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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Persistent calf problem


katielovesballet

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This isn't a very painful problem but it just won't stop coming back, so I'm hoping someone here can help! I'm a 20-year-old beginner doing (or trying to do) two or three classes a week, not on pointe.

 

In November I pulled both of my calf muscles, I guess from stretching them too much (teacher encouraged me to stretch them more than normal) and walking a lot. It hurt to plie or stretch them and they cramped if I held demi-pointe for very long. Continuing to do class made it worse to the point where I couldn't straighten my leg all the way or walk normally for a couple days.

 

So I keep taking time off from ballet class until they stop hurting, massaging and being very careful about stretching and not doing much releve or jumping at first when I go back to ballet, and eventually something pops up to make the problem return (trying a pre-pointe class or trying to do yoga, etc). Most recently I came back to the country where I have to walk a lot, had a few weeks off of ballet while I was getting settled, and after ballet class on Thursday it hurts again to plie or flex my ankle. I don't really feel anything in the Achilles tendons, just the calves. And sometimes one or the other leg is worse, but it's never only in one leg.

 

Since the first time it hasn't been painful enough to restrict anything but ballet, which along with being in a foreign country makes me reluctant to go to a doctor. But I'd obviously rather not keep going with the one-class-then-two-weeks-off schedule. Is there anything I can do, anything specific I should be doing to warm up or during/after class?

 

Thanks in advance! :)

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I suspect this may be more technique-related. Is it ok to move this post so we can discuss it further, or would you like a medical response first?

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Ok!

So, let's start with the usual suspects when calves start acting up:

Tight hamstrings

Tight psoas- I know, right?

Weight too far foward or too far backwards

Hyperextended knees

Poor alignment

Not landing jumps correctly

 

Any combination of the above!

 

Any of that sound right?

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Ok!

Oh dear, how about all of the above? :thumbsup: The alignment and tight hamstrings/psoas have gotten a lot better, but then everything has tightened up some from walking a lot and not dancing so I've been trying to stretch them more. And then my next guess would be not landing jumps correctly - it was 90 degrees on Thursday, no air conditioning, I ended up just kind of slopping around wishing for the jumps to be over. (Thankfully it's cooling off now.)

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What are you wearing on your feet when walking?

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Sneakers, not like running shoes but not totally flat on the bottom either. I don't even own high heels or flip-flops. I've been looking for more supportive athletic-type shoes (preferably ones that don't scream "I'm a tourist, rob me!") but no luck so far.

 

Thanks for helping try to figure this out!

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In addition to the technique issues she posted, what about dehydration? Are you drinking enough water? Dehydration can cause muscle cramps--although in your case it does sound like a technique issue since it keeps recurring.

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Hmm. I usually do a decent job of drinking water, but it's always good to be extra careful about. Thanks!

 

I guess I should talk to my teacher about it (unfortunately easier said than done with the language barrier) and see if she notices any technique issues that could be contributing? I'd like to think she would have already noticed if I was doing something bad enough to leave me hurting for weeks, but who knows.

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Ok. We are going to need to take a step backwards to go forward. We need to get the calves to stop being so reactive, and the only way that is going to happen is with rest, ice, elevation, etc. You need a good- make that excellent- pair of walking shoes, and yes, preferably a pair won't make you the victim of a crime!!

 

Let's analyze your weight placement for a second: All five toes and the forefoot on the floor?Heel too? Toes relaxed? Arch lifted? Ah (That's my guess), pronating? Arch support time. Rolling in or out causes problems in the lower limbs as well as elsewhere in the body. It's like a crack in the basement wall.

 

This "walking test" originally from Prevention Magazine may help with some of the issue, but we will also have to sort through what happens in your ballet class. You might be taking a class that is a tiny bit above your level, or gripping your toes on the floor to help balance, even though the problem may be higher up the body!

 

Have you read the Alignment sticky?

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Okay, I'll try to rest them as much as possible! Should I stretch them at all? Sometimes it seems like overstretching triggered the problem (like the first time, and the time I unsuccessfully tried yoga) so I'm not sure.

 

I don't think I'm pronating, at least not during ballet. My turnout is not great so when I started there was a lot of emphasis on keeping all five toes on the floor. But I'll pay attention to it tomorrow during normal walking/standing to make sure. I do have the feet that turn out a tiny bit on their own when my knees are pointing straight forward (so many problems!) but I don't know if that could have similar implications.

