Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Turnout: What's the Big Deal?

The dancer's quest to improve turnout can be a lifelong pursuit. Since the days of Louis XIV, a turned-out aesthetic has been the ideal for ballet dancers. But when it comes to how to approach leg rotation, a lot has evolved since the 17th century. "Turnout facilitates movement and the beauty of your line," says Daniel Duell, artistic director of Ballet Chicago. "It's not just a goal unto itself. It contributes to function." That function includes the balance, strength, agility, and speed essential to the performance of every step in the classical vocabulary.

Like everything in ballet, turnout begins at the barre. From the first combination, dancers should focus on rotating both legs equally, without compromising alignment. "Think of wrapping your muscles around your bones to turn them out, rather than trying to force your bones unduly," says Duell. "It's like taking clay and wrapping it around a pole so the clay spirals around it."

Align your knees over the middle toes with the weight more toward the balls of the feet than the heels, which will make it easier to translate your turnout at the barre into the center.

Proper turnout also helps extension, says Sharon Story, dean of the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education. "In class I use my shoulder socket to show that if you turn your arm in, the arm doesn't go as high as when it's turned out. The hip sockets work the same way."

In order to apply your work at the barre to the center, don't rely on the barre itself to hold your placement. Use it as a reference rather than a crutch. This will strengthen turnout muscles: the adductors (inner-thigh muscles), the deepest abdominal muscle known as the transversus abdominis, and the pelvic floor. Test your balance by occasionally letting go of the barre.

Never contort your body to give the impression that you're more turned out than you really are. Turnout begins at the hips. "If you take the turnout from the ankles and knees," says Story, "you can get bunions, tendinitis, and serious injuries."

However, you should push your turnout to its natural limit in order to build strength. "A lot of the recent training doesn't stress fifth position so that your knees will be safe and you won't hurt your hips," says renowned New York teacher Nancy Bielski. "That's a major crime. If you strive for a healthy way of turning out, you won't get injured. Usually it's when you're turned out incorrectly that you get injured."

Everyone's degree of rotation is different, and many experts believe it can't be increased because it's a matter of bones. Still, there is more to turnout than genetics. It also takes strength--and that's something any dancer can improve.

Most dancers have a maximum rotation of 55 degrees in their hips, according to Gayanne Grossman, associate professor of anatomy and kinesiology at Temple University. (The rest comes from rotation of the shin bones, but this is fixed--it can't be actively rotated like the hips.)

Your natural turnout may be greater than what you have the strength to hold. "Muscles tend to be weakest in their end ranges," says Grossman. "This is problematic for dancers because end-range turnout is precisely where they stand."

These muscle weaknesses make it difficult to control turnout. "Many dancers cannot isolate or properly use the six deep rotators, so they over recruit the gluteus maximus," says Grossman, whose research will appear in a turnout-themed issue of the Journal of Dance Medicine Science later this year. (See

While it may be tempting, never use your gluteal muscles or quadriceps to turn out. Instead of squeezing, feel a sense of elongation and stretch in your body, with the feet pushing down into the floor and the hips lifting up away from the floor. Think of lengthening your quadriceps to keep your knees straight, rather than gripping turnout.

There are a number of exercises to improve your turnout. Duell recommends standing on a rotation disc in parallel and rotating your legs outward into first position. Bielski suggests lying on your back with the soles of your feet together and opening your knees into a frog position. Ask a friend to gently push against your knees while you resist the pushing. Hold for 20 seconds and release, allowing your knees to drift toward the ground. Grossman recommends Pilates, specifically the side kick series.

Whether or not you have 180-degree turnout, you can push it to its anatomical limit. Always keep the image of good turnout in mind. Says Story, "Make sure you're presenting your feet and lower legs with the best possible turnout. It makes for a finished, professional dancer."

Written by Kristin Lewis "Improving Turnout", Dance Magazine August 2008

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