Minding Your Feet: The Key to Clean Dancing

Your feet are the key to clean dancing. If you’re a belly dancer, as most of my readers are, you might be consumed with learning and refining your pelvis and torso articulations, but how much attention are you paying to your feet? It seems so obvious, but chances are you’re not paying as much attention as you should be!

Better dancing through your feet
The Feet are the Foundation of Dance

Most dance forms are performed upright and on the feet. There are a few exceptions, of course, like breaking (which also does feature footwork like the 6-step, but mostly features acrobatic floorwork), but for the most part, most dance traditions rely on the timing of the feet to determine the rest of the dance. The feet are our connection to the floor and the earth beneath us. They need to be strong, supple, and if we are performing to music, they need to be on the beat.

Most of the time when I see dancers who are struggling with the technical and musical elements of dance training, it’s because they are not entirely connected to their feet.

We learn to move our feet at a very young age. Most children start learning to walk at two years old. That means, most of us have been balancing ourselves on our feet since we were toddlers. In fact, that’s where the term “toddler” comes from, right? As we learn to walk we “toddle” around, finding our balance and our own personal rhythm.

For dance forms that are inextricable from music, the timing of steps and footwork are essential. Just as a house must have a sound foundation on which to build a house that will stand for years, our feet must provide that same strong base for our movement.

Core and Distal

In modern dance and when we teach movement to children, we often talk about the relationship between the head and tail, the right and left sides of the body, and the upper and lower parts of the body. We instinctively learn these elements when we are young, as we build our proprioception and our awareness of our own body in space and time in relationship to the world around us.

When we talk about feet, we’re also talking about the distal ends of the body. Your hands and the crown of your head are also your distal ends. Your abdomen, pelvis, and ribs are your core, sometimes referred to as “proximal.” In the dance teaching method called “Brain Dance,” the core-distal relationship is considered one of the essential movement distinctions we learn as children. The dance teacher in this video explores core and distal with her young students.

When you’re practicing, it might feel like your fingers and toes are the most difficult to keep mental track of, and that’s because they are farthest away from your core. When you are fully aware of your distal ends, you might feel that you have a greater kinesthetic sensation in these parts, which you must harness to keep your feet on time.

Releve or Flat? Choose One

In the Salimpour School of Dance, we place a lot of importance on the position of the foot, specifically whether or not it is flat or relevé. While this is not the case with all approaches to belly dance, nor all dance forms, I have observed that the stronger a dancer’s foot placement, the more secure they appear, the clearer their hipwork becomes, and the more free they are with their upper body.

When it comes to being in relevé, or demi-point, the foot must be as high up as it can go on to the metatarsals. Anywhere in between flat and demi-point becomes a kind of kinesiological no-man’s land. I’ve noticed in my years of teaching that when a dancer allows their foot to be somewhere in between releve and flat, they sink into their knees, and the rest of their entire body responds a bit slower, their hip work less clear, and their posture less upright. We jokingly call this in-between place “flat-evé.” When a dancer’s releve is strong, high, and solid, their entire body is more free.

Indeed, when a dancer is flat-footed, a similar principle applies. When a dancer distributes their weight evenly between the ball of the foot and the heel, their body feels more secure. When you are dancing, pay attention to your heels. Are they on the floor when when you are flat-footed? Are they pressed as high as your flexibility will allow when in demi-point?

Whether or not you are flat or relevé, imagine your whole foot as being supple and flexible. We might think of the foot as being one unit, but there are 26 bones in the human foot, all working with each other to keep you balanced.

Learn the Feet, Learn the Choreography

When I see dancers who struggle with learning choreography, often it’s because they feel overwhelmed with the intricate parts of a dance. They might want to get the correct position of the arms, or the hip work. They might also struggle to look like the instructor, following along as best they can.

But I can assure you that if you focus on the timing and placement of the feet, the entire choreography will start to fall into place.

When learning a choreography in a form such as belly dance, which is driven almost entirely by the music, the feet must connect to the rhythms and pulses of the songs to which we dance. Once you learn the footwork, the rest of the dance will be so much easier to remember and perform.

Get Your Feet on The Beat

When you are dancing, your feet are your metronome. In ballet, this is obvious. At the barre work on our tendu, elevé, relevé, pas de bourree, all on specific counts in the music. This detailed and meticulous attention to the timing of our footwork is essential for ballet, particularly when dancing in an ensemble. The presentational nature of ballet requires that we dance in unison with our fellow dancers. But in ballet class, often we are working on our barre and center work to solo piano music. In belly dance class, the music to which we drill often has more than just on instrument.

I’m hardly one to imply that ballet is the ultimate dance form. That’s hardly the case. Many other dances also rely on the timing of the feet to drive the movement of the entire body. Partner dances from Salsa to ballroom to Dance Sport all require that the feet be on a specific foot at a specific time. Even improvisational social dance forms like Lindy Hop have specific timings for the feet. When both partners can tap into the rhythm of the music, they can create extemporaneous dance magic.

