the end. And once achieved, your gains in strength, balance and flexibility will make the next skill that much more accessible.

If you are unsure of how to break down the physical needs of a new skill or select the exercises to prepare yourself, consider getting some qualified help from a certified trainer or fitness instructor that has experience working with dancers. This is a teaching service I offer both in person and through online lessons too.

 

Here’s to your dance progress!

What new skill did you find physically challenging to learn? What’s on your wish list to step up your belly dance in the coming year? Tell us in the comments below….

November 29, 2014 1 Comment

Stretch Yourself: Using the Right Stretch at the Right Time

Stretching has become a bit controversial in bellydance classes. Should you stretch before class or after? Yes. You read that right – it depends on which kind of stretching you’re talking about. Let’s clear up some confusion about how and when to stretch for the best dance performance and flexibility gains.

stretching

Dynamic Stretching

Dynamic stretching takes you through a joint’s  normal range of motion with control. The range can start out small and gradually increase as can the speed of movement, but the movement is always controlled and without any kind of bouncing or holding at the end of the range of motion.

When to use dynamic stretching

It is perfectly safe and appropriate  to use dynamic stretches as part of your warmup for belly dance class or personal practice. It is effective because it increases joint lubrication, muscle temperature and blood supply to prepare the body for the dancing to come.

Ballistic Stretching

Ballistic stretching uses momentum and sometimes also gravity in a bouncing fashion to reach the limits of and even force past the normal range of motion for a joint. Does it sound like an iffy idea to you? Good, because it is.

When to use ballistic stretching

In dance class or your personal practice? Never, in my opinion as an exercise professional. Rather than relaxing and lengthening muscles, ballistic stretching repeatedly activates the stretch reflex which results in muscle tension. The muscle in question is stretched at the bottom of the bounce, then “springs” back up.

So why is this even a type of stretching? It does have applications -just not in our bellydance classes or practice. If you watch elite track athletes, you may see them doing bouncing hamstring stretches before the starting gun. Athletes that require explosive power and speed need springy muscles – it is more of an advantage to them than loose, relaxed hamstrings and quads. So leave the ballistic stretching to the track stars and let’s move along to better options for us as dancers.

Static Stretching

In static stretching, you position yourself near the end of your range of motion where you can feel a slightly uncomfortable tension. This position is held for about 30 seconds, with a conscious effort to relax the target muscle. Breathing and closing your eyes are often helpful here. The same stretch is repeated 2 or 3 times for maximum flexibility benefits.

When to use static stretching

Static stretching is the best type of flexibility exercise for after your belly dance class or practice when your muscles are good and warm and are receptive to  lengthening. If you are looking to increase your flexibility for splits or back bends, static stretching that is focused on the muscles involved, done several time a week – following activity, of course –   can help you reach your goal.

So for example…

If you are doing the forward fold and roll up or reverse swan dive of Sun Salutations from yoga, this is dynamic stretching – if you keep it moving and under control at all times.

If you bend over at the waist and bounce your hands (or elbows) toward the floor, this is ballistic stretching…. and STOP THAT.

If you are at the end of class and you bend over with your hands on resting on the floor or your shins and stay there for several relaxed breaths, this is static stretching. And this is good.

Now you know . Go forth and be flexible, dancers!

July 12, 2014 2 Comments

Staying Focused In Your Belly Dance & Fitness

Do you go through phases of being super-committed to your belly dance practice or workouts, then fall off the wagon? I think we all exhibit this pattern with something in our lives. For me it’s keeping my office out of a state of chaos so I can actually concentrate on work. Success with long-term commitments, is not about the big push, it’s about the consistency and building positive habits.

I picked up two tidbits that have helped me greatly. The instructor at the BodyPump class I attend once a week passed on what she had heard from another trainer.

Never go 3 days without a workout.

Ok, so maybe you can’t practice or workout (or clean your office) every day – work and family keeps you busy. But if you look ahead at your week, you can probably find a half hour for yourself every 3 days. Put it on your calendar and keep that date with yourself with as much integrity as if it was with someone else. Maybe one day is your regular belly dance class and three days later you do your personal practice. If you sneak in a Quickie video in between – good for you!

In terms of fitness, “use it or lose it” is the truth. This is why consistency is so crucial.  Studies show that you can lose 20% of your aerobic fitness gains after just 2 weeks of slacking off. The same is true for flexibility and muscular strength. If you are not very active in your daily life outside of your dance and workouts, it can evaporate even more quickly than your cardiovascular capacity.

Never skip a Monday.

Start your week off on the right foot. Boom. Harness that “New Year’s resolution” kind of energy in a small way at the beginning of every week. On Sunday evening, I take some time to check-in with the week ahead of me and make sure I’ve marked out time for the things that are priorities that week as well as the things that are maintenance. I put workouts in the maintenance category because without it, just like my car, it will break down if not consistently taken care of. A dancer never wants that to happen!

Developing these two habits with your belly dance practice and supporting exercise will not only help you maintain your skills and fitness, it will give you the opportunity to make those tiny gains that add up to bigger progress over time. One of my favorite authors, Chris Guillebeau,  wrote that we overestimate what we can do in a day and underestimate what we can do in a year – or even a month.  It’s all about the small efforts adding up. Think about that on Sunday night – then act on it on Monday!

 

What keeps you focused on your bellydance and fitness goals? Share in the comments below….

May 24, 2014 0 Comments
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