Turnout, external rotation from the hips, duck-walking ballet dancers…what does it all mean? Why is this “turnout” so important in classical ballet?
A controversial topic indeed, here I discuss the myths, the function, technique tips from leading pedagogues, and how to build strength and flexibility to optimize this capacity in the body and expand our dance technique and functional movement.
According to dance historians, turnout has been a distinguishing quality of ballet dancing since it’s courtly origins. As I am, in the words of one of my mentors, Betsy Fisher, not a “guru of dance,” I like to rely on a variety of primary and expert sources in my exploration and sharing of ballet.
In The Ballet Companion**, Eliza Gaynor Minden describes the history of external rotation thus: “Ballet dancers have been turned out since the time of ballet de cour, well before the days of ear-high developpes. Turnout enables the dancer to move easily from side to side, to jump, and to pose without ever turning away from the audience. Dancers have always believed that it looks better that way. Back in the days of court dancing, women wore huge, concealing skirts, but men showed their well-formed legs in elegant silk hose. Turnout displayed those handsome calf muscles to better advantage.” (p.80)
In Ballet Pedagogy**, Rory Foster underscores the essential nature of external rotation to classical ballet and the importance that ballet dancers develop their turnout to the degree they are able: “The movement vocabulary of classical ballet is designed to be performed utilizing the outward rotation of the legs, or turnout. While certain steps can be accomplished with little turnout, more complex steps cannot. Technically and aesthetically, classical steps will not have the correct and desired look unless they are done with an adequate degree of rotation” (p.73-4)
Dispelling turnout myths
I have seen far too many children and those new to ballet cranking their feet around, twisting their ankles and knees into a grotesquely turned-out and frankly dangerous shape incapable of generating any balletic movement, in an effort to mimic the perceived forms of ballet while grossly ignorant of the function of these forms, so it’s clear that misunderstanding of turnout is widespread.
Following her discussion of turning and rotation theory (which I also describe in my “Ravishing Rond de Jambe” and “Tourner” videos), Agrippina Vaganova explains that, “The conception of en dehors also defines the turned-out position of the leg accepted in classical ballet. People who know nothing about classical ballet tell all sorts of false and nonsensical things about turnout. Therefore I shall explain the origin of turn-out in detail, borrowing some terms from anatomy.” (Basic Principles of Classical Ballet** p.24) I shall do so below as well, citing Vaganova, Cecchetti Technique, and others as well as my own experience.
Range of Motion
To me, turnout is mainly a means to greater movement possibility, and therefore greater articulation and artistic possibilities. Indeed, Gaynor Minden describes how, “Turnout is what enables a dancer to raise the leg elegantly to the side without displacing the hips or torso. Try to do this without turning out and you’ll find that when your leg reaches waist height, your hips become uneven and your alignment is lost. Turnout facilitates everything you do in ballet, and batterie would be quite impossible without it: absent good turnout the heels get in the way of the beats.” (The Ballet Companion** p.80)
Vaganova also describes how turnout out the leg allows much greater extension of the working leg skyward to the side: “In the normal position, the movements of the legs are limited by the build of the joint between the pelvis and the hip. As the leg is extended, the hip-neck meets the brim of the acetabulum and further movement is impossible. But if the leg is turned out en dehors, the big trochanter recedes, and the brim of the acetabulum meets the side flat-surface of the hip-neck. This allows the leg to be extended to an angle of 90 degrees and even 135 degrees.” (Basic Principles of Classical Ballet** p.24)
But really, try it! In the “Truths About Turnout” Video (starting at 11:27 after the theoretical introduction and literature review also included in this blog), I demonstrate the difference in my range of motion in parallel and using my turnout and even when I’m not warmed up, it’s pretty dramatic!
The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet** agrees that in terms of training the legs of dancing, rotation is critical: “In the management of your legs, your chief concern must be to acquire a facility of turning them well outwards. Therefore your hips must be free so that your thighs move with ease and your knees turn well outwards. By this means the openings of your legs are rendered easy and graceful.” (p.23)
I think the benefits of turnout are made even more clear in the footnotes: “The turning outwards of the legs from the hips provides the dancer with a wide space-line, develops his stability, and enables him to attempt to do a number of difficult movements otherwise impossible.” (The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet** footnote 2 p.23)
Vaganova also describes the spatial effects and vital nature of this facility: “The turn-out enlarges the field of action of the leg to the proportions of the obtuse cone which the leg describes in the grand rond de jambe[…] This is the importance of training the legs of a classical dancer in strict en dehors. It is not an aesthetic conception but a professional necessity. The dancer without turn-out is limited in her movements, while a classical dancer possessing a turn-out is in command of all conceivable richness of dance movement in the legs.” (Basic Principles of Classical Ballet** p.24)
Anatomy of rotation from the hip joint
To better understand how rotation affects the anatomy of the hip joint to create range of movement, I recommend taking a look at a good illustration, such as those in The Anatomy Coloring Book** (p.37+) or Anatomy of Hatha Yoga** (p.139, 146+), or better yet, a video. I found several by other creators on YouTube that might be useful, including a super-quick 20-second “Hip Joint Range of Movement” video, one-minute “Hip Joint 3D Anatomy Tutorial” video, and thorough 6-minute “Hip Muscle Movement” video.
