Our guest columnist is Annette T. Thomas, a dance teacher and choreographer, who has trained at Carnegie Hall, the San Juan Ballet Company, and the Connecticut Regional Ballet Company under world class instructors. With 30 years of dance and figure skating experience behind her, Annette is certified in Russian Method Classical Ballet, and is a member of the Professional Skaters Association, U.S. Figure Skating, the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science, and the Wisconsin Dance Council. Annette began working with figure skaters in 1998 and has conducted numerous off and on-ice workshops in the areas of conditioning and artistry. She is also the author of Fundamentals of Alignment and Classical Movement for Figure Skaters, which has received international acclaim from ice and roller skaters and their coaches.
Feet and Ankles: articulation, strength and correct alignment
by Annette T. Thomas
To continue the theme of Taking Time for Your Feet, I’d like to address how working specifically on ankle and foot articulation, strength and alignment can enhance whole body awareness and release flow of movement. Your ability to balance, maneuver, jump and spin relies on the foundation of your feet and ankles. Try to visualize the soles of your feet and your brain as "electrodes" and that your energy and body awareness are continually flowing and "arcing" between these two points. If there is a disconnection between these two "electrodes" your entire body awareness and flow will be broken.
To reiterate two "feet facts" from my previous article:
- Much of accurate proprioception comes from sensitivity in the soles of the feet. If your feet have not been included as an essential part of your training they will not send accurate information to your nervous system. This inaccurate information can cause problems in every area of your skating as balance, timing and artistic sensitivity require that the entire body be fully attuned to every nuance of movement through time and space.
- Even though the feet are “locked” into the skating boot the surface quality of the ice should still be felt through the floor of the boot. If your feet have been neglected they will lack the sensitivity to feel the ice. This in turn directly affects edge quality and as well as whole body line.
For a skater, it is often easy to neglect these areas as the skating boot seems to do so much of the support work, but it is the internal strength, flexibility and energy flow that make achievement possible.
Below are two exercises which will help you to feel how foot and ankle articulation affects the internal workings of the entire lower leg.
Exercise 1. Foot articulation/awareness exercise
Begin barefooted and seated in a comfortable position, wrap both hands tightly and completely around one foot.
- Moving just your toes, crunch the toes down, hold, release, and repeat.
- Flex the toes up, hold, release, and repeat.
- Spread the toes out wide, hold, release, and repeat.
- Press just the big toe down, hold, release, and repeat.
- Press just the little toe down, hold, release, and repeat.
Analyze: Did you feel the muscles in the bottom of the foot? What did you feel different each time? Were you surprised at how much action you could feel when you spread your toes?
Repeat the entire exercise, wrapping both hands tightly and completely around your ankle. Analyze: Did you still feel the same movements or were they different? If they were different, how did they differ?
Repeat the entire exercise, once again wrapping both hands tightly and completely around your lower calf. Even though it was more difficult to feel the movements of the toes within the calf muscle you will still be able to feel some internal movement. (Excerpts and exercises taken from “Fundamentals of Alignment and Classical Movement for Figure Skaters,” available for purchase at Ballet for Figure Skaters.)
Exercise 2. Ankle articulation/awareness exercise
Step #1: Wrap both hands tightly and completely around your ankle.
Step #2: Dorsiflex your foot strongly, feel your Achilles tendon stretch while the tendons at the front of your foot contract. Relax and repeat the movement:
Step #3: Now evert:
Step #4: Then invert the foot slowly and strongly in the flexed position:
Step #5: Lastly rotate your foot clockwise then counterclockwise in the widest circle you can.
Step #6: Repeat the above exercise while holding the upper calf tightly and completely.
Analyze: Did you feel the calf muscle stretch and the tibialis anterior (muscle in front of the tibia) contract? This is one of the muscle groups that works together during jump take-off. Did you feel the Peroneus muscles (muscles on the outside of the lower leg) come in to play as you everted and inverted your foot from side to side?
Improving foot and ankle articulation and strength will not only increase coordination and technical finesse, it will also improve your internal mind-body connection and flow. This internal stability and awareness will then free you for greater artistic interpretation.
To strengthen the articulation of my feet and ankles I personally use resistance bands and “Yoga Toes” as well as a series of ballet exercises. To increase strength in pointing the feet, doing exercises which closely correlate to skating movements (push off, pointing the foot and jump take offs and landings) are ultimately more effective than picking up marbles or a towel with the toes for two reasons: First, "crunching” the toes is often mistaken for “pointing the feet.” Second, the entire biomechanics of foot articulation is greatly affected by whether the knee is bent or straight.
Recognizing and enjoying the role your feet play in becoming the best skater you can be can invigorate, both mentally and physically, every area of your training.
TOMORROW...Annette continues her discussion of feet and ankles with "Ankle strength and alignment: A must for skaters."
Annette currently teaches workshops in Russian Method Classical ballet, Folk and Character Dance, and works with skaters at the Wisconsin Figure Skating Club and the Kettle Moraine Figure Skating Club. For additional information on feet, posture, movement, and pretty much everything else that figure skaters should concentrate on, please check out Annette's website Ballet for Figure Skaters.
Article and photos are copyright 2008 by Annette Thomas. Material may not be copied or distributed without the consent of Annette Thomas.