Sickling and Rolling In

The terms sickling and rolling in are often used in dance classes to define issues with ankle alignment. However, I have found that many students do not have a clear understanding of the actions of the ankle and foot and, therefore, do not know how to correct these issues when asked. I hope this post will help clear up any confusion and assist students in working to correct poor ankle alignment.

“Sickling,” also called supination, is an action of the tarsus (a group of bones in the foot that allow a person to “roll” their ankle in circles). Without getting technical, when one is sickling, they are standing on the outsides of their feet, their pointed foot is “flagging,” or in relevé their outer ankle bone is pulled into misalignment away from the mid-line of the body. “Rolling in” refers to an action called pronation which is essentially the opposite of supination. When standing, someone that is pronating is allowing their arch to drop toward the floor. When the foot is pointed and pronating, the inner heel is pushed forward (sometimes referred to as “winging” the foot). In relevé the anles tilt toward the mid-line of the body. Although these actions are often stated to occur at the ankle, the ankle joint only points and flexes. It is the tarsus that creates any additional motion.

Mostly, dance teachers see pronation (or rolling in) of the tarsus when students are standing. Because the bones on the inside of the foot are larger/heavier than those on the outside, gravity has a tendency to pull the foot into pronation if the muscles used to lift the arch are not trained to do so. Supination is more common when dancers are pointing their feet or standing in relevé (en pointe or demi-pointe) because there is more flexibility in the muscles and tendons on the outside of the foot. When attempting to rise to demi-pointe, some dancers who have a limited range of motion will push beyond their limit, causing the foot to sickle (see picture at right). Supination or sickling when the leg is lifted is very common in young or beginning dancers because they do not possess the strength or muscle memory to maintain proper alignment.

Correcting Alignment Issues

Dancers slowly correct ankle alignment when it is addressed in class. As early as age 7 or 8, you may see improvement in this area if the students are, 1) taught how to feel the difference between a sickled/pronated foot and the correct, neutral alignment and, 2) consistently reminded.  Older students need this same encouragement and reminding until maintaining neutral alignment becomes habit. This takes time, diligence, and mindful dancing. Some dancers point their foot so hard that it forces their foot into a sickled position. The teacher can have the student relax the leg muscles and gently reposition their foot in the proper placement. Keep in mind that dancers going through puberty can sometimes seem to backslide in their strength or flexibility because of growth spurts and rapid changes in their bodies), exercise bands may help strengthen the muscles involved in pronation and supination. If a student is showing weakness in rélevé, a good cure is more rélevé! Perform them in a slow and steady manner, with focus on rising straight up with weight over the second and third toe.

For young dancers that need a reminder not to pronate while standing, I will offer an image frequently used in my dance classes growing up: Imagine a little mouse family all snug in their beds under your arch. Allow the foot to roll in and the little mice will be awfully squished and have to wriggle out! At any age or level, the practice of using and maintaining proper alignment in class will be enough to build the strength and muscle memory needed to correct most problems with pronation and supination. Occasionally a student may have a muscular or skeletal issue that is affecting the tarsus area, the best thing to do is have a doctor or physical therapist check it out if you think this may be the case.

Excessive Turnout and Ankle Alignment

It is important to point out that sickling and rolling in have nothing to do with turnout. Although, some dancers and teachers seem to focus on the angle which the feet make in turnout, please note that turnout occurs from the hips only. Occasionally when dancers “force” their turnout they are straining the tendons in their knees for a little extra rotation at a joint that is only supposed to bend and straighten, which in turn usually results in pronation (rolling in) as well. This only gives the appearance of a wider “V,” but a trained eye knows that this is not turnout. Forcing turnout can lead to injury and possibly surgery down the road.

Maintaining proper alignment in the foot while dancing is very important. Problems in the lower body have a way of working their way up, causing issues and even injury in the knees, hips, back, etc. Dancers must move with awareness of what their body is doing, and a big part of that is understanding the function and terminology of certain bones and muscles. Hopefully I’ve helped you to understand supination and pronation a bit better. Here are some great resources for gaining understanding of how the body works as it relates to dance.

The Body Series
Dance Kinesiology
Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery

Has sickling or rolling in been a problem for you? Have you ever heard the terms supination or pronation used in a dance class before?

Nichelle (admin)
Nichelle Suzanne began Dance Advantage in 2008, equipped with a passion for movement education and an intuitive sense that a blog could bring dancers together. Nichelle holds a BA in dance and is an instructor with more than 17 years experience. She covers dance performance in the Houston area as a freelance writer and balances daily life as a mom to two young children. In June 2012, Nichelle presented the whats, hows, and whys of blogging on a panel at the annual conference for Dance/USA, the national service organization for professional dance, to better equip artists and companies for engaging their audience and new readers through online communications and content.
Nichelle (admin)
Nichelle (admin)
Nichelle (admin)

Comments

  1. mdjgrobanfan says:

    Thank you for this. I have a slight problem with sickling. It mainly happens when I am tired and, my body does not want to correct itself. I will have to practice my releves and use exercise bands this summer in preparation for the new dance year.

