Toes and Tall Tales

One of the most common questions I’ve received as a dancer is don’t your toes hurt? Yes. And no.

Yes because after a certain period of time in any uncomfortable shoe, I will be in some kind of pain, let alone standing on the top of your toes with ribbons cutting off your circulation as your feet swell up throughout the day. But no, in the sense, you do get used to it and develop strength and calloused skin. I, personally, hardly ever have blisters, and it’s even rarer for my toes to bleed. I actually can’t remember the last time they did. So before we dramatize it and go all “center stage”, let’s take a quick look at the reality of wearing a pointe shoe and debunk a couple of myths.

Ballerinas have ugly and crooked feet. ❌
I have a feeling many people envision this beautiful ballerina slipping off her pointe shoe to expose this gory-monster-of-a foot. Crooked toes, all discolored, covered in blood and blisters. And that just isn’t the reality for most people.
Thanks to dance science and modern medicine we have quite a bit of knowledge and tools that we can use in wearing pointe shoes and in taking care of our feet. Such as: not starting pointe too early, proper pointe shoe fittings, toe spacers, feet exercises, and so on. Ballerinas’ toes maybe a little misshapen, but I’ve seen crooked toes on just as many non-dancers as dancers.

Bloodied and blistered toes are normal for ballerinas.❌
When it comes to blisters, it depends on a lot of factors. Your skin type, how much you sweat, if you get a bad pair of shoes they can sit wrong and rub the wrong way. But generally speaking, I don’t hear girls complain about blisters hardly ever. However, I will say, if you are a young girl getting ready to start pointe work, have blister bandaids nearby. There is only one way to get your protective callouses, and that is through your first couple of months of pointe work. That is when you get blisters. At least that’s when I did. I’ll never forget the time I got a pedicure with my mom, and the nail technician started to smooth out my calloused feet. I very quickly told her to stop, “ I need those!”, haha. She told me she had never had a girl beg her not to touch her callouses. We had a good laugh. So keep in mind my young aspiring ballerinas, to save your rough skin. It will be a lifesaver. Lotion, moisturizers, feet scrub are all things that you probably don’t want to use often.
Blood, hmm, I guess if you have a really bad blister or a blood blister then you might see some, but it’s another thing that is quite rare. My fellow ballerina put it this way, “If you have bloody and blistered feet, it means you don’t know how to take care of your feet.” -Anna Roberta

So what are the problems ballerinas face most often?

Bruised and cracked toe/overgrown toenails, as well as corns. ✅
I have heard complaints about all of these more regularly and that’s probably because, though they also don’t come that often, they are slow healers and make you a bit sick every time you go on pointe; which is several hundred times per day. Not fun. I’ve had corns that last a month. And bruised nails can take even longer to grow out. Multiply that times a million releves, long days, and a hard shoe. Ouch.

Joint pain.
Another common complaint is joint pain. The most injured body part for dancers is the lower leg. Turns out, standing on your toes for hours isn’t the most natural thing for the body. However, ankle issues can also be symptomatic of dead or bad shoes and certain choreographic styles.

Swollen feet and bad circulation.
I have permanent marks on my ankles from the years of wearing ribbons. Hours of dancing equals hours of strenuous work for the feet, which means like any body part you work, they get swollen; they burn, they feel twice the size, making just standing in the shoes painful. You often see ballerinas resting on the floor with their legs up against the wall trying to “drain” their feet.
Sometimes, my feet barely fit into my pointe shoes at the end of the day. Or even wearing my street shoes to go home feels uncomfortable.

All of this being said, every ballerina is very different. You have some that have toes made of iron and nothing seems to affect them, others are more sensitive and have to take more protective measures. However, the stereotypical bloody mess that is often portrayed isn’t completely accurate. Yes, we have pain, but we are also pretty tough. It takes a while before foot pain starts to kick in and we have some helpful ways of dealing with it when it does. And on top of that, many outside factors play a big role in the life of our toes.

Regardless, the foot of a dancer is an impressive tool that works incredibly hard to bring ballet to life.

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