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No matter what type of dance style you perform, you rely heavily on your ankles. Every time you pliГ©, relevГ©, point your foot, jump or turn, you need a combination of strength, flexibility and coordination in your ankles. Your ankle joints help you move gracefully or powerfully, and they absorb shock from all types of landings. Because the ankle is the most frequently injured joint in dancers, you need to spend some quality time on exercising the muscles around this joint to help prevent injury.
Most of the motion at your ankle joint comes from pointing and flexing; however, there is a slight amount of side-to-side motion that is possible. To provide your ankle with enough strength and stability for all types of dance steps, you need to work through all of these major movements of the ankle. These movements can be accomplished with a resistance band, but you must reposition the band for each movement. For example, wrap the band around the ball of your foot and point your foot against the resistance of the band. For flexion, wrap the band over the top of your foot and secure the band to a stable piece of furniture in front of you. Pull the band toward you as you flex your foot. For the muscles responsible for moving your foot to the outside of your body -- known as winging -- tie the band around both feet so there is very little slack in the band. Keeping your legs together, push your feet apart against the band's resistance. For the opposite movement, wrap the band around your right foot and attach the band to a stable piece of furniture located on the right side of your body. Move your foot to the left. Repeat the exercise with your other ankle.
In order to use your pliГ© to cushion the landing from your jumps and to provide impetus for your jumps and turns, you need adequate flexibility in your ankles. Unfortunately, most dancers, particularly ballet dancers, can't flex their ankles as much as the general population. You can increase your flexibility by stretching your gastrocnemius and soleus, two muscles located on your calves. To stretch the gastrocnemius, stand facing a wall or the barre in your studio. Move one foot and place it on the ground behind you. Plant your heel on the floor and move your hips slightly forward until you feel a stretch in the calf of your back leg. To target the soleus, use the same stretching position, but bend your back knee. For both stretches, you need to repeat the stretch with the other leg behind you. Hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds at a time and repeat two more times with each leg.
Proprioception, or the ability to balance and sense the position of your body without seeing it, is a necessary skill for dancers. Working on proprioceptive exercises can improve your reflexes and coordination, and it can help prevent ankle injuries. While most proprioceptive exercises require specialized equipment, you can perform some simple exercises at home or at the studio. Begin by balancing on one foot for several seconds. Then, balance on one foot with your eyes closed. Once you're comfortable with that, balance on one foot on demi-pointe with your eyes open, then with your eyes closed. To make these exercises more challenging, you can work on an unstable surface such as a soft pillow placed directly on the ground.
Ideally, you should perform two or three sets of 15 repetitions of the ankle strengthening exercises, two or three times a week. If you throw your resistance band in your dance bag, you can do these exercises before class as part of your warm up. Work on the proprioceptive exercises for a couple of minutes after each of your dance classes. After every class, stretch both your gastrocnemius and soleus. For better results, stretch these muscles -- after a five- to 10-minute cardio warm-up -- every day of the week.