Teaching Tips

How to Avoid Sickling- and Winging-Related Injuries

The ankle joint can only move about 25 degrees outward and 35 degrees inward from a neutral position. Why does that seem hard to believe? Because in a dance context, these minute motions have huge aesthetic effects. They can punctuate the line of an arabesque, elongate a tendu—or indicate a lack of training. In a purely anatomical sense, a properly aligned foot is one in which an imaginary straight line can be drawn from the ankle out through the second toe. Yet in the classical ballet world, a “winged" shape (toes pointed outward) is the signature of a first-rate ballerina, while “sickling" (pointing the toes inward) is taboo. On the other hand, most modern dance teachers find fault in winging, and some teachers and choreographers even find a sickled foot beautiful. But is either sickling or winging truly safe for student dancers? Here, DT takes a closer look at these ankle adjustments and offers strengthening tips to help students avoid sickling- and winging-related injuries.

The Skinny on Sickling

Because the ankle naturally has a larger range of motion inward than it does outward when pointing the foot, many students with weak or untrained ankles are prone to sickling. Genetics or personal anatomy can also contribute to a student's tendency to sickle, says Julie Daugherty, physical therapist for American Ballet Theatre in New York City. Injuries can occur when students balance in a sickled position on demi or full pointe, which pulls the tendons of the ankle out of alignment, and ankle sprains can occur if jumps are landed through a sickled position in demi or full pointe. Students should be told to avoid sickling in these weight-bearing situations.

Outside of ballet, sickling is sometimes intentional. In modern dance, for example, “dancers' feet are used as expressive tools," says Peter Sparling, professor of dance at the University of Michigan. Sparling, who was a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company from 1973 to 1987, remembers, “In Graham's work, we were asked to sickle in works like Embattled Garden. There were moments when the choreography demanded a turned-in or relaxed foot, signaling vulnerability or a broken body. The foot became part of your characterization, part of one's stylistic integrity." (In modern technique classes, however, Sparling suggests correcting both sickling and winging, which creates a more versatile dancer.)

The Way of the Wing

As with sickling, winging one's foot becomes dangerous when the foot is supporting weight, Daugherty says, because it pulls the ankle joint out of alignment. Since a winged position is more likely to be seen as desirable than a sickled position, Daugherty treats many injuries that stem from long-term winging in weight-bearing positions. Dancers who force their heels forward when executing tendus en avant and à la seconde, instead of using their turnout, overstress the tendons on the inside of the foot and twist their knee joints over time.

But the winging question is a delicate one. Marisa Albee, a teacher at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School in Seattle, Washington, admits that she allows some students to alter their ankles' shape into a slightly more winged position—in non-weight-bearing instances—in order to fulfill the demanding ballet aesthetic. “There are times when a dancer needs to wing her foot slightly to enhance the line she's trying to achieve," she says, if the dancer has limited natural turnout.

Those teachers who approve of winging should explain how a winged foot fits into the classical line as a whole, to prevent winging from becoming an empty affectation. Denise Pons, professor of dance at The Boston Conservatory, recommends breaking down the whole process of the foot's extension through tendu, explaining each movement verbally rather than just showing it. For tendu en avant, for example, tell students to put weight onto the ball of the gesture foot, then to release and let the heel glide forward to initiate the brushing motion, keeping the whole foot on the floor as long as possible so that it seems to pass through a short fourth position before the heel lifts. Remind students to engage the turnout and strength of the whole leg as they execute these movements, Pons says, and a small wing will occur naturally.

Ultimately, sickling and winging are just two tools in a strong dancer's toolbox. Pons stresses that above all, a student needs to be aware at all times of how she is using her feet. “If she's not thinking when working through these positions," she says, “a dancer is setting herself up for knee or ankle injuries, for sure."

Strengthening to Avoid Injury

Daugherty recommends that dancers work on improving their overall ankle strength and stability, so that they can consciously control winging and sickling as required with a minimal risk of injury. To this end, she suggests that teachers have their students place a tennis ball between the feet in a parallel position, just below the inside ankle bone, and then slowly move through plié and relevé while keeping the ball in place. Maintaining the ball's placement will strengthen the calves and work on a dancer's proprioception and proper alignment of the foot and ankle.

If you have a student struggling to control her sickling tendencies in particular, Daugherty suggests having the seated dancer sit with her legs straight in front of her, with a TheraBand tied in a loop and placed around both feet. With ankles, feet and toes pointed, wing one foot out to the side and slowly return to neutral, then repeat with the other foot. This will strengthen the muscles along the outside of the foot, preventing involuntary sickling.


Teachers Trending
Maks and Val Chmerkovskiy. Photo courtesy Dance With Me

Listening to Maks and Val Chmerkovskiy riff together makes it crystal-clear why each has mastered the art of partnering in the ballroom—they've long been doing this dance in real life as brothers and business partners.

Along with their "Dancing with the Stars" pedigree (and a combined three mirror-ball trophies between them), Maks and Val (and their father, Sasha) also run Dance With Me, a dance company hosting six ProAm Dancesport competitions annually and running 14 brick-and-mortar studio locations across the U.S.

Last year, the pair launched an online component, Dance & Co. The online video platform offers beginner through advanced instruction in not only ballroom but an array of other styles, as well as dance fitness classes from HIIT to yoga to strength training. "DWTS" fans will recognize such familiar faces as Peta Murgatroyd, Jenna Johnson, Sharna Burgess and Emma Slater, along with Maks and Val themselves.

Keep reading... Show less
Teaching Tips
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Kerollis

In the spring of 2012, Barry Kerollis was abruptly forced into treating his career as a small business. Having just moved cross-country to join BalletX, he got injured and was soon let go.

"I'd only ever danced with big companies before," the now-freelance dance-teacher-choreographer-podcaster recalls. "That desperation factor drove me to approach freelancing with a business model and a business plan."

As Kerollis acknowledges, getting the business of you off the ground ("you" as a freelance dance educator, that is) can be filled with unexpected challenges—even for the most seasoned of gigging dancers. But becoming your own CEO can make your work–life balance more sustainable, help you make more money, keep you organized, and get potential employers to offer you more respect and improved working conditions. Here's how to get smart now about branding, finances and other crucial ways to tell the dance world that you mean business.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Courtesy Oleson

American dance educator Shannon Oleson was teaching recreational ballet and street-dance classes in London when the pandemic hit. As she watched many of her fellow U.S. friends pack up and return home from their international adventures, she made the difficult choice to stick with her students (as well as her own training—she was midway through her MFA at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance).

Despite shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders, she was able to maintain a teaching schedule that kept her working with her dancers through Zoom, as well as lead some private, in-home acro classes following government guidelines. But keeping rec students interested in the face of pandemic fatigue hasn't been easy.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.