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.
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?