House dance features complex footwork, often inspired by Salsa and other Latin dances. Check out “Kapelson” Kapela Marna physicalizing Azaelia Bank’s rapping with his feet. You can practically hear the rhythm of her voice through his sneakers!

Embody the Rhythm Through Your Feet

The next time you learn a choreography, or even the next time you drill your technique, find the beat with your feet. Imagine that the drum beat of the song to which you are dancing is actually driving your steps. Whether or not your feet are stepping in a chasse, or on the eighth or quarter notes, or even in 16th notes as in a Choo Choo, the music must be the impetus of when the sole of the foot makes contact with the floor.

When faced with a choreography that you find difficult to learn or retain, start with the feet first. Listen to how the feet reflect the music. What instrument are they physicalizing?

Once you start truly embodying the rhythm and pulse of a song through your feet, you’ll find that the rest of your dancing will take less effort, and hopefully allow you to connect with the music even more.



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7 thoughts on “Minding Your Feet: The Key to Clean Dancing

  1. Lovely article. The feet is where it is at, not only in dance but also especially in balance. It is one area that tends to deteriorate as we age. Difficulty walking is one of the signs that older people frequently experience that determines much about how their later years will be. Take care of your feet and they will most definitely take care of you. Thank you for this informative article.

    • Thanks so much for the comment. I remember my own doctor telling me that a great balance test for older people is simply standing on one foot. Apparently it’s also an indicator of longevity? And one my favorite dance teachers had us warm up with an improvisational “one-legged dance,” which was much harder than it sounds!

  2. feet are our roots, don’t you think? And if we are aware and conscious about them I think we are on the right path to be fully in ourselves when we dance, that is something I always try to remember…btw I am still working on the advice you gave me last year “try to be lighter on your feet” 😉

  3. Such a wonderful article! I’m often surprised at how little attention is paid to feet when in classes or workshops. I’ve always thought of feet as the foundation, where I am usually hearing pelvic and spine alignment to be THE support structure. The head to foot relation/alignment is really what drives our balance, in my undereducated opinion/experience.

    In my personal dance expression choices, I spin and twirl through most of my performances. My feet HAVE to be solid, my body HAS to be in alignment or I will stumble, get dizzy, or lose tempo. Worse, I won’t know where the front of the stage is…eep! And yet, I struggle the most in this aspect. My feet are not formed correctly. I have extreme pronation, and “morton’s toe” which means that the first knuckles of my toes do not line up the way they should due to a shortened and elevated first metatarsal (which I am finding is a fairly prevalent condition…its even on the Statue of Liberty…, but affects my entire posture, gait, weight bearing, and balance). I’ve been instructed to avoid releve at all costs. I still get so much pain through my feet, ankles, and body even when I am flat footed, however. My feet and toes sometimes burn or go totally numb, my ankles feel like they might break, my calves clench and burn, I suffer from back pain and sciatica. So I’m finding that it is REALLY hard to get my feet to do what I want and support me, even if I am aware of placement. All in all, I love that you wrote about this topic because it just reiterates how important your feet are, and reminds me to find what works. If you have any tips on working through an abnormality like this, I welcome advice on the matter! xo

    • I have Morton’s Toe too! I have to constantly work to spread out my toes to keep my metatarsals happy. When I’m training for long days, I wear thin insoles in my jazz shoes from http://www.mortonsfoot.com. They elevate the first metatarsal, rather than the arch, and they’ve made ALL the difference. I wear the same kind of insoles in my regular shoes. DEFINITELY check them out. So much of my other shin, calf, knee, and hip pain has subsided since I got the insoles.

  4. I teach balance and fall prevention for those older. I am a professional dancer with 43 years of fitness training and am 73 soon to be 74. Foot exercises are not taught much in dance classes and there are many foot exercises you can do every day to imprsbility. There are 32 joints in each foot and our goal should be to keep all 32 moveable. Flexing and pointing the feet and circling the ankles are the most popular exercises as they should be. I find it advisable to do both foot exercises before you get out of bed in the morning. Foot massage is fantastic. You can do it yourself or have a professional masseuse do this for you. I recommend it once a month for maintenance whether you are a dancer or have foot problems yourself. I find the most important joints of the foot to work well are the joints at the base of the toes. Releves stretch these joints but you can stretch them yourself in a seated position by bringing your foot further under your chair and lifting the heel up, keeping the ball of the foot on the floor and pressing the front of the ankle forward. You can also reach down and pull each toe toward you to stretch that joint. Also stretch the toes sideways and away from each other, either by spreading your toes or by massaging them. Another wonderful exercise is to grab the end of each toe and circle it going in both directions. Here is a link to a wonderful easy and fast foot massage technique: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_WxpRXJsUk. I have written a great deal about older people having difficulty walking. You can find these articles on my web site at http://www.building-better-balance/difficulty-walking.

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