Sleek Lines, Sore Feet: Professional Dancers Point to High Heels
Posted by Jenn F. on Thursday, January 31st, 2013
When you think of professional dancers you may conjure ballerinas on pointed toe; modern dancers in their strange, muscular poses; or tap dancers rapping out a beat across the stage. But the topic of today’s foray into the entertainment business is the ballroom dancer: the movie, television, and dramatic dancer who almost always appears in impossibly high heels. These shoes are essential to the art form. They are a necessary part of the dance itself, influencing the movements and posture of the female dancer. And yet, as regular readers know, heels are extremely damaging to the feet. A career of energetic, high-impact dancing in heels often causes irreparable damage, extreme pain, and debilitation. So why do they do it? What is it about the dance that makes the heels worth the pain?
Imagine that unforgettable scene in Singin’ in the Rain, when Cyd Cherrise’s long leg and emerald high heel fills the screen. Gene Kelly’s hat rests on her toe, and as he reaches to retrieve it, she raises that leg impossibly high: a seduction made so magnificently sharp, elegant, and smooth by the length and demi-pointe the high heel provides. Indeed, for the rest of the scene, Cherrise remains on pointe, pitched forward, propelling the scene onward. Here the heel is as much an aesthetic element as the dance, the set, the music, or the actors. It sets a tone. It evokes a mélange of cultural associations: beauty, precariousness, power, and poise.
It may seem strange that high heels are associated with power when they are so unhealthy. It’s the point, the severity of the lines, and the fact that they make even petite women seem formidable. And it is, in no small part, the fact that they are so darn difficult to walk in beautifully. It takes skill and practice to make heels look comfortable and easy. It takes a great deal of body modification too. In a recent study, men rated women walking in high heels as more attractive than women without them. The heels accentuate femininity—the sway of the hips and tilt of the back—that actually makes a profound difference in perception.
High heels change the body in fundamental ways. They shorten the calf muscle (eventually this is permanent); and shorten, thicken, and stiffen the Achilles tendon. This is a recipe for plantar fasciitis, tendon tears, and heel spurs. Heels shorten the stride and make it more forceful, a change that persists when habituated heel wearers take the heels off. This engages muscles rather than stretching tendons, negatively altering muscle-tendon efficiency. And there are many more effects throughout the body. Heels narrow the spinal canal and thicken the spinal ligament. Spondylolisthesis, the slippage of one vertebra forward over another, is common in habitual heel wearers. Problems with the spine can cause problems with whole-body alignment, often resulting in foot injury. If you think your dance heels are causing damage, get a consultation at The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine.
Dance aficionados will tell you: the high heel defines the female form. It extends lines, refines movements, and shortens steps. It changes the dance in critical ways. Without heels, you couldn’t have Ginger Rogers’ signature steps. They just wouldn’t look right. Dancers’ heels are like Van Gogh’s thick paints: without them, the canvas seems wrong, like it’s the work of a different artist entirely. So, despite the damage, they’re probably not going anywhere soon.
If you have any foot problems or pain, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine. Dr. Josef J. Geldwert, Dr. Katherine Lai, Dr. Ryan Minara and Dr. Mariola Rivera have helped thousands of people get back on their feet. Unfortunately, we cannot give diagnoses or treatment advice online. Please make an appointment to see us if you live in the NY metropolitan area or seek out a podiatrist in your area.