Friday, October 06, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 12: Proper foot care is a big step in the right direction

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Two decades of tango have been tough on my feet, so this next lesson has been partly learned the hard way.

Lesson No. 12. Be good to your feet.

Our feet support our whole bodies. They bear our weight and allow us to stand, to walk, to run, jump and, of course, dance.

So we ought to be thankful to our feet, and to do right by them with all they do for us. There is hardly a move we humans make that doesn't involve those hardworking babies at the ends of our legs.

Tango is particularly tough on our feet. If you use your feet effectively while dancing tango, you exaggerate the rolling-through motion of the foot from heel to toes when walking forward to better control your landings and gain maximum propulsion. You have no doubt heard at least one teacher say to "push the floor." When walking, transferring your weight or pivoting you need to push into the metatarsals and through the toes to generate powerful movements that your partner will feel. This is an essential part of good tango technique but it puts a lot of pressure on the balls of the feet. And if you, like most people, have spent much of your life underusing your feet, you may suddenly find yourself with tired, sore, even injured feet.

Underusing, you ask? But didn't I just say we use our feet for almost every movement we make? Interestingly, despite the fact we constantly load our feet with weight and movement, we generally underuse the intrinsic muscles of the feet because we spend so much of our lives wearing shoes and walking around on hard, flat surfaces. We don't work the strength, flexibility or even mobility of our feet thoroughly so the muscles atrophy and our feet become weak and prone to pain and injury.

Young children generally have broad soles and splayed toes. They also have better foot dexterity than adults and can do things like wiggle their toes individually. We lose this ability in adulthood, but in barefoot cultures around the world, people retain that foot dexterity into old age.

Meanwhile, many if not most knee, hip and back problems begin with the feet.

The good news is that since most foot problems are biomechanical, meaning they are caused by the way we stand and move as well as by the shoes we wear, many are avoidable or even resolvable through biomechanics as well.

Some things you can do to take care of your feet:

When you are standing, your feet should be parallel,
with equal pressure on the inner and outer edges.
•Check your foot position. How do you place your feet when you stand and walk? If you are standing, your feet should be parallel with each other, with the toes facing forward rather than turned in or out. Also, you should have equal pressure on the inner and outer edges of the feet, so you are neither pronating (rolling in) nor supinating (rolling out) when you stand or walk. When in motion it is important to mobilize your feet and ankles and to pay attention to the rolling-through process of each step, forward and backward. In tango, we generally recommend keeping a slight v-shape between the feet, so your heels are together and the fronts of your feet are slightly outward-facing. The degree, however, should be very small – this will help stabilize you without messing with your joint alignment. Your toes should not be jammed into the floor when you are standing. Your centre of gravity should be carried far enough back that your toes are free to lift and wiggle, and that centre should stay back even when you are in motion. This all brings me to my next point.

The line that passes through
your main points of alignment
should be vertical.
•Maintain correct postural alignment. This refers to how the head, shoulders, spine, hips, knees and ankles line up with each other. Proper alignment of the body helps you achieve and maintain good posture, and it will improve your dancing. Poor alignment puts stress on the spine and other articulations, and can ultimately cause joint degeneration.

There are four main points that should be aligned when we are standing. If you drew a line through each of them, it would be completely vertical, not diagonal. Moving from the ground up, these points are:
• the lateral malleolus, or the little bone on the outside of the ankle
• the greater trochanter, or the top part of the femur (thigh bone), at the the hip joint
• the acromion, or the little bone at the top of the shoulder
• the auditory meatus, or ear hole

For more about posture and alignment, you can read my blog post on the subject, but I will wrap up this section with a note about my personal experience:

It is through yoga more than anything that I began really to understand proper alignment and to stand correctly, beginning about seven years ago. When I was younger I could never understand why I could run 10 kilometres or dance all night with relative ease, but I couldn't stand for more than 20 minutes without extreme fatigue and soreness in my feet. I eventually learned that I was carrying my centre of gravity too far forward, which put a lot of stress on my metatarsal joints (and a lot of weight on my tango partners). Whether standing, walking or dancing tango, our axis should be carried over our heels. The heel bone is the largest bone in the foot and made to support our body weight. Now that I know how to properly align myself, I can stand for much longer periods of time without pain or fatigue. Even my high heels tire my feet less. But that doesn't mean I wear them more...

While we may love our stiletto-heeled
tango shoes, they are not so good
for our bodies.
•Choose your shoes with care.

For tangueros, the main question is: Why dance shoes and not just comfy street shoes? Dance shoes have a good balance of support and flexibility. Also, they fit the shape of your foot well and the soles are neither thick nor wider than the upper part of the shoe, so you can get a good feel for the floor, your partner's feet and the movements of your own feet. Just be sure to get a good fit with enough width for your toes.

For tangueras, it's a whole other story. Most women's tango shoes have high heels. Very high heels. Very high stiletto heels. Meanwhile, I think everyone knows that high heels are not good for us. Countless articles and books have been written on this topic and studies show again and again the harm that long-term high-heel wearing does to women's bodies. It affects our feet, our knees, our hips, our backs and even our leg muscles.

