Most people don’t think about how each of their joints function day to day. Perhaps no joint is as under-appreciated as the humble ankle, the great mover and shaker of a dancer’s world. The ankle is the physical and biomechanical base of the body, and mobility in this region is important for dancers to cultivate for injury prevention and powerful dancing. With all of that in mind, four simple exercises can transform your ankles from flimsy to supple in a few minutes per day.
As always, please consult a medical professional before changing your exercise routine. I’m not a doctor, and I don’t pretend to be one on the internet.
The Move: Perhaps no ankle exercise is more famous than the alphabet, and for good reason: it works. Sit or stand with your right leg fully extended and your toes pointing straight ahead. Next, begin spelling the capital letters of the alphabet, A-Z with the big toe of the right foot, moving from the ankle, not the hip. Do not be surprised if your movements feel jerky as this is normal at first. When you have completed the capital letters with your right foot, switch to your left foot and repeat. When you are done with capital letters on both feet, do the lowercase letters in the same manner. Don’t feel discouraged if you need to end your sets early.
Why it Works: In our day-to-day lives, most of us use our ankles only in their forward and backward capacity, with very little movement in the other planes. The point of this exercise is not to do calligraphy with our feet, but to train our ankles in a range of motion that they do not often inhabit. By training these other directions we ready the ankle and its stabilization muscles for the quick and sometimes uncertain changes in direction or weight that we see in dance.
2. Calf Raises and Drops
The Move: Find yourself a set of stairs, preferably with a railing on either side within comfortable arm’s reach, and place the balls of your feet on the first step, with heels overhanging the edge. Keep your knees bent slightly and carefully lower your heels to the point where you feel a comfortable–not strained–stretch in the back of your calf. It may be necessary to hold onto a railing or wall to maintain balance. Carefully extend your ankles until you have reached your maximum height (this should feel like reaching for something on a high shelf), and then slowly lower the heels back down into the stretch. Listen to your body throughout this motion, and end immediately if there is unexpected pain or discomfort. Repeat 10-20 times.
Why it works: This movement trains and stretches the ankle on its primary axis of movement, the one we use while walking down the street. By contracting the calf muscle and stretching it in an alternating manner, we combine the best of strength and flexibility training in one fluid movement. Strong calves power movement across the floor, and calf flexibility is integral to maintaining a healthy back and preventing other injuries.
3. One-Footed Balance
The move: This self-explanatory movement is an exercise in balance and stabilization, both crucial elements to good dancing. Start standing on both legs, and slowly move the weight of your body over the left foot. When you feel balanced, lift the right foot off of the ground and maintain your balance over the left foot for as long as possible. Bring your attention to the small movements that the muscles of your leg make when actively maintaining balance. Repeat this process with the right foot and work up to balancing for 2 minutes at a time on each foot. This may take several weeks, depending on your ability. Aim for effortless and small corrections, not large and jerky movements.
Why it works: When sitting in a chair or lying in a bed or couch, you body is responsible for very little active balancing. Standing over one foot, on the other hand, takes careful concentration and calibrated movement. You should be able to feel shifts in weight from the outside of the foot to the inside, and forward and back. Over time, these muscular responses will become smoother and more controlled, leading to more confident balance and, therefore, dance.
4. Arch Squat
The Move: Though perhaps the most challenging of the exercises described here, this movement can do wonders for your stability on the dance floor. With heels raised, balanced on the balls of your feet, lower with control to a comfortable squat position, then press back up to standing, all with heels off of the ground and with good posture. Most people will find that they have difficulty holding their heels off the ground as they lower, and some may experience shaking or unsteadiness. If you find that you cannot keep your heels raised, try using a yoga block or a rolled-up towel placed under the heel of each foot. If you find it difficult to go down, find a chair or other fixed object to help guide your path downwards. Work up to doing 10-20 squats in a row. If at any point you feel unexpected pain or discomfort, end the movement immediately by lowering your heels to the ground.
Why it Works: The goal of this movement is not to get it perfect the first time, but to slowly train the body to understand and find stability when placed on the balls of the feet. For followers especially, this ‘forced arch position’ can have tremendous benefits in ankle stability in many movement (e.g. spins and turns).The forced arch position requires both flexibility and strength from the user, making it a balanced movement for improving mobility. The large calf muscles will be engaged in order to keep the foot flexed downward, while the smaller muscles that control the toes will be asked to be flexible and strong in order to maintain balance. The lateral stability muscles of the ankle will engage to prevent movement from side to side, making this a good all-around test of ankle health.
Improving ankle mobility is something every dancer should aspire to, and these four movements will give you a wonderful foundation. Of course, the best workout is the one that you’ll actually do, so feel free to cut or add exercises as you see fit in order to stay motivated. If I had to recommend only one move, the Alphabet would take the cake. The flexibility and strength gains possible from that movement are excellent.
Pick an exercise or two and try them out for a week or two. I am willing to bet you’ll see an increase in the quality of your dancing.
See you on the dance floor!