Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Natalie Portman is the Black Swan.

Seen Black Swan yet? I was fascinated, bored, and thrilled by it. Admittedly, I have a thirty year history as a dancer (yes, I'm that old) but I think there's some great stuff in there for those who know nothing about dance or ballet. You'll snore, you'll gasp (in that order.)

What about this film provokes a post by The Cinematologist? How can I write without ruining the film for those who haven't yet seen it? By examining the phenomenon of syndactyly, a.k.a. zygodactyly, a.k.a webbed toes (and fingers.) That's how.

The swan seen here is not played by Natalie Portman.

Get it? Black Swan and webbed toes? Plus toe webbing does appear in the film. For the sake of artistic integrity I will not reveal the context of the toe reference.

During weeks 6-8 of development, a fetus' fingers and toes separate from one another. Up to that point, we all have mitten-shaped hands and sock-shaped feet, sort of. A process called apoptosis(1) separates the digits through the death of the connecting them. If this "longitudinal interdigital necrosis" does not separate the fingers and/or toes, you come out of the womb with webbed fingers and/or toes.

Second and third toe webbing, no bony involvement.

Syndactyly can be a phenomenon in and of itself, or linked to a variety of syndromes. Sometimes the skin is the only tissue linking the digits, but sometime the bones are fused, or additional bones may be present. Syndactyly occurring in the hands can lead to functional losses and cause deformities. With either fingers or toes, once the extent and type of webbing is assessed surgery is the typical treatment. People tend not to see toe webbing as a great impediment to foot function, in contrast with impairment caused by finger webbing. Therefore they may be less likely to treat their webbed toes surgically. As a massage therapist, I have worked on many an untreated webbed toe, but have never worked on untreated webbed fingers.

This is the most creative example of embracing one's toe syndactyly I've ever seen.

As it's own phenomenon not linked to any other syndrome, the chances of being born with webbing have been observed to be around 3 in 10,000 births. Most common is webbing between the second and third toes. White, non-Latin men have a slightly higher likelihood of having syndactyly, and there are genetic links to the condition. So if you're worried about your own future offspring's odds of developing toe deformities, you should do a thorough genetic/family health history with any potential mate and screen them for toe webbing before you mix genetic material. While you're at it, you can also screen for Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and heart disease, before selecting a partner for parenting. Once you find a mate who passes these genetic criteria, she will probably turn out to be a crazy, controlling stage mother ex-ballerina who bears a resemblance to Barbara Hershey on botox. (What a great performance that was!)

Mother Erica (Hershey) with daughter Nina (Natalie Portman).

This means that statistically, ballerinas are less likely to present with syndactyly than danseurs. There are no definitive statistics of greater incidence of syndactyly in the corps de ballet, as opposed to incidence amongst soloists, or prima ballerinas.

No, you can't swim better with syndactyly of the toes, unless you are a swan. Yes, you can still get athletes foot on the toes, if not between them(2). Finally, there are no documented instances of spontaneous syndactyly... unless you're crazy.

1. The tissue cells webbing the fingers and toes together begin to die (intentionally) in order to free the digits from one another. Apoptosis essentially means normal, intentional cell destruction in any tissue, not just fingers and toes. Sometimes one's body must sacrifice a few for the greater good.
2. Athlete's Foot is a fungus, called tinea, that prefers cracks between the toes, but keep your foot in your shoe long enough where the foot skin can stay warm and moist and... voila!


  1. This is brilliant! I'm always late to the party, I didn't realize I was missing this font of Kriota-wisdom. Can't wait to read it all.

    BTW, I think I've seen those toes somewhere. Am I wrong? I can't remember whose they are, though, so maybe it's just a figment of deja vu.

  2. Hey Nathanael! Syndactyly is pretty common, so I can say with confidence that you've probably seen webbed toes somewhere, if not THOSE toes. Glad you like the blog!