By Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT
How do dance teachers stay sound and healthy enough to demonstrate safely after they stop dancing full time? It’s tricky business. We take for granted the flexibility and strength acquired throughout our performing and early teaching days. But all too often our bodies let us know that after all those years, they need more attention.
My rude awakening came when I stopped teaching about 20 classes per week in order to go to physical therapy school and subsequently, to begin the well-being program for Smuin Ballet here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since I’m short in stature and the company was short on funds for things like massage tables, I agreed to work on the dancers on the floor. My flexible ankles became so unstable (from sitting on my feet and overstretching them) that they hurt when I went down stairs. I resolved to use my newly gained education to figure out what was wrong and what I could do to remedy the situation.
After X-rays ruled out arthritis and serious injuries, I set out to figure out the best way to strengthen and stabilize my ankles and came upon the wobble board, a flat, circular platform resting on a semi-sphere. It has kept me dancing (and walking), and a regular workout regimen on this piece of fitness equipment might help you do the same.
Types of balance boards
There are a few different types of balance boards, including the wobble board. All are essentially platforms resting on top of a smaller, raised surface that functions as a fulcrum. The user tries to balance on the platform as it rocks or swivels on its fulcrum. This forces the ankle to react quickly and mobilizes the important stabilizing muscles of the ankle and foot. Some balance boards resemble seesaws—long flat platforms placed perpendicularly atop cylinders or rectangles.
Because our ankles move in a circular fashion, I like the circular type. The one I have works for me because it has a wider base on the bottom side. Some have very high balls beneath the platform, which might result in a sprained ankle for people who are quite flexible. My wobble board has a small dot on the center that helps my clients and me line up the axis where the foot points and flexes. (It’s called “The Rock,” and it’s available from optp.com.)
A strengthening routine
Try this sequence to keep your legs shipshape. Even though the wobble board is meant for the feet and ankles, done properly, you’ll feel this set of exercises up into the pelvis.
• Stand squarely in front of a ballet barre or a piece of furniture with a high back. I use my Pilates trapeze table and hold onto the upright poles for easy support.
• Start with both feet placed on the farthest side points of the standing plate. Then rock side to side, allowing one knee and then the other to bend to create the motion, like a stair-stepper at the gym. Next, swivel the plate by pressing the edges of the disc down into the floor. Do about 6 clockwise and 6 counterclockwise actions. Again, allow one knee and then the other to bend to make the motion. These simple exercises loosen the muscles and tendons and oil the joints. As I like to say, “Motion is lotion.”
• Next, move on to single-leg work. Use your strong leg first; it will help the weaker leg to do better. First, find the axis point on your foot where it flexes and points. Place the web of your hand over the top part of the foot with your thumb on the inside of the foot and your fourth finger wrapping over the outside. Slide the arch you’ve made with your hand up the foot until it rests against your tibia. This is your axis point.
• Place that axis point across the inner dot (or, if there is no dot, the center of the pivot point), bisecting the circle evenly. Make sure the pelvis is over the foot; do not allow the hips to fall back behind the axis point.
• With the free leg, take a parallel coupé position. In this sequence, keep the knee as straight as possible. Perform the whole sequence on one leg first and then repeat it on the other leg. Begin by tipping the standing plate front to back, concentrating on making an up/down motion. Be careful not to pull yourself with your arms if you are holding onto furniture. Do about 10 repetitions. If your feet feel OK, then do some “pseudo-jumps”: rock forward, lifting the heel a few inches and rock back to center. Repeat 10 times. Next, make very small circles with the ankle. I call them “drills” because the circle is very small. I aim for making a swivel around the circumference of the small yellow inner dot on my platform. Perform these very briskly, doing 2 sets of 10 clockwise, and 2 sets counterclockwise.
• Next, do a passé sequence. Turn out both legs and passé front with the free leg. Place the little toe underneath the knee, pressing the thigh backward and tensing the rotators to intensify the position. Then rotate to parallel with both legs, pressing the parallel passé (inside of the foot) against the support leg. Continue alternating the passé, outward and inward, for 10 sets and end with passé turned out.
• This is the best part. Engage the inner thigh on a turned-out support leg (adductor magnus use) as you extend your free leg to a straight-knee, small fourth position on the floor in back, behind the wobble board, as in a pirouette preparation. Then press off the back foot and spring up, using the inner thigh to lead to passé (turned out) in front—pirouette position on a flat foot. Repeat 6 times, 10 if you are buff. When you’ve finished your reps, hold and intensify the passé position for 10 seconds.
Strengthening your legs, or maintaining their strength, will reduce fatigue, make demonstrating pain free, and help prevent injuries. You worked hard for those legs. Now preserve them.
I have faith in you.