There seems to be little consensus on what the ideal heel height should be for healthy feet. Some experts say the optimal height is 1-1.5 inches (2.5-4 centimetres); others say it's a totally flat heel. Still others say it varies from person to person based on the shape of their feet. Yet no one seems to recommend 3.5-inch (9-centimetre) stilettos as optimal footwear.

I have been wearing heels to dance tango for 20 years. For the first 10 I didn't feel many ill effects aside from sore feet at the end of a long night of dancing and permanent calluses (the so-called dancer's pad) under the middle of the balls of my feet. But since I opened my school and made tango my full-time job – I dance five or six days a week and can spend up to 9 hours some days teaching, practising and dancing – my feet have felt it. It's not just the shoes, of course. It's partly the sheer number of hours I spend on my feet. And I don't wear heels all the time; I probably don't wear them even half the time, especially these days. The older I get and the more I study posture, alignment and biomechanics, the less often I wear high heels.

So what's a fashion-loving tanguera to do? It just doesn't look or feel the same to dance in flats or even cute low-heeled practice shoes as it does to dance in sexy heels. The smartest choice you could make, and the safest one for the long-term health of your feet and joints, is to give up the high heels and just dance in low-heeled shoes or flats. But if, like me, you are not yet ready to give up the sexy shoes altogether I suggest the following:
  1. Vary your dance footwear and your heel heights. Change your shoes often, about every two hours if you will be on your feet longer than that. Make sure you have at least one pair of low-heeled practice shoes in your collection.
  2. As much as possible, save the high heels for the milongas. Spend much of your class and practice time in lower-heeled shoes, and don't wear high heels at all outside of tango, to give your body as much of a break as you can. Everything in life is about balance, so a few hours a week probably won't do you much harm if you're wearing sensible shoes the rest of the time. (Also avoid spending a lot of time in flip flops. They're terrible for your feet, too.) 
  3. Make sure that the high-heeled shoes you do wear fit your feet well and especially are wide enough for you. Thankfully those closed-toe pointy things are no longer in fashion. The sandal-style shoes all the tangueras wear these days at least allow the toes some space to move and spread a little.
  4. Make sure to train your body to keep properly aligned, even in your tango shoes. Hips over heels always. To facilitate this, the heel of your shoe should be placed right under the heel of your foot (not too far back) and should feel stable. 
  5. Compensate for the high-heel wearing by regularly exercising your feet and stretching your legs, especially your calves, which get shortened with repeated wearing of high heels. Read on...
•Exercise your feet to improve their strength, flexibility and mobility.
Your regular workout routine should include
exercises to stretch and strengthen your feet.
  1. Do toe workouts, including lifting your toes up while standing, spreading your toes and moving each toe individually. Many people (including me) cannot really do this last one, but with practice you can retrain the necessary little muscles and you will eventually see results. (I've been working on toe agility lately and have made slight progress.) My yoga teacher even showed me an exercise meant to realign the big toe with the inner line of the foot, to prevent or reverse the onset of bunions.
  2. Do exercises to both strengthen and stretch the soles and arches of the feet. Strengthening exercises include scrunching up a towel using your toes or picking up marbles or other small objects using the toes. You can also just scrunch up your toes without any props. A good stretch for the feet (see image) is to kneel on the floor, sitting on your heels (be sure to put a towel under your knees) with the toes tucked under and hold for 30 seconds or as long as you can bear it. 
  3. Regularly stretch your hamstrings (backs of the thighs) and your calves. Yoga, anyone?
  4. Massage the soles of your feet with a tennis ball. Doing this while standing is best, so you can put a good amount of pressure on the different parts of your feet. If your feet are too sensitive at first, you can do it sitting in a chair. This massage eventually feels great, and it somewhat mimics walking barefoot on uneven surfaces, something our long-ago ancestors did, but few of us do.
  5. Pamper those hardworking babies. Soak sore feet in cold water. Massage them with a soothing foot lotion before bed. Treat yourself to a foot massage or pedicure.
  6. Walk barefoot on the beach. Great for the soles, great for the soul.
Pain won't go away?
See a specialist.
•If you have foot pain that is acute or long-lasting, see a professional. My specialist of choice is an excellent physiotherapist who has helped me through many minor injuries over the years. You might prefer a podiatrist, osteopath or other specialist, but if you are in pain, get it looked into. Did you know that 25 per cent of our bones are in the feet and ankles? Not to mention the 33 joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments found in the feet. That's a lot of little parts that can get injured.

My partner and I have had our share of foot ailments with names like hallux valgus, metatarsalgia, plantar fasciitis, stress fractures and an enchondroma. Currently I'm having ongoing pain and stiffness in my ankles, so I will be back at the physiotherapist's office next week. I also have tight, overdeveloped calves, which limit my flexibility and mobility. Whether this a result of all that ballet in my teen years, all the high heels in my tango years, simple genetics or a combination of all three I don't know, but I make a point of stretching my calf muscles almost every day now. 

I, for one, beat up my feet with my lifestyle, but more and more I make sure to take a little time each day to take care of them, too, so that they can keep taking care of me and my dancing for many years to come.


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