Do your legs hurt? How to survive intensive footwork
Have you ever found that when you do flamenco footwork for an extended period of time that your legs start to respond in strange and unpredictable ways?
If you are unconditioned to flamenco footwork it can be quite a shock to the system.
Let's take a general look at what is happening in our bodies when we do footwork.
Firstly, we need to maintain at all times a slight bend at the knees, let's forget for a second the action of lifting the feet to the back.
This plié serves to lower our centre of gravity (which makes us more stable) and also allows us greater freedom of movement to lift our feet up to the back to actually do the footwork that we want to do.
In this position we load our quadriceps to maintain the position in what is called an isometric contraction.
If you get up now and with bare feet, slightly bend your knees and then try and stay there for 10 minutes you might find yourself feeling challenged!
Now we add in the movement of lifting the leg.
To lift the leg we need to use the flexors of the hamstring, the glutes and some small muscles the cross the back of the knee. To lower the leg to the floor we use the extensors of the quadriceps.
Then to create the different combinations of footwork we use the small muscles of the feet and the calf muscles to lift our heels up and down (tacón).
Obviously this is a very simplified summary of the movement. We don't need to understand the anatomy in detail, we just need a general idea of what is happening.
You can confidently say that your legs are working incredibly hard to maintain correct technique and carry out the different steps that we do.
There are normally three types of discomfort that beginner dancers experience when doing footwork.
Before we get into each one lets first consider what is a mild uncomfortable feeling in your legs and what is real pain.
If you experience sharp wince inducing pain anywhere in your body when you dance you need to stop immediately and get yourself to someone that can help you.
There is a difference between the ache of an unconditioned muscle and real pain. When you dance be mindful of the difference.
If you are in pain, be smart, get yourself to someone who can help you so you can keep dancing for the years to come.
There are many possibilities for discomfort when you do footwork but the following are three of the most common issues.
1. Cramping in the quadriceps
The quads are used not only to maintain the position of the demi-plié but also to extend the legs as they come back down to the floor. It is very common to feel aching in this area if you are not used to doing flamenco footwork.
2. Tightness across the front of the hip
There could be many reasons for this feeling. The anatomy of the hip and surrounding structures is very complex, depending on your habitual movement patterns and your anatomy there could be many different compensation patterns in action. For example, the illiopsoas (a common name used to describe the psoas and the iliacas muscles) could be grumbling if you spend a lot of time sitting at a desk.
3. Cramping in the calf muscle
Using the feet in the way we do for flamenco dance puts a great deal of load on the muscles of the lower leg. It is very common to feel tired and an ache in this area when you are just getting started.
So we have the aches and pains, how do we keep going and survive class?
Quality over quantity
If you find that every time you try to do footwork that your legs start hurting then just do as much practice as you can without losing form.
If you are practicing by yourself then you can stop and start as you need to.
If you are in class then just let your teacher know that you will need to take small breaks during your zapateado practice.
When you stop, don't stop moving your body. Shake your muscles out and keep moving gently until you feel you have recovered.
Are you conscious of how your breathing affects your footwork?
To be able to use our bodies effectively we need to have the ability to breathe.
Often when we are learning new movement or trying to force ourselves to execute certain movements we hold our breath. You probably won't even be aware that you are doing it but it can be influential in the response of your muscles to the new work.
Monika Volkmar wrote a great piece about breath holding here... 'Is holding your breath while you dance really so bad?'
Slowly increase your endurance.
You need to be aiming to slowly increase your endurance.
This will happen over time but what you can do is to try to increase the amount of time you do your footwork with good form each time you practice.
Don't go overboard but try to be aware of the sensations that arrive and with each practice session or class that you do try to keep going for one more compás than what you did last time.
Don't push yourself into pain but equally try to be conscious that you need to put in the work to increase your capacity to do footwork.
Most importantly be aware that the aches that you feel are completely normal and with time your legs will improve.
Take breaks, breathe and take it slowly.