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Tips from dance stars for sore summer feet

New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck and others offer hard-won wisdom on blisters, flip-flops, foot funk and ice buckets

Jordan Spry performs in “Drumfolk.” (Jati Lindsay)

For as long as she can remember, Elizabeth Burke has dealt with foot pain — a hazard of her passion for tap dancing.

“I have had broken toes, stress fractures, broken feet and ankles,” says Burke, 30, a founding member of Dorrance Dance, an acclaimed tap company. “I had an ingrown toenail surgically removed, just this tiny little thing, but if I barely tapped the corner of my nail I’d see stars, it was so painful.

“I think I’ve dealt with everything and somehow I’m still dancing,” she adds, laughing. “Though it’s not always easy.”

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With summer underway, our feet face a host of challenges, from increased activities — we’re outside more, walking, running and hiking — to minimalist footwear. Once-protected toes and arches may be liberated in thin flats, sandals and flip-flops, but these can all put our hard-working lower extremities at risk.

Imagine confronting these challenges while pushing your feet beyond normal human capacity because your livelihood depends on it. This is the dancer’s dilemma.

Barring debilitating pain, dancers typically can’t stop working because of aching or blistered feet. They face foot issues every day, from relentless physical demands in footwear that may be ultra-confining, flimsy or nonexistent.

As a result, dancers tend to be highly practical when it comes to foot care, with hard-won wisdom about wounds, shoes, exercises, remedies for everything from friction to funk, and ways to turn drugstore items into therapeutic tools.

I recently spoke with a number of dancers to see what lessons they’ve learned about taking care of their feet. And what they can teach the rest of us as we step into the day.

“As dancers, a big part of our psychology is to power through the pain,” says Burke. “That is largely our culture.” But to soften the blows, her first requirement is arch support, especially because she has flat feet. She suffered leg pain as a child because her flat feet allowed her ankles to roll inward, which put strain on her knees. Supportive inserts solved the problem.

“I’m never in a shoe that doesn’t have a supportive measure in it,” Burke says. “I just won’t do it.”

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For many dancers, flip-flops and ballet flats are also a flat-out no.

Flat shoes? Oh, my goodness,” says New York City Ballet star Tiler Peck. “We’re constantly told by our physical therapists to make sure you have an arch support.” She uses drugstore inserts in her sneakers and tops them off with a heel lift made by AliMed, a supplier of medical products.

“They give your calves a rest,” says Peck. “It’s just a little, half-circle thing that lifts your heel up just a bit.”

Burke is also a fan of inexpensive inserts, and uses Dr. Scholl’s in her street shoes. For her tap shoes, she likes SuperFeet, a runners’ brand.

“The impact we experience as tap dancers isn’t that dissimilar from a runner pounding the pavement,” she says. The insoles for low arches “are slim in profile, so they fit into my tap shoes nicely. They’re not rooted in comfort as much as in correcting the foot.”

After busting a big toe by stubbing it on her coffee table, Burke never goes barefoot. She wears Adidas “Adissage” slides around the house; otherwise, strictly stable, closed-toe footwear. “ ’Cause if you’re not dealing with pain now, later down the line you might run into problems,” she says.

New tap shoes can cause blisters. To prevent them, Burke sticks squares of Elastikon elastic tape on her heels “like a Band-Aid,” she says. “It does wonders.” If she gets a blister, she covers it with Compeed hydrocolloid blister cushions. Since tap shoes get sweaty and funky, she airs them on a windowsill and stuffs them with charcoal bags made for shoes.

Burke also swipes her feet with a baby wipe “to take the edge off, so you’re not offending everyone,” she says, and every night, she dunks them in a bucket of warm water and Epsom salts.

Where would dancers be without the humble mop bucket? If there’s one takeaway, it’s this: Soak your feet. Religiously. Kathryn Boren, a corps de ballet member of American Ballet Theatre, orders bags of ice from Door Dash to be delivered to her apartment after shows. Out comes the bucket, in goes the ice, and she buries her legs up to the calf.

