We’ve all seen it. Students, peers, performers all think they’re pointing their toes but really, they’re creating claws with toes curled under and ankles flexed. Not cute. In fact, the ankle is where the line of the leg is most often broken. BUT. How often have you heard your teacher say ‘stretch through the ankle’ or ‘elongate the ankle’ instead of 'point your toes'? Pointing the toes and elongating the ankle are two very different movements and use completely different muscles.
Before we launch into this topic, let me explain that in the anatomical world pointing and flexing in the ankle is completely backwards from the movement artist’s world. ‘Flexion’ is pointing the toes downward while pulling the toes back towards the shin is ‘extension’.* For this post, I’m going to use the artist’s version as most of us reading this are or aspire to be movement artists. So, when I say ‘pointed/extended’ versus ‘flexed’, this is what I mean.
Okay, so let’s look first at the toes. Pointing the toes comes from the bottom of the foot. We can see from the pictures below how the arch-support muscles on the bottom of the foot contract to create a downward, curling movement in the toes. We can also see how this hardly effects the ankle at all. It’s mainly the arch of the foot pulling the toes down towards it. Muscles in the calf work to stabilize the ankle during this motion.
Many people mistake this feeling with the idea of pointing their toes. As they try to master their lines and work on pointing, they engage the muscles on the bottom of the feet extremely hard as that's how they think they can reach their goal. The result is often a painful foot cramp and rarely a clean line.
Next, we'll look at the ankle. The calf muscles are responsible for extending and stabilizing the ankle. The gastrocnemius is that big, pear-shaped muscle shown in red below and is the primary muscle in this movement. It attaches above the knee and down at the heel, so that when it contracts it pulls the heel towards the knee.
To drive home this difference, check out how my calf muscle completely disappears when I change from fully extended ankles to toe claws. This shows how I can keep my toes pointed but still have a flexed ankle.
So, if you want to fully point your toes you must think about engaging the calf muscles as well as those on the bottom of the foot. Take time to sit and perform these moves individually and then together at the same time. You can gain strength in your ankles by gripping the floor with your feet while standing fully straight. Begin to lean backwards, shifting your center of gravity away from the toes to the point where you feel you may fall over, then return to standing normally. Repeat the same shifting forwards.
You can also strengthen the ankle by raising onto 'releve' as it's called in ballet. Aka, tippy toes.
Level 1: You can start standing with most of your weight on one foot. Put the other out in front of you with toes and heel pressed into the floor. Keep the toes pressing into the ground as you raise this heel up, being sure to feel the stretch fully through the front of the ankle before slowly placing the heel back on the ground. Repeat 10-20 times before doing the same on the other side.
Note: You'll see a slight raise of my big toe when doing this exercise, but do not do this. I made the video rather quickly and didn't notice my mistake until editing. All toes remain pressing into the ground.
Level 2: Stand with feet together and raise both heels at the same time. Remember to keep active muscle control, so the toes are pressing into the ground, the arch of the foot is engaged, and the heel is slow and controlled on its descent. Your core is an important aspect here so keep the belly button pulling both towards the spine and up towards the throat. Squeeze the butt to keep legs and core stable. Repeat 5-10 times to start and add on as desired. If balance is weak, you can hold onto a table, chair, or barre.
Level 3: The same as level 2 except one foot is kept off the ground. Standing tall with feet together, bend one knee so the foot is off the ground. Raise the grounded heel to balance before lowering down. Reread level 2 to review the muscle activation (exercise not shown in video).
Questions? Write them in the comments!
Writer's note: All pictures featuring the anatomy of the body have been provided by Muscle in Motion, an app and computer program that shows exercises, movements, and more down at the anatomical level. I've had this program since it just started years ago as a baby app for iPads only and seriously recommend it to all wanting to know a little more in-depth about the body's actions. You can use the code FREE10 to get 10% off their products here. Find them on instagram and facebook, too!
*When describing flexion and extension, the anatomical world relies on whether the joint is creating more or less space between the two moving parts. When the muscles pull the joint together and decreases the amount of space in it, the action is described as flexion. When the muscles allow the joint to spread apart and increase space, it's described as extension. So the flexed and pointed ankle as the dance world knows it would make sense if the ankle joint was moved from the front. But, as we have learned here, it's not. It's primarily moved from the back at the calf and heel. Thus, when the foot is pointed, the heel comes closer to the back of the ankle than when neutral, and that's our flexion. When the foot is 'flexed', the heel moves further away from the back of the ankle, which means it's extension. Kinda weird right? Don't worry, unless you're in an anatomy class you don't need to worry about this distinction much.