Did you know?
The use of ‘turnout’ originates from the time of King Louis XIV when ballet was performed on raked stages. This new way of placing the feet made it easier for dancers to balance and move sideways.
These days ballet, in particular, demands dancers to appear to have 180 degree turnout – it has become the aesthetically pleasing norm. But in order to gain this desired effect, dancers must ensure they are approaching the position safely. Unsafe turnout practices can result in postural changes, degenerative issues, decreased strength and potentially bony changes. These issues are created due to the forces placed on the limbs and joints from using incorrect muscles.
For example: The femur can rotate more within the socket when the pelvis is tilted anteriorly (sicking you bottom out picture 1). If this method is engaged instead of recruiting the deep hip rotator muscles, poor posture can develop causing changes is lower limb positioning (picture 2) resulting in potential spine injuries due to the excess forces placed on the bones and connective tissues.
Many dancers focus on stretching to improve their turnout. While increasing flexibility is necessary, strengthening the muscles that then hold this turnout is often more important. This is seen when dancers can display a larger passive range of motion in the hips (picture 3) when assessed, than active turnout (picture 4). Put simply, your hip rotators are not strong enough to hold the body and limbs in its maximum available turnout.
So, what steps can dancers take to improve their turn out safely?
Several studies have been done on improving turnout. One in particular outlines a training program that was trialed with university level dancers
The steps below summarises the information gained from their research.
Knowlege is Power! Educate yourself on the anatomy of the hip and lower limbs, especially to the muscles that cause rotation at the hip (piriformis, obturator internus, obturator externus, gemellus inferior, gemellus superior and quadratus femoris). There are plenty of credible online resources that provide information either in video format or text / picture format.
Become Aware: Concentrate on firstly becoming aware of your turnout and feeling these muscles work. This can be easily done by laying on your back with your et parallel and rotating your legs to first position. Place your hands alternately under your bottom and on the side of your hips to feel the muscles moving. Concentrate on rotating from the hip, not the legs or feet. Then repeat the exercise standing, rocking back slightly on your heels to allow your legs to pivot to a turned-out position. Ensure that your core is engaged, hips are in alignment and your posture is correct. Be aware that you are likely to see more turn out while you are lying down (passive turnout), than you are standing (active turnout).
Don't force it: Work within your current turn out range in class. Ensure that your hip placement and your posture is correct and that there is no pressure on your knees or rolling of the feet and ankles.
Strengthen: Specifically strengthen the deep rotator muscles. This can be done through exercises like the Pilates ‘clam’, performing develops la second lying on your side then standing, using a rotating disk to practice plis in first, and in the coup position. Have an exercise scientist, personal trainer or a dance teacher who is trained in strength and conditioning, take you through these exercises initially, then you can practice them at home or before classes.
Stretch: Ensure you stretch the muscles used after your strengthening session, such as stretching your rotators in the ‘pretzel’ position, sitting up out of your hips and a hip flexor lunge. Again, have a professional show you the best exercises for you first.
Release: Use a tennis ball, foam roller or massage / trigger point ball to release and relax your deep rotator muscles
Practice, Practice, Practice! Practice your strengthening exercises and your stretching exercises regularly!! This is probably the hardest part, but these stretches and strength exercises could be done whilst watching tv, or after class. Consistency (not quantity!) of practice will get the best results.
As always, consult your physiotherapist before entering into any extra training program to ensure you are moving and working in the correct way and won't cause any injury by doing so.
Pata, D., Welsh T., Bailey J., Range V., 2008, Improving Turnout in University Dancers, Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 18 (4), doi: 10.12678/1089-313X.18.4.169
Welsh T., Rodrigues M., Beare L., Barton B., Judge T., 2008 Assessing Turnout in University Dancers, Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 12 (4).