Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Turnout – How to Nurture Your Turnout

This is Part II of a two-part series on turnout. I highly recommend you read Part I first. It explores the purpose of turnout in dance, the anatomy of outward rotation at the