PARIS — Nicolas Le Riche, a dancer of the Paris National Opera, gazes at his fan-shaped toes and describes his feet as being like mangrove trees. "They move around like those trees that appear to walk on water," he says.

Listening to a classical, contemporary, hip hop or flamenco dancer talk about his feet — or "work tools," as Paris Opera's Marc Moreau calls them — reveals a subtle and intimate imagination of the body's extremities. Flamenco master Antonio Canalès calls them "the roots of my garden," while modern dancer Virginie Caussin characterizes them as "small bricks with sausage balls at the end." People have a lot to say about their feet.

Whether they take leaps or click their heels, wear ballet shoes, socks, sneakers or nothing at all, dancers' feet are the objects of extreme care and long-term learning processes to become high-skill tools.

An Air France advertisement last summer contrasted the beauty of ballet to the physical suffering and the deformation it causes. It featured two female feet side by side, one tip-toeing and perfectly eroticized, the other covered in small Band-Aids and other wraps. It was an unvarnished view on the beautiful art and the distinctly less chic wear it creates. "Of course, it's the function that creates the organ," says Le Riche.

A long and tenacious construction

Sculpting one's paintbrushes, sharpening their shape and their strength, molding them in a carapace of movements, postures and tightness is a lifelong matter. "If they could speak, they would talk about all the stages I've tread upon since my first show at the age of five in Seville," says 53-year-old Spaniard Maria Pagès, who appears regularly at the Arte Flamenco festival in southwest France. "Their story and mine, for better or worse, are the same. They're hard and resistant like I am, and I don't know if they define my temperament or the opposite."

Photo : Edwin Remsberg/VW Pics/ZUMA

Clairemarie Osta, 46, another Paris Opera dancer, says talking about her feet is like talking about her life. "I have square, thin and flat feet," she notes. "Problems for ballet, in theory. I had to work to overcome them. For a long time, I mostly valorized the upper part of my body so people wouldn't look at the bottom. But I never gave up. I think I became curious of this somewhat raw discipline, full of articulations, that the foot is, to be able to prove that mine too could be exceptional."

Osta was 20 when she finally reached her goal, and she can now see the advantages of her feet. "It's less painful to do a pointe when you have square toes," she jokes.

Dancers' feet go through tough training. Often starting at a very early age, they change slowly, at the risk of becoming irremediably distorted.

Shoes off, a natural state

Feet suffer no matter the style, but modern dancing and hip hop seem to traumatize them less. The former, which is done bare-footed or in socks, often leads to a widening or a flattening of the arch of the foot, and toes that are moved slightly apart. "My small bricks are also very strong, of course, gripping the floor so I can feel all my movements," explains Caussin, who works bare-footed from dawn to dusk. "But they've kept their initial shape."

Hip-hop, which is mostly performed in sneakers, leads to another transformation. "It tends to bring the foot closer to its animal function," says choreographer Anne Nguyen, an expert in acrobatic floor dancing. "In breakdancing, the foot folds, unfolds, bends, rediscovers its feline side. In some figures, it almost gets mixed up with the hands, as if we had four indistinguishable supports. In the end, it's still very natural, very tender."

In classical dancing, there's no softness. The training makes the foot brace itself and unfold, pushes it to open up to the outside, to lean on the toes. "The foot is the first to go onstage," says Elisabeth Platel. "It has to be perfect. As a child, I used to strengthen it by using it to pick up pens." Marc Moreau adds, "We're taught very young not to roll on the ankle, for instance, or to bend the arch of the foot when it's tickled, so it doesn't cave in."

Dancers have no issues taking their shoes off, and the tangible evidence shows that both men's and women's big toes are particularly beefy and over-developed, while the other toes are very stretched out. They also have their share of corns, calluses and other bumps and bruises that are anything but glamorous.

"They look like what they've been through," says Le Riche. "I have a firm grip on the ground when I dance, and this is the result."

As for the flamenco technique, it forces the dancers to move their feet against very hard shoes. "This often leads to having black toes by dint of pushing," says Maria Pagès.

Photo: VW Pics/ZUMA

Muscle sprains, twists, burns

Classical dancers in particular would need more hands to count their injuries on them. There are broken toes, fatigue fractures, pulls, sprains, twists, burns and cracks. "About 40% of dancers' injuries concern their feet, and some injuries only exist in this field," says Yoann Bohu, an orthopedist surgeon who works with the Paris Opera. "Dancers develop extreme flexibility and mobility of every articulation in the foot, which they can separate in unbelievable ways. Compared to other sports, this quality is really specific to them."

Their feet may be very precious, but the dancers don't seem obsessed by them. "I barely think about it," says Amala Dianor, a hip hop and modern dancing choreographer.

Maria Pagès calls them good collaborators. "I trust them," she says. The dancer suffered a major injury seven years ago, which led her to take better care of her feet. Among the luxuries she now grants them is "a warm bath from time to time." As for Antonio Canalèse, he makes sure they're "warm, healthy, but with no creams, pedicures, not too many changes of shoes either, with sometimes ice and salt baths." Le Riche, Osta, Platel and Moreau opt for the daily comfort of wearing sneakers.

When the training loosens, or when dancers stop performing, the feet become bigger or cave in. "I suddenly gained a shoe size," says Platel. But, as Osta says, no more red feet. "Since I've been doing fewer pointes, I've gotten my childhood feet back, more consistent, softer, prettier," she says. "My foot used to be efficient. Now it has recovered its sensuality, its eroticism."

Another life, another dance.