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High insteps, high arches: ballet feet

Spring break was all that could be hoped for; Lisa and Erik were very gracious hosts, and Berkeley is amazing. I’m in love with the Bay Area all over again, and can’t wait to move there in a few months! Now, there’s that pesky issue of a prospectus…

Meanwhile, I have been meaning to post for a very long time now about ballet feet, and particularly on the question of insteps. As with my hyperextension post, I’m no doctor or any other kind of authority, I’m writing strictly from my own experience, this is no replacement for a knowledgeable teacher or physical trainer, yadda yadda yadda. So! On with it.

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Ballet–classical ballet–is not a kind or generous dance form. That is, to a considerable degree, there is a very stringent and unyielding standard of what is desirable in the body of a dancer, and what is not. Attend any performance by a major company, and even a newcomer to ballet can get a basic sense of this: long and almost always thin. That said, there are ballet companies which take or even feature other kinds of bodies; the Joffrey, for instance, is known for the athleticism of its dancers. Some are downright stocky, and often very very strong, as opposed to the wispier physiques of other ballet companies.

The Joffrey aside (somewhat…their dancers are still very slim!) the prevailing trend in ballet these days is long and thin. Yet the demands that ballet makes of dancers go even beyond this already difficult to realize ideal; it extends to the very shape of the foot, and that extra inch of bone and flesh on the foot can earn a ballerina the envy of her peers. It’s no overstatement, I think, to say that dancers admire and want beautiful feet, even to the point of buying fabric inserts to give feet the desired appearance.

The ideal is, put simply: a strong yet flexible foot with a high arch and a high instep. As with hyperextension, high arches and insteps are all about the lines. When a foot with a high instep and high arch is fully pointed and stretched–oh, so lovely!

The Mechanics

The arch is the curve under the foot, between the heel and forefoot. The instep-perhaps a little counterintuitively–is the bony structure on top of the foot.


behold, Svetlana Zakharova’s ridiculously perfect foot!

For ballet, it is more important to have a high arch; this enables a dancer to get to a high demi-pointe, and if she is dancing en pointe, to get over the box of the shoe. From my experience, the jury’s still out on the functionality of a high instep; according to one teacher I’ve had, it’s purely aesthetic; from another teacher’s perspective, it has something to do with getting over the box as well. I’m not sure about this. But it is true that high arches and high insteps tend to go together, just as low insteps and flat feet tend to go together. My own feet are an odd mix: fairly good arches, minimal insteps; strangely enough, it seems that my left instep is a little higher than my right.

Alas, there is no way to vastly improve arches and insteps. For “banana feet” such as Zakharova’s or Alessandra Ferri’s, one must be born with them. No amount of ballet will ever get flat feet to look like those. However, feet can be gently exercised to improve arches–if only a little bit. Imagine pushing your arches outward in demi-pointe. The popular plie, rolling through the feet into demi-pointe, and then rising in releve is a great way to encourage the arches. For insteps, I suppose that imagining the instep pushing outward as well would help, as would making sure that feet are fully pointed and stretched for tendus and degages. But in general–you either have high insteps, or you don’t. When focusing on arches and pointing one’s feet, be careful to avoid sickling and pushing too hard, straining the ankle.

As I mentioned in my post about hyperextension, dancers with a lot of flexibility may tend to be not as strong as the dancers with lower levels of flexibility. This goes for feet as well. Strong feet tend to be flat, and curvy flexible feet have a tendency towards weakness. Both strength and flexibility are sought-after characteristics, and strength in feet is particularly useful for pointe work. Some young dancers with curved, flexible feet may find it frustrating to build the strength necessary to support themselves en pointe.

Dancer 1 has fairly low insteps; dancers 2 and 3 have high insteps!

A bit of historical perspective (my favorite kind of perspective)

Ballet dancers have not always been held to this standard. In the 19th and early 20th century, bodies and feet were not always pushed to the extremes that are now sought after.

Olga Spessivtseva.

Not only did dancers from these days tend to be just a tad more voluptuous, in my opinion, but the expected en pointe look was also quite different. Above, we can see that Spessivtseva’s left (standing) foot is en pointe, but she is not quite over the box of her shoe. (The box is the rectangular-ish part of the shoe that encloses the toes and forefoot.) These days, it is expected of ballerinas that they will be able to get over the box of the shoe. A good arch makes this possible, and a high instep enhances the look. For example:

I think this is Zakharova again. Whoever it is, what an amazing line, from tip of her right toes to the bottom of her left!

As the 20th century progressed, dancers bodies became thinner, more streamlined, more elongated, more flexible, faster, and so on.

long, lean, and flexible!

It seems that many young dancers feel a great deal of pressure regarding their bodies, and feet in particular–“good feet” are banana feet, and “bad feet” have low arches and low insteps. They are particularly pressured about this when they are young and their bodies still somewhat malleable. But consider Margot Fonteyn:

Her feet are quite modest. “Bad,” even. Beyond her feet, she raised her arabesques only to a chaste 90 degrees–a far cry from the extensions in the above two photos! Yet my ballet teachers still carry on about how much she made of just a little precipite, or of such seemingly easy arabesques as above. Quality of movement, not quantity or length of extension.

I confess that I have a bit of an obsession with beautiful ballet feet. Sylvie Guillem, anyone? But in class I am always drawn to watching the dancers who are smiling, whose dancing radiates joy. Sometimes they have lovely feet. Sometimes not.
As desirable as high arches and insteps may be, it’s good to bear in mind that 99% of the audience don’t notice them–indeed, if they are in the nosebleed seats, they can’t even see them. High insteps are really a dancer’s obsession, and means very little beyond this particular group. This may be even more exclusively a ballet dancer’s obsession, as I can’t remember meeting a modern, tap, or ballroom dancer bemoaning the skeletal structure of their feet. Ballet can be exacting indeed.

Where the average viewer is concerned, what really counts is the expressive use of the whole body–think Fonteyn! Even one of Suzanne Farrell’s feet was partially crushed on one side due to a childhood accident. In terms of the feet, a pointed, strong, average foot is much more aesthetically pleasing than an unpointed, weak banana foot. And for balletomanes, the sum of the whole is much more important than the quality of the parts–even when it comes to something as basic as the feet in the pointe shoes. So in the end, as with hyperextension, slimness, proportion, line, etc, it is better to see a dancer using and celebrating what she has been blessed with, as opposed to watching a dancer with a perfect body (and perfect feet) going through the motions.