Feet: Skeletal and Muscular Structure

Author: Elsa Urmston on behalf of the IADMS Education Committee 

Over the next few months the Education Committee bloggers shine a light on the importance of the feet. In June, Maggie Lorraine will write a two-part blog which focuses on potential foot injuries, structural issues, and working with them in dance. We look forward to her insight. By means of introduction to this topic, this short blog provides an introduction to the foot’s skeletal and muscular structure. 

We all know that tired feeling in our feet at the end of a busy dancing day, don’t we? They ache, they click, and let’s face it, dancers’ feet aren’t always the prettiest of things! We look down at our bruised feet and hard skin, massage our insteps, and slather on moisturizer in an attempt to keep them as pliable as possible. And no wonder, they work hard and we ask a lot of them!! 

But what do you know about the structure of the foot? It’s a hugely complex skeletal structure, comprising 26 bones, 34 joints and more than 100 muscles1, tendons and ligaments, all arranged to be weight-bearing in all sorts of different contexts from pointe to heeled shoes, from sliding across the floor in bare feet to taking off and landing on all surfaces of the foot. And of course, the foot contributes to that sought-after, beautiful line from the toes and arch of the foot and into the rest of the lower leg in an arabesque. Most importantly the foot is designed to create resilience and acts as a shock-absorber to the rest of the body. As Russell2 explains, “the foot’s structure, with its many bones intricately fitting together, provides a dynamic platform on which to support the body. The foot’s adaptability to the floor or ground, regardless of whether or not it is encased in a shoe, is what starts the process of pushing off the floor, absorbing shock when landing from a jump, changing direction in turns, and providing a surface on which to spin, to name a few of the foot’s functions important to dance.” 

There are many super resources online which can help you learn the various bones and joints of the foot for example here and here, plus this interactive tutorial: Foot Anatomy Tutorial

We provide a simple diagram here. 

Diagram of foot bones

The foot can be divided into the posterior and anterior sections. The ankle joint itself (a synovial hinge joint) is formed between the distal ends of the tibia and fibula and the talus where plantarflexion (pointing) and dorsiflexion (flexed foot) occurs. The seven tarsal bones including the talus then make up the posterior portion of the foot, nearest to the heel, or calcaneus. Each tarsal bone is roughly square in shape with flat articular surfaces and together the surfaces glide past each other to provide lateral stability just below the ankle joint itself; they contribute hugely to subtle changes in balance and it is here that inversion (sickling) and eversion (winging) can occur. The five metatarsals and fourteen phalanges comprise the anterior section of the foot, extending away from the ankle joint itself down towards the toes. These bones act as levers, alongside the muscular system of the lower legs and feet to allow the dancer to come up onto demi-pointe and ultimately to jump and locomote. 

The skeletal structure of the foot also creates the longitudinal and transverse arches of the foot which are vital to spread the dancer’s weight across the whole foot. The arches absorb shock from the ground in landing from a jump which is why it is so important for dancers to maintain strong, articulate feet. The arches are reinforced by the ligament system and power is achieved by the muscles working on the joints to create motion through the foot’s resilient dome-like structure. 

As you’d expect, the muscular system of the foot is also complex! They can be divided into two groups; extrinsic and intrinsic muscles. The extrinsic muscles arise from the anterior, posterior and lateral areas of the lower leg and are mainly responsible for actions such as plantarflexion, dorsiflexion, inversion, and eversion. The intrinsic muscles are responsible for more fine motor control actions such as the adaptation of the foot to the body’s weight and balance and the movement of individual toes. These intrinsic muscles are layered through the foot to achieve the precision and intricate demands that dancers place on their feet – no wonder our feet and ankles fatigue! These two great tutorials are a great interactive introduction to the musculature of the feet. 

Intrinsic Muscles of the Foot: Dorsal Muscles 

Intrinsic Muscles of Foot: Plantar Muscles 

So, the balance between strength and flexibility is of paramount importance in the dancer’s foot. When it is achieved we are able to power through space, travelling with height, speed, and dexterity. The simple directive of ‘using the floor’ is familiar to many of us. Building strength and articulation can be achieved through emphasising the stroking of the sole of the foot on the floor in tendu and degagé, leaving the heel until last as the foot extends away from the body, and lowering it first as the foot closes back in. This pressing of the foot into the ground strengthens the intrinsic muscles of the foot whilst also rehearsing the action of pushing into the ground to propel the body in a specific direction - fabulous conditioning exercise and a cornerstone of many dance techniques. For more inspiration see The Royal Ballet’s class broadcast in 2014, a series of tendu exercises feature from about 6 minutes from the start of the video. 

But what if strength and flexibility of the foot structure is compromised either through poor posture or dynamics in alignment of the body, or indeed due to an acute injury sustained whilst dancing? Our forthcoming posts will tackle these issues in June 2016. 

Elsa Urmston, MSc, PGCAP, AFHEA, is the DanceEast Centre for Advanced Training Manager, Ipswich, UK and a member of the IADMS Education Committee. She also sits on the One Dance UK Expert Panel for Children and Young People. Email: 


1. Clippinger, K. The ankle and foot, Dance anatomy and kinesiology. Human Kinetics, 2007, 297-371. 

2. Russell, J. Insights into the Position of the Ankle and Foot in Female Ballet Dancers En Pointe. The IADMS Bulletin for Dancers and Teachers, 6(1), 2015, 10-12. Available here.