 

My current class is definitely not above my level, gripping toes is a possibility. I have read the alignment sticky :blushing: It seems a little weird that the calves didn't act up at all for the first year or so I did ballet, when my balance and alignment (and hamstring flexibility, and basically everything else) are a lot better now. I guess with all the walking they never really get a chance to get 100% better?

 

And thanks again for all this help! :sweating:

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No! No stretching for now until the pain is gone. Then, we need to sort through how you're stretching, because I am guessing you're overstretching.

 

It isn't actually weird that the problems started now rather than before! As a beginner, your body is simply modeling the movement- not actually engaging the muscles, so it's more like you're playing golf as opposed to running. Now that you understand a bit more, you are beginning to use muscles, possibly not quite yet in the right way. I think it's time for you to meet your rotators:

 

ROTATION/BACKS OF LEGS

Well, most of us tend to picture the front of our bodies when thinking about technique. I want you to think about your body as being 3-dimensional, because it is!

 

First off, it helps to understand where the leg rotates from. The hip joint is a ball and socket joint held in place by the tendons and ligaments. If the joint were not a ball and socket, we couldn't walk or run or balance very well, because our legs would not be able to move.

 

The best way to feel the ball and socket joint in your hip is to lie down on the floor on your back, keep your lower back on the floor but lift your legs up to the ceiling so that your body is a right angle. Now, keeping your leg muscles as relaxed as possible, turn your legs out and in. In that position, you should be able to do this fairly easily keeping the muscles relaxed. It is because of gravity that things will be different when you stand, but more on that in a minute.

 

Can you feel how your legs rotate? That is one of the functions of our hip joints.

 

Now we need to understand why we use rotated legs in ballet! Most of the time, teachers will say something about the King's shoes and jewels, or something like that, but it really goes deeper: We use rotation in ballet for Balance, Extension, and Line.

 

Balance because it is much easier to balance upon a wide base than a narrow one. To test this, place your feet together in 6th position, and measure the width of your base. Now rotate your legs to 1st and measure- it provides a much wider base, which is especially helpful when balancing on one foot!

 

Extension because we cannot lift our legs en l'air very high when our hip joint is not rotated.

 

Line because ballet is also about making shapes in space- angles, curves, lines, geometic shapes. A rotated line is a prettier line.

 

So, now we understand about rotation. How do we control it when gravity and movement are acting as forces upon our bodies? Well, that's where our muscles come into play. It is the job of our muscles to help keep our bones in good alignment, and they are responsible for controlling our turnout. Since we have muscles attached to our femurs in front, back, inside, and outside of our thighs, we need to make use of them! First, we have to locate them.

 

There are exercises specifically designed to help students when they are struggling to find those muscles within the structure of a ballet class, but a good teacher should be able to explain how he or she wants you to perform some of the ballet exercises that specifically target rotation.

 

To identify inner thighs:

1. Major Chords- This one needs a partner.

Dancer sits on the floor facing partner. Partner stands in front of her with legs apart, roughly in a wide seconde. Partner does not need to be turned out. Partner offers dancer her hands.

Dancer places the inside of the lowest part of her calves on the outside of partner's lower legs, with her legs as rotated as she can manage. Dancer holds partners hands, and stretches the upper part of her body straight and engages abs. dancer is in a V on it's side shape. Now, dancer squeezes in on partners legs with the insides of her thighs thinking of her goal being to close partner's legs. Partner fights this remaining in seconde. Dancer must focus on only using inner thighs. Quads will engage to the degree they must, but inner thighs should do the work. Hold position until inner thighs begin to shake. Release, and try again.

 

Now, dancer stands up and using no muscles, rotates one leg to first, then the other leg to first. Engage inner thighs. Hold position concentrating on inner thighs. Quads will engage to the degree that they must, but focus is on inner thighs. Try in all 5 foot/leg positions.

 

This one is called major chords because the inner thighs are kind of like strings and they are majorly responsible for turnout! Also, once dancers find them, it hurts so they "sing" ouch in a major chord....

 

2. Inner thigh boot camp-

Dancer lies down on right side, body in straight line, head resting on outstretched right arm, left hand opposite chest, plam on the floor for balance.

Dancer takes left leg and places left foot flat on the floor in front of right thigh avoiding right knee. Foot should be touching right thigh.