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I spoke to her on her first day off in four weeks of dancing. She’d been onstage every night, for ABT’s “Swan Lake,” “Don Quixote” and other ballets during the company’s summer season at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Consequently, her feet feel “terrible,” Boren says. “Which is why it’s a really great time to talk about this.” She’s just recovered from the worst foot issue she’s ever had: a painfully infected corn between her toes, from friction of the toe bones caused by sweaty, swollen feet in pointe shoes. She missed a few rehearsals and the corn got better, then it flared up again after “Swan Lake,” making the rest of her performances torture. (Dancers aren’t the only ones afflicted; any tightfitting shoe can cause corns.)

Antibiotics and Epsom salt soaks eventually healed Boren’s foot. To keep the site clean of city dirt, she avoids open-toed shoes, preferring to cover her toes in sterile gauze and tuck them into sneakers.

“I’d choose a white sneaker over just about anything” for off-hours, she says. Or fashion sneakers, like the colorful Vejas her boyfriend recently gave her. Another go-to is a flat bootie.

“That’s about as far as my dress-up shoes go,” Boren says. “I did have to wear a pair of high heels to my sister’s wedding, and I hated every minute of it. For me and most of my friends, they’re more painful than pointe shoes. I think it’s the awkward pressure and posture, and your calves don’t get any stretch.”

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Peck recently took a chance on a sporty sandal called Sorel X Prana Explorer Blitz Stride, with a wedge sole and thick cushioning. “I find it difficult in the summer to find anything as comfortable as a sneaker,” Peck says, “but they’re the most comfortable things I’ve ever worn.”

If an ache flares up, she likes T-Relief Arnica +12, a homeopathic cream, for soothing joints and muscles, and a dab of Orajel, the toothache cream, can help numb an angry corn. But her “main secret,” Peck says, is regular pedicures. Her father, a college football coach, schooled her in the importance of trimming toenails square to prevent ingrowth, so that’s reason No. 1. And you can’t beat the aesthetics.

“I don’t know if I have the prettiest feet in the world,” Peck says. “But people see them and they’re like, you’re a dancer — you should have really ugly feet!”

Jordan Spry, assistant artistic director of Step Afrika, is also a fan of pedicures. After a hard-hitting performance of the percussive art of stepping, “that’s one of my favorite things,” he says. “Having someone roll and massage my feet — that may be the last place we think of getting a massage, but dancers love them.”

Especially steppers, because there’s no dance shoe made especially for them. Step Afrika dancers occasionally perform barefoot, but mostly they’re in hard-soled dress shoes, “like you might wear to church,” Spry says. “We go for sound over comfort, which can be tough.”

Spry fell in love with stepping after running track at Howard University. He discovered some similarities: the intense physicality, the need to ice his feet as he’d done after track meets. But no customized shoes? “In track, you’re on the same surface a lot of the time, and there’s footwear for runners. But since there’s no stepping shoe, it’s just finding what works best. And I find as a dancer, I’m more in tune with taking care of my body than I ever was as an athlete.”

Dancers are keenly aware of the interconnectedness of all their parts. This is perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from them: Often, aching feet are not the whole story.

“Everything is entwined,” says Ashwini Ramaswamy, a performer and choreographer in the Minneapolis-based Ragamala Dance Company, which specializes in Bharatanatyam, an Indian classical dance performed in bare feet.

The dance “is extremely linked with yoga; they have shared origins,” says Ramaswamy. “That idea of mind, body and spirit, where one movement aligns in the body, with energy going through the whole body — that happens at all times.”

The art form has taught her that happy feet stem from attention to the broader musculoskeletal system. To help her feet, she exercises her glutes and outer leg muscles. Simply rising up and down on the ball of the foot works the outer leg, and forearm side planks strengthen the tendon under the arch as well as the leg muscles. Exercises that work the inner and outer thighs help support the knees, which can be strained by poor alignment over the feet.

If her feet complain after dancing, Ramaswamy likes to roll them over a frozen water bottle. “But I find I have to do that less and less now that I’m working on these other muscles,” she says.

Foot health “is not just about the feet,” the dancer says. “It’s about other parts of the body and keeping everything in good shape.”

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