How well do you know your feet?

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Photo by Kristin Di Nino

Feet can be the most used and abused part of a dancer’s body. They help us jump, turn, rise, balance, and relevé. Sometimes we put shoes on them, sometimes we leave them au naturale. Not every dancer relies on their feet (not every dancer is able-bodied!) for many, though, they are essential to the practice and performance of all types of dance. But, how well do dancers really know their feet?

The Phalange is broken!

If you’re a Friends fan, you’ll know that the phalange is an important instrument on an airplane….Just kidding! It’s actually the plural name for one of the many bones in your feet.

There are 26 bones in your feet! 14 of those are in your toes alone and are called phalanges (singular phalanx). Each toe has 3 phalanges with 2 joints between them, except your big toe which has 2 phalanges with 1 joint between them. These interphalangeal joints allow your toes to curl and lengthen. Sometimes dancers curl or “grip” these joints too much when they are trying really hard to balance.

Blausen.com staff (2014). "Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014". WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2).
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The longest bones in your foot are called metatarsals. They form joints with your phalanges at the base of your toes that bend when going up onto demi-pointe. If your teacher tells you to “work through your metatarsals” they’re actually telling you to work through your metatarsophalangeal joints. But, that’s a mouthful, so we shorten it a bit:)

The bones that make up the inside arch of your foot are called tarsals. There are 5 smaller tarsals in the middle part of your foot and 2 larger tarsals in the back of your foot. One of the larger tarsal bones, your talus, creates your ankle joint with your tibia and fibula. As you point and flex your foot, most of the movement comes from your ankle, but the smaller tarsal bones also move a little bit.

What holds all those bones together?

Your many foot and ankle bones are held together by even more ligaments. A ligament connects bone to bone and is made out of tough connective tissue. When you have an ankle “sprain” you’ve injured a ligament, usually a big one on the outside called the anterior talofibular ligament or ATFL. A ligament’s main job is to stabilize bones and joints, but they also give our brains important information about balance and where our limbs are in space. This is called proprioception. When you sprain a ligament, some of that proprioception is lost and your chance of spraining your ankle again increases. That’s why it’s important to see a healthcare professional after you’ve hurt your ankle to build up your proprioception and prevent re-injuring yourself.

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So many ligaments! Can you find the ATFL? (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

What about muscles?

There are 2 groups of muscles that move your foot and ankle: intrinsic and extrinsic muscles. Intrinsic muscles start and end in your foot. They are responsible for spreading, curling, and extending your toes as well as supporting your arch and all of the tarsal bones. There are a lot of intrinsic foot muscles, so we usually talk about them and strengthen them as a group. Extrinsic muscles cross your ankle and are responsible for flexing, pointing, winging, and sickling your ankle. Your calf and shin muscles are examples of extrinsic muscles as they start up near your knee and extend across your ankle, sometimes all the way to the ends of your toes.

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The top photo shows the extrinsic muscles. The bottom 3 photos show the intrinsic muscles.
Photo Credit: OpenStax

The foot is an incredible combination of 26 bones, more than 30 joints and 20 muscles. They absorb shock, propel us off the ground, support us in pointe shoes, and look oh-so-pretty at the end of a beautifully extended dévelopée. I hope this post helped you understand a little bit more about this complex but important part of the dancing body.