“Knees over your your toes”
“Lift your arch”
“Turn out from the hip”
“Don’t curl your toes when you pointe.”
These are corrections we often hear only in ballet class, but these key principles of alignment will help prevent dancers from getting injured in any class.
Many times dancers dismiss the alignment of their legs when learning new choreography, or tackling a new style of dance. While they might not get injured right away, sloppy leg work will drastically increase injury risk. On the other hand, properly aligned legs will keep them dancing longer and stronger.
When correcting alignment it is best to begin with the hips. To assess proper positioning of the hips, have the dancer stand in a shallow first position and look at where the hip bones (more specifically the anterior superior iliac spine) are in relationship to the pubic bone. Ideally, the hip bones and pubic bone are in the same frontal plane.
(See my earlier article, A Trip Around the Torso.)
This “neutral” position is the safest to work from. If the hip bones are forward of the pubic bone the hips are in an anterior tilt. Usually, in this position, the dancers’ lower back is arched. If the pubic bone is forward of the hip bones then the hips are in a posterior tilt, or “tucked under.” In classes where external rotation of the legs is required, all of the rotation must come from the hip joint. There should be no turn out at the knee or ankle joints. Whatever the amount of turn out needed the neutral position of the hip must be maintained.
A great place to check the knee alignment is during plies. When the dancer bends her/his knee, the knee cap should be pointing the same direction the toes. If it is not, then instruct the dancer to bring the toes in until they match the direction of the knee cap.
I know that many dancers want to be hyperextended at the knee, and I’ll admit it does make a beautiful line. It is, unfortunately, an incredibly unstable and dangerous position accentuating internal rotation at the knee joint. When a knee straightens and locks into position, the femur rotates slightly on the tibia. Hyperextended knees rock deeper into that locked position, accentuating the internal rotation of the leg and straining the ligaments.
Hyperextension at the knee can also pull the hips into an anterior tilt, which will in turn, put the low back at risk for injury. Encourage dancers to work from a “true straight” position, where the knees are straight, but not bent back into hyperextension.
To find this position, have the dancer sit on the floor, with their legs extended out in front of the torso. First cue the dancer to straighten their legs and see if they can get their heels off the floor, this is a hyperextended position. Next have them soften the knees until the heels rest on the floor. This is a “true straight” position.
Trying to work in a true straight is very challenging and the dancer will feel wobbly for a while, but it is worth the work to have strong legs.
While standing with the foot flat on the floor, cue dancers to lift their arches. This helps release the locking mechanism in back of the knees and will help find a strong position for the knees to rest in. On relevé, weight should be centered over the first two toes. Beginning dancers, and dancers with a shallow pointe often place more weight on the pinky toes. Encourage them to put more weight on their big toes. This will help strengthen the muscles on the outside of the ankle, and guard against ankle sprain.
All toes should be straight, and lengthened out on the floor. Working with your toes straight not only encourages proper articulation, but also helps develop a healthy pointe, so that if the student begins pointe work they are not plagued with blisters.
After proper alignment of the leg and torso have been established, bring the dancers weight forward over their toes. This is a slight hinge at the ankle, with all of the alignment principles remaining in tact. Heels should not lift up off the ground in a standing position, unless the dancer is executing a step that requires it.
One of my teachers in college, Rochelle Zide-Booth, used to tell us that our foot was attached to the floor by two nails on the ball of the foot, and a thumbtack at the heel. In this position the dancer is ready to relevé, leap, flap, or pirouette with minimal injury risk.
Laurel Foley has been dancing for over 20 years, she earned her BA in Dance Pedagogy from Butler University. She currently teaches ballet and children’s dance at Style Dance Academy in Franklin, IN and is enrolled in the BASI Pilates teacher training program