One hears a lot of talk about "good feet" in ballet, but what does that actually mean? What makes the shape of one foot "better" than another? What about those whose feet aren't particularly beautiful in themselves but who use them well?
Following is a short, general guide for those without classroom experience regarding what goes into creating a beautiful foot and using it well. It is not intended to be exhaustive.
The Well-shaped Foot
Several physical factors are involved in the architecture of a beautifully pointed stationary foot in ballet, including:
1. A high arch
2. A high instep (the top of the foot)
3. A flexible ankle joint
These attributes are usually all found together, although it is possible to have a high instep without much of an arch and vice versa. It is easiest to see when the foot is pointed in profile, for example in battement tendu à la seconde seen from the front. If there is a pronounced curve in the under-side of the foot, the dancer has a high arch. If the curve on top of the foot protrudes, the dancer has a high instep (for a good example of a high instep, see photographs of Alla Sizova on Ballerina Gallery).
A flexible ankle determines how well the dancer will be able to stand en pointe (if female). If the dancer's knee, the middle of the ankle joint, and the toes run in a straight line when the foot is pointed, the ankle has sufficient flexibility. Too much flexibility in the ankle is not usually a problem as there are pointe shoes made to assist dancers with this issue.
The Beautiful Foot in Motion
Of course, simply having beautiful feet is only one part of the equation. If a dancer has at least adequate feet, the most important thing then becomes how s/he uses them. Each teaching method has its own way of producing dancers who use their feet well, and each style of ballet has particular requirements for how the feet are used in order to fit its aesthetic. Nonetheless, nearly all methods and styles have certain basic similarities.
To use the foot in a truly refined manner, one must be aware of, and use, the ankle, arch, and toes coordinated with each other. This coordination is developed in the classroom starting with the barre exercises and continuing through allegro. When pointing the foot for a battement tendu, a relevé, or a jump, the foot presses against the floor as the ankle and arch extend. The toes provide a final push against the floor as they extend without curling under to finish the line.
This may be done at various speeds (depending upon the tempo and character of the music and the style of the choreography) and different methods and styles prefer different accents. Some prefer the foot to point slowly so the dancer may be fully aware of the movement. Others use a strong, sharp motion. Both have their merits and in this era when ballet companies perform Petipa classics alongside Balanchine and crossover works, it is best for dancers to learn as many different ways of using the foot as possible.
The way one points the foot is important, but not more important than the way one relaxes, or un-points the foot. When closing from a battement, coming down from a relevé, or landing from a jump, it is the toes that press into the floor first, immediately followed by the ball of the foot. Then the arch relaxes as the ankle gently allows the heel to lower. The entire foot and leg must act as a series of springs so there is a sense of pressure, of the foot not wanting to relax immediately as it comes in contact with the floor. This allows for both a silent landing from jumps and a buildup of potential energy for the next movement.
Placement of the foot on the floor and coordination of the foot with the legs and back are beyond the scope of this post, but I hope to write about them in the future.