Toe Tips

September 14, 2011

Cartier Williams demonstrating a toe stand (Photo Oliver Sarkis)

If you think ballerinas are the only dancers who perform on their toes, think again. Tap dancers often do toe stands, which are exactly what they sound like: In the middle of choreography or an improvisation, a tapper will jump up onto her toes, producing a single sound, and balance for a few seconds. A skilled hoofer can even do a toe stand on one foot while the other keeps tapping!

At first glance, this flashy move may seem intimidating and even a bit risky. But there are ways to practice toe stands safely. DS talked to three professional tap dancers to give you a leg up—or, rather, a toe up—on how to perform this step correctly and confidently.

From Head to Toe

A toe stand may seem like just a quick movement of your foot, but you also have to prepare the rest of your body. Kelly Kaleta, an NYC-based teacher and choreographer and star of Imagine Tap!, says it’s 
important to have a strong core. Engaging your abdominal muscles will keep you steady. She advises dancers to drill steps like wings and shuffle pullbacks, which will help strengthen the core muscles needed to lift your body off the ground.

Strong ankles are also essential for staying on your toes. To prepare, Kaleta recommends lying on your back with one foot flat on the ground and the other crossed so the ankle meets the knee of the bottom leg. Then trace the alphabet in the air with the toes of your lifted foot (perform the exercise with both legs). The repetitive rotations will ensure that your ankles won’t wobble when you’re doing a toe stand. NYC-based hoofer Cartier Williams suggests walking around on relevé to strengthen your ankles and help you find your balance.

Finally, footwear plays a factor in your toe stand success. Kaleta says dancers should avoid practicing toe stands in split-soled shoes because they don’t support your foot. Williams prefers practicing in shoes with a triple toe and heel build-up. “The way they’re built gives you more balance for sitting on your toes longer than usual,” Williams says. “They offer great ankle support.” He also likes tap boots that resemble high-top sneakers because they provide built-in ankle support.

Getting the Feel

Kaleta says that a toe stand is the product of two opposing forces: While the standing leg is in plié, the body is lifted. To experience this feeling, try practicing toe stands at the barre. Adriana Ray, a member of Tapestry Dance Company in Austin, TX, recommends holding on with both hands and jumping or hopping onto your toes. “Some dancers will try to roll up or down through their feet,” Ray says, “but that can eliminate the sound that should be made.” As you get more comfortable and improve your balance, you can reduce the amount of weight you put on the barre until you’re using only a few fingers. Once you can do this without too much wobbling, try the exercise in the center. But be careful: Practicing without support before you’re ready can lead to a twisted or sprained ankle. Kaleta says you can avoid injury by keeping your weight toward your big toe. If your weight shifts toward the outside of your foot, you risk rolling your ankle or twisting your knee and getting hurt.

When you’re ready to try your first full toe stand, step away from the barre and stand on relevé, with your legs shoulder-width apart and your weight evenly distributed. Plié and jump so that the tops of your toe taps hit the floor before you land back on both feet. If you’re having difficulty, Ray recommends hopping a few times to check your balance. When you’ve mastered that, you can remove the hops and practice taking off from just a plié.

Williams likens the feeling of a toe stand to bourrées in ballet class. “Keep your feet right under you,” he says, noting that this will help you maintain your balance. Set simple yet specific arms that will help you get up on your toes without distracting from the step. “Keep them as graceful as possible, or you won’t have any balance,” Williams suggests. Your arms should lift as your body lifts, to help you get up onto your toes and maintain your equilibrium. You can hold your arms straight out to the side, in second position or in a relaxed fifth position.

On Your Toes

After you master the basic toe stand, you can begin to embellish it. Try standing on one toe while the other foot does shuffles, or do the ball-ball part of a cramp roll on your toes. When you really have your balance, walking on your toes is an exciting way to travel across the floor. You can also turn in a toe stand. Practice with quarter and half turns before progressing to three-quarter turns and eventually a full revolution. Make sure to engage your stomach muscles and spot quickly, just as you would for a pirouette in other styles.

As with any trick step, Kaleta warns, use toe stands sparingly to maximize their effect. “They’re exciting to watch,” she says. “Sometimes they look like they hurt, so they seem impressive. If you use them strategically, you’ll wow your audience!”

Ryan P. Casey is an NYC-based performer and choreographer studying journalism at New York University.