Vaganova explains the significance of turnout: “The turn-out is an anatomical necessity for every theatrical dance, which embraces the entire volume of movement conceivable for the legs, and which cannot be accomplished without turn-out […] The foot turns outward together with the knee; this is a consequence and, to a certain degree, an auxiliary movement. The aim of the turn-out is to turn out the upper part of the leg, the hip-bone. The result of the turn-out is freedom of movement in the hip joint. The leg can be more easily extended and crossed with the other leg.” (Basic Principles of Classical Ballet** p.24)
Rory Foster warns that some anatomical limitations are absolute and must be respected: “Turnout originates in the hip joint. The angle of the upper thigh (femoral neck) and the directional opening of the hip socket (acetabulum) play a major role in determining the allowable degree of turnout. Some students have a skeletal structure that allows little or no rotation, and no amount of stretching will significantly alter their ability for turnout.” (Ballet Pedagogy** p.73-4)
Technique and alignment
How shall we visualize and execute turnout to properly use our own range of motion? Gaynor-Minden says that we can make the most of what we have: “Proper turnout starts deep in the hip socket and continues all the way down the leg to the knee, ankle, and foot. Led by the inner-thigh muscles, the entire leg rotates. A few lucky dancers have a full 180-degree turnout, but it’s possible to dance well with less. Work fully with what you have–your imperfect turnout properly used looks better than perfect turnout on someone who can’t control it. You can and should stretch gently to help open your hips.” (The Ballet Companion** p.80)
Foster reminds us that “Alignment of turned-out legs, thigh/knee/lower leg/foot, must be maintained in order to avoid injury, particularly to the knee,” but he provides a caveat for young advanced and pre-professional students only: “A 180 degree rotation rarely, if ever, happens completely from the thigh and hip joint, especially in third and fifth positions. Rotation of the front thigh in fifth position is usually 60 degrees to 70 degrees. The remaining rotation happens through the lower leg and rotation in the ankle, completing the look of 180 degrees in both legs.
This remaining rotation of the feet through the lower legs and ankles should not be encouraged with young children; their feet should maintain a straight alignment with the thighs and knees. As the student develops strength and flexibility in the feet and ankles, the fifth position adjustment can gradually be made to complete the correct finish of the turnout. At that time, careful attention should be paid to the fully turned out fifth position, making sure that the front foot does not pronate and roll in and that the knee is not twisted or strained.” (Ballet Pedagogy** p.74-5)
For beginning and intermediate students of all ages, it is critical to develop proper alignment first, and carefully develop rotation, along with all strength and flexibility, over time.
Developing flexibility and strength for turnout
Foster explains in Ballet Pedagogy** how dancers learn to use the resistance of the floor and gravity to develop equal strength and rotation in both legs: “Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.’ Dancers know this, experientially, better than most. Inorder to move, force must be exerted and met by equal resistance. This is constantly in play in all upright stationary and locomotor movement–the pushing force against the floor. Likewise, working the turnout must be done using oppositional fore–both legs simultaneously rotate outward in opposition to each other. Concentrating on the turnout in the working leg without engaging turnout in the supporting leg (emphasizing the top of the inner thigh) will not increase, strengthen, or stabilize the overall turnout.” (p.73-4)
All ballet exercises, starting with those at the barre, are designed to strengthen the ability to use rotation, including those done in all 5 of the basic foot positions such as plie, tendu, and rond de jambe. Check out my Ballet Barre playlist on YouTube for more examples of ways to develop your technique.
We strengthen and stretch the whole body while developing coordination through the dancing exercises, as well as practicing specific stretches before and after dancing to increase and maintain our flexibility. Of course, each dancer’s body is built differently, so we need to respect skeletal and physical realities while developing the greatest range possible.
Foster underscores the importance of this work to young dancers, and the caution necessary: “Assuming there is no skeletal impediment to one’s turnout, developing as much flexibility in the part of the anatomy of the young dancer is as important as developing strength in the legs, feet, and torso. Ligaments bind bone to bone at the joints. The insertion of the femur into the pelvis is a ball-and-socket joint that is held by these strong ligaments. Unlike muscles, ligaments are tough and do not stretch easily. Care must be taken to gradually stretch them incrementally, not forcibly. Unlike muscle tissue, ligaments that are overly stretched will not return to their original length; therefore, it is important to simultaneously build supporting strength in the muscles (principally the rotators) that stabilize and have a direct relationship to the hip joint. Building strength and flexibility together should be accomplished through a balanced approach.” (Ballet Pedagogy** p.73-4)
So what sorts of hip stretches are useful for ballet dancers and other athletes? Ideally, consult with a physical therapist or other medical professional to identify any risks and then proceed cautiously with your regimen. Self-knowledge and mindfulness, as well as patience, are key to incrementally and safely increasing range.
Here are some possible places to start when it comes to stretching the hips:
While each of these experts acknowledges the importance of turnout to dancers, they all also offer precautionary warnings to help dancers extend their careers and increase their abilities in a sustainable way. Gaynor Minden stresses: “Turnout should be carefully coaxed, never forced. Working in incorrect, overly turned-out positions can cause injury. Your knees are aligned directly over your toes at all times; position your feet accordingly and do not allow your knees to roll inward, especially when you plie.” (The Ballet Companion** p.80) She also offers the following additional reminders:
- Turn out both legs equally at all times.
- Don’t let the pelvis ‘tuck under’ in an effort to increase turnout.
- It’s a rotation within the hips, not a clenching of the buttocks.
- Don’t force your feet into a perfect toe-to-heel-heel-to-toe fifth position if it means the slightest compromise of straight knees or a properly placed pelvis.
- Never force your feet to turn out in a plie and then try to straighten your legs–it could injure your knees. (The Ballet Companion** p.80)
Send me a message, or hop over to the A Blythe Coach Facebook Page to tell me about your experiences with turnout and your goals for range of motion and strength!
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