  2. Great information. And, like you said, this is the sort of thing that even some older dancers need to be reminded of. Having that “trained eye” is so important when a dancer herself can’t always spot these issues.

    Thanks!

  3. Thanks for commenting in my blog :)

    My dance teacher recently noticed that I have supination; this article really helped me understand what it is. I have very high arches in my feet

    • Alabanaich says:

      The fascinating aspect of this is that is much better understood by atheletes, particularly endurance atheltes (you would thing dancers would be more aware) You can buy running shoes pronated and supinated feet, but not dance shoes.

      Supination and Pronation should not be confused with high and low arch. It’s about the algnment of the ankle, though with a high arch the foot is more likly to supinate than protonate because that is the easiest way fot he muscles to manage the high arch.

      High arch and supination give stability on heel down and toe off, so are an advantage in dancing, but, it results in poor shock absorption, so the supinator/high arch foot dancer is much more likely to get stress injuries of the ankle and knees.

      In atheletics running shoes for high arch feet are designed with extra cushioning to overcome this – I’ve yet to hear of a cushioned dance sneaker :-(

      • Thanks for your comment, Alabanaic!. There is certainly always more room for understanding of how the body works and also in the design of dance footwear. However, I actually think most well-trained in the art of dance are very aware of alignment in the ankle and tarsus. Though dance is athletic, it is an art form not a sport, so aesthetics is an issue when one is talking about shoe support. Most dancers don’t dance in sneakers as part of the art form. In fact, many do not dance in shoes at all. So for dance, the education and awareness must come from training. Dancers that strengthen and learn to maintain their ankle and tarsus alignment while moving, drastically reduce injury with or without shoes.

        As for shock absorption, much research has been put into dance floor design. The shock absorption factor is a primary reason why it is essential for dancers to rehearse and perform on a quality floor designed for dance. This is unfortunately the area that most dance institutions fail their dancers – this is the area that I’d agree there is a lack of awareness. But often it comes down to money. Many know they should have a good dance floor but the cost is daunting so it is pushed further down the list of priorities, when for the health of dancers it should be at or near the top.

        Thanks again for stopping by!

        • Albanaich says:

          I’m not a performance dancer – I’m mostly Swing dancer, though I’ve been involved in most forms of partner dance. So excuse me if I’ve a rather different perspective on things.

          We don’t get the option of dancing in bare feet :-) and the floors we dance on (sometimes solid concrete) can often be pretty awful, though of course we all enjoy sprung wood floors. The people who built ballrooms 60 years ago knew how to construct floors.

          It’s fascinating how many of these delightful floors are lying about disused.

          My personal solution (I have a very high arch) was to discard formal dance shoes and use sueded Skateboard shoes – which because of their cushioning and support work just fine.

          Just a suggestion if you find dance sneakers or shoes don’t work for you.

          • Albanaich says:

            Or, if you have to dance on a solid floor, or you are recovering from an ankle or knee injury, Skateboard shoes will help protect your feet, ankles and knees from damage (because that’s what they are designed to do)

            • I figured since you were talking shoes, you were probably doing some sort of ballroom. :) I don’t know much about footwear in that realm… it is unfortunate that you had to find another solution (I would have never thought of skateboard shoes!) but I’m really glad you found something that offers the support you need and thank you for sharing it with others.

              Different dance forms definitely have different needs but as you stated before I do think we could learn a bit from the sports world about being willing to invest in the creation and use of good equipment.

              • Albanaich says:

                The Skateboard shoes is obvious – once you’ve thought about it.

                A Skateboarder does everything a dancer does in terms of wieght bearing and ankle flexibility – except they are doing it on concrete.

                The shoes have to light but very flexible and very well cushioned

                I have trouble finding any shoes that suit my high arch. I saw Skateboard shoes thought they would be good for my very broad feet, and found they worked for Lindy Hop and WCS.

                I wouldn’t recommend it as a solution for everyone and every situation, but if you do have to dance on concrete, it does save you a lot of pain and injury.

                You do have to glue suede to the sole though so you can slide and spin.

  4. Thanks for this article. I think it’s important to point out, however, that “muscle memory” is a misnomer that is often used by dance teachers to imply a skill or position that is “in the body” or can be referenced without thought like “riding a bike”. Muscles don’t have memory–only the brain does and practice doing something the right way creates a loop in the brain that can be accessed without conscious thought, but muscles don’t remember anything.

    • Thanks Lauren, you are right that this is an important distinction. I’ve always thought of muscle memory as the memory our brain has of certain muscle coordination or actions. This could be a confusing term, however. Thanks for making note of it!

      • ‘Muscle Memory’ might better be described as ‘neural memory’. What actually happens is that with training the body develops nerve connections that are independent of direct control from the brain. The heart will continue to beat even though it is removed from the body – it is operating on ‘muscle memory’

        A neural loop exists that drives muscule ocntraction – but the neural signals do not have to be processed in the brain.

        • Albanaich,

          Respectfully, I disagree. It is true that there are neural loops that develop through practice, and this is certainly the case with voluntary motor movements. That’s why certain patterns that have been practiced seem to be automatic. However, the motor loop just makes it more efficient to perform those movements-it doesn’t take the brain out of the picture.

          Heart beat, on the other hand, is an involuntary muscular contraction and is controlled by a central pattern generator (CPG). CPG’s such as heart beat, breath, etc. are controlled at the spinal cord level and not at the brain level–they do not require conscious “thought” in order to occur. However, if you remove the heart from the body, severing the connection to the spinal cord, it will cease to function. Any transient “beats” are the result of left over chemical reactions that were stored up in the muscle. After those chemical bonds have been used up, the muscle doesn’t work anymore-it’s just tissue.

          Thanks for your comments!

          • I’m not sure where the disagreement is. You seem to be repeating the points I made.

            If you chop the head off a chicken it will still run about. No signals from the brain. Mary Queen of Scots lips moved as if speaking some 15 minutes after she was decapitated and effectively brain dead.

            Muscle tissue is certainly inacapable of movement without neural signals – however, those neural signals (as you point out) don’t have to come from the brain, they can come from a self contained loop that is produced by training.

            It is true to say that muscle tissue has ‘no memory’, but the muscle tissue is interwoven with the neural tissue that triggers its contraction.

            But this is all didactism that detracts from the main point.

            Skills and bad habits of posture learnt in childhood at the most basic level are retained through life.

            I regularly encounter women who are returning to dance after a 20 or 30 year gap, having given up in thier mid teens.

            They are instantly recognisable as having been dance trained – usually you can identify what form (Highland, Contemporary or Ballet). The skills (balance, agility, timing) they have retained have nothing to do with the muscles (which will have completely replaced themselves several times)

            • Where I disagree is that the examples you are giving are not consistent with practiced motor loops. Heartbeat is a CPG, controlled at the spinal cord. Remove the heart from the chest and all that remains are a few leftover chemical reactions, not “memory”. Walking is also a CPG. So if you cut off the head of a chicken it will continue to walk for a short time because the spinal cord connection is still in tact-until those chemical reactions run out-which won’t be long without the connection to the brain. I don’t know anything about Mary Queen of Scots or her lips moving, but if they were I can guarantee it wasn’t for long.

              Practiced motor patterns are different, and ALWAYS involve the brain. The motor loops established through practice just make it more efficient to access those movements, which is why someone who was trained in dance 30 years ago can pick up movements more quickly than someone without any training. But the salient point here is that NONE of this happens without the brain and we should be careful when giving examples that they are not functioning by some other rule, such as CPG’s. It’s not didactic, it’s physiology.

  5. Maddison Richards says:

    the best running shoes are always made of very resilient synthetic rubber”-~

    • Albanaich says:

      Running shoes are NOT dance shoes. A runner hits the ground in a consistent repeatable pattern. Dancers hit the ground at varying wieghts, angles and pressure variations.

      The closest activity in terms of foot and angle pressure is probally skateboarding, and skateboarders generally have to deal with a much harder surfaces than dancers.

      A dancer will generally prefer bare feet or shoes that give maximum ‘feel’ for the floor. However, in the case of injury, skateboard shoes, which are designed to give protection to the foot in situations of high impact on unyielding surfaces will provide the dancer protection from further damage while the injury heals.

  6. Like your website. I am a pronator. I have terrible flat feet. I’ve become addicted to Zumba. My knees are killing me. Can you recommend footwear??

    • Hi Joanne,

      I just realized I never responded to you – my apologies! I am not a Zumba instructor so I can’t say what the best footwear for your class would be. However, finding something with good arch support should lessen the strain on your knees.

      Also, a doctor or physical therapist will best be able to help you find the right exercises to strengthen your supporting muscles. Generally strengthening the opposing muscles – the ones that cause supination helps dancers with pronation tendencies.

      There are several ways to do this but one way is to sit in a chair and cross one foot so that the ankle is resting on the other thigh. If you relax the foot, it will dangle in pronated position. Without moving anything else, lift the toes toward the ceiling as much as possible (supination). Do several sets of these. You can add light resistance with a stretchy exercise band. Place it over the arch/middle of your foot and step on the ends with your other foot. You’ll be pulling the toes upward against the resistance of the band.

  7. Jessica says:

    When I dance in relevé, walk normally and even when I lie down my ankles tend to sickle and I find it extremely uncomfortable and even painful to try and keep them aligned. Also, whenever I roll my ankles or realign them they tend to crack. Do you think I may have a muscular or skeletal issue that may prevent me from achieving a good ankle alignment?

Google+