 

Dancer turns out right leg, flexes right foot, keeps leg straight with energy going out heel, and lifts right leg a tiny bit off floor. Dancer should be thinking of directing her heel towards the ceiling, and only the pinky toe with touch the floor with each lift. I usually do "Lift up 2,3,4, touch down, 6,7,8" something like that about 32 times per leg. I walk around and make sure that the inner thigh is being used and that the leg doing the lifting is both rotated and straight. I make sure that their heels are directed towards the ceiling.

 

Again, stand up and try different positions utilizing the newfound shaky muscles.

 

3. Tiny little circles-

Dancer lies down on her stomach chin resting on backs of hands which are on top of each other, palms down.

Dancer turns legs out to 1st position, flexes feet, and keeps hip bones touching the floor. Lift right leg up a few inches off ground and hold, energy going out heel, leg straight. Hold for 10 counts. Release. Do other leg. Alternate until legs are shaky. For this one, we are looking at the upper back part of the thigh to engage- right under the buttocks. You can see it well when a dancer is in tights. There is a crease in the upper hamstring.

 

Once a dancer has found that muscle, she can further challenge herself by doing the same exercise, but this time, adding a pointed foot, and doing 32 tiny circles with the entire leg, thinking about tracing the edge of a quarter with her big toe. Alternate legs maintaining hipbones to floor, straight legs.

 

Now she stands up and tries arabesque a terre and en l'air utilizing that upper thigh muscle. Every time she works her pliés/tendus/rond de jambe's/etc. from this point forward, she is thinking about these other muscles that she has just identified.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Update time, everything stopped hurting and I went back to class last week and this week. Had a lightbulb moment when I looked in a mirror while stretching (the basic calf stretch, facing the barre or wall, front leg bent) and saw that I was hyperextending the back leg. Ouch. So I stopped doing that.

Obviously the calves were pretty tight and really weak, and the class had way too much relevé for them to handle. But they didn't hurt too badly afterwards, and stopped hurting after a couple days. I guess that's improvement.

 

Now that I've been thinking about it though, my weight placement did not feel right. From the pelvis up everything somehow looks fine, but my weight feels mostly in my heels. When I try really hard to get it more over the ball of my foot, it ends up feeling like a little tiny releve and puts a lot of pressure on those poor beat-up calves, but is that what's supposed to happen? There must be a 'happy medium' in there somewhere. And then the ball of my foot seems really far away and far forward, so I don't feel like my leg is underneath me or supporting me enough to do anything with the working leg (does that make sense?). I've gotten the idea of proper alignment/weight placement and not hyperextending in parallel, but when turned out, I can't seem to figure it out on my own. I wish you or my American teacher could magically appear here in person :)

 

Thanks for those exercises!!! It's technically possible to be using the rotators correctly and still have much-less-than-ideal turnout, right?

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I would say (in my uneducated ballet opinion) that if you went to class and your calves did not hurt like they did before that is an improvement. As a beginner who has had chronic calf problems, you have no idea what a correct weight placement or alignment is supposed to feel like--otherwise you would not have had the calf soreness--so maybe you should not assume that you know what it feels like--and refrain from ruling out anything that feels "not right." Anything practiced over a long period of time, even if it is WRONG, starts to feel right. The body gets used to it--does not mean it is right or good technique. Assuming that you have been doing it wrong all this time (and this is not a judgment against you, just an objective observation) if it does not "feel right" it might actually be right since it is different from what you were doing before. Does this make sense?

 

For me the easiest was to check if I am too back on the heels is to bounce up off the heels slightly from time to time at the barre--which might be similar to your "tiny releve." Also I frequently take my hand off the barre in order to test my balance. It is easy to use the barre as a crutch and that can throw off one's alignment.

 

In general I find that the more I engage my abs the less I will feel any kind of limitation in the legs and feet. I could be wrong but from your description it sounds like you are putting your "center" onto your feet or legs rather than in your core. When I was recovering from an ankle injury, and the ankle was still weak, it made me realize how I had not been using my core in ballet. When I started to use it I no longer felt pressure or instability on the weak ankle. It was a real eye opener for me.

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Thanks for the thoughts!!! Yes, not hurting is definitely some sort of improvement.

That does make sense and it'd be great if you're right! I try to make up for lack of physical aptitude by reading and learning a lot (at least it worked in high school gym class), so I end up more or less knowing in an academic sense what should be going on, but actually making it happen and feeling when it's right is another story.

 

I'll keep working on it and see how it goes!

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