Dancing barefoot can be a wonderful sensation for a dancer, enabling one to feel more connected to the floor as well as show off articulation that can sometimes be masked by shoes. However, dancing barefoot exposes a dancer to a number of complications and, because a dancer’s career is dependent on optimal health and physical shape, these ailments can hinder one’s progress.
Here a handful of dancers, specialists, and healthcare professionals open up about the dangers of dancing barefoot and offer some tips to soothe and protect battered and overworked feet.
Ailments and Infections
Leigh Heflin, MA, MSc, Educational Coordinator at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries of the NYU Langone Medical Center’s Hospital for Joint Diseases, says dancing barefoot can lead to tearing of skin, blisters, broken or sprained toes, as well as foot fungus or other contractible diseases.
Tales from the Studio
While majoring in dance at the University of Arizona, Wonderbound/Ballet Noueavu Colorado dancer Candice Bergeron experienced several repercussions from dancing barefoot in her modern and jazz classes. The omission of footwear took a toll on her feet in the form of blisters and, due to Arizona’s intense, dry heat, the skin on the bottom of her feet would often crack and split.
Her left foot developed a particularly bad split, which continued to reopen and deepen as her academic career progressed. “I tried to tape it,” she says of the cut. “But I couldn’t take time off [to let it heal].” The use of antibiotic ointments helped ward off infection – Bergeron was lucky in that – but she still experienced pain from the gash, especially in turns or quick changes of direction. She used superglue on the gash to help her get through class and performances. The cut persisted for the entirety of her time in Arizona and didn’t heal until she joined Wonderbound/Ballet Noueavu, where the bulk of the repertoire is danced in flesh-colored ballet flats.
Hygiene factors also contribute to the risk of procuring an injury from dancing barefoot. After coming in constant contact with sweaty feet and bodies, one can never be sure how sanitary a dance surface is. Former Georgia Ballet dancer Caroline Laubacher Simpkins learned about this reality the hard way. After dancing barefoot on a marley surface and walking around the rehearsal space and dressing room shoeless, she began to notice an odd sensation on the bottom of her feet.
“It started out feeling like the bottoms of my feet were slightly bruised and tender to the touch,” says Laubacher Simpkins. After time, the pain worsened; “It felt like I had rocks inside my feet and it [was] excruciating to stand on demi-pointe.” The extreme discomfort forced her to visit a dermatologist, who diagnosed her with plantar warts, a viral infection on the soles and toes caused by a strand of HPV (Human Papillomavirus).
She tried over-the-counter wart medications; the remedies ameliorated the symptoms briefly, but the warts kept coming back. To fully remove the warts, Laubacher Simpkins had to have them frozen off. “[This] was also quite painful since it blistered pretty badly afterwards,” she says of the procedure. She was forced to take time off. Since then, she’s had only one reoccurrence, and is mindful to not be barefoot in a dance studio or surrounding areas.
Prevention and Remedies
Heflin suggests Epson-salt soaks to “draw out moisture from blisters and help cuts dry out.” She also recommends using a pumice stone regularly on thick callouses to avoid developing blisters underneath them. Dancing on a marley or shock absorbent floor, which lessens impact and friction on the feet, is ideal; dance surfaces should also be cleaned with disinfectant soap on a daily basis, if not multiple times throughout the day, to avoid contractible diseases.
Emma Jory, a STOTT Pilates Internationally Certified trainer and owner of Emergy Pilates Lounge in Australia, teaches foot health and function through the Yamuna Foot Fitness course. The course is designed to “increase flexibility, bring back movement and separation of the bones of the foot, [and] improve muscle tone,” says Jory. “Feet are the foundation of the body,” she explains. Workouts aim to improve bone and joint movement, helping alleviate the impact continuously put on them. Her goal is to improve foot function by returning bones to their natural positions and strengthening the surrounding muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
A great option for dancers is to find suitable footwear that gives the illusion of being barefoot. Capezio offers a variety of ‘barely-there’ shoes, including footUndeez™, the half sole Sandasol™ and the Pirouette II.
Dancers: Artistic Athletes
Dancers pride themselves in their artistic attributes, but it’s important to acknowledge the art is only a percentage of the equation – dancers are also athletes. According to Erroll Bailey, M.D., a sports medicine foot and ankle specialist at Atlanta’s Resurgens Orthopaedics, the demands placed on a dancer’s body are often more strenuous than that of a professional football or basketball player. Whether dancing barefoot, in shoes, on a marley floor or on a hard, non-shock-absorbent surface, dancers should strive to never sacrifice their health for their artistry, and learn to identify the difference between soreness and actual pain. When experiencing any of the above conditions, address the problem immediately and seek out professional help if the pain worsens or persists.
For more information about the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries of the NYU Langone Medical Center’s Hospital for Joint Diseases, visit hjd.med.nyu.edu/harkness.
For more information about Jory’s Pilates and Foot Fitness courses in Australia, visit her website at www.emergypilates.com.au.
By Stephanie Wolf of Dance Informa.