Dancers put a lot of stress on their feet, and foot injuries are common. Would you like to keep your feet healthy? With just a little bit of background in your foot physiology, you can not only improve your dancing but also reduce your risk of serious foot injuries.
If you are an engineer, you probably know that two of the most stable natural structures are the arch and the triangle. If you look around you, you’ll see these structures everywhere—in bridges and cars, in tripods and braces. Your foot is also designed with both of these structures. In fact, the foot is supported through a triangle of arches, as seen in the picture below:
Three arches in a triangle. It should be no surprise that our most stable natural position is when our weight is carried equally on all three points, so the load of our body is distributed across all three arches.
As dancers, we know that we shouldn’t carry ourselves on the outside of our foot. Rolling out, or supinating, to the lateral longitudinal arch makes your ankle unstable. This is one of the reasons that you lose control of a spin when you supinate. But we often overcorrect, putting most of the weight on the inside of the foot. When we do this, we risk overstressing the medial longitudinal arch, which can cause all kinds of problems: ankle sprains, stress fractures, plantar fasciatis, and more. Our “neutral” foot position should use both the medial and lateral arch, balancing our weight between all three points of the tripod.
Some of you may be wondering, “What about the three-toe base?” The concept of the three toe base is that the dancer should use the big toe and the two toes next to it when moving. Although using the three-toe base and using the whole foot tripod seem incompatible, the three-toe base actually fits in perfectly with the physiology we have looked at so far.
Let’s get more specific about the bone structure of the foot and how the arches relate to the bones.
What we call the toes are really the phalanges, which connect to the rest of the foot via the metatarsals. The medial longitudinal arch runs from the heel bone, or the calcaneus, up to the first, second, and third metatarsals. In other words, the three-toe base is one of the endpoints of our triangle of arches.
There are two things that the concept of the three-toe base does. First, as Skippy Blair herself writes in her explanation of the three-toe base, the concept was created because “more than a few dancers roll their weight to the outside of their feet.” In other words, the three-toe base was designed as a concept in order to make sure that the medial arch wasn’t neglected.
Second, Skippy emphasizes that the three-toe base should stretch the toe base in order to avoid bunions. Bunions are the result of having too much pressure on the big toe. The big toe isn’t designed to support that much weight, so the weight should instead be spread to the three-toe base. This is exactly what the arches of the foot show us: the big toe lies beyond the medial longitudinal arch (and the anterior tranverse arch), so putting weight on the toe is going to underutilize the lateral longitudinal arch and overstress the medial arch.
In short, the three-toe base is a corrective for two common mistakes: supinating the foot, and using the big toe to bear weight. The reason both of these corrections are necessary is because of how the foot is biomechanically designed to bear weight among the three main arches.
It’s true that if you tried to dance on only the three-toe base, you would overstress the medial arch. But it should be clear that dancing only on the three-toe base doesn’t make physiological sense. Use the concept of the three-toe base to help correct common foot posture mistakes, but remember the neutral tripod position that your foot is designed to sustain.
The Dance Training Project has a detailed explanation of how the neutral foot tripod works as well as a collection of exercises to help improve your foot posture. See what exercises you can incorporate into your own practice so that your feet continue to support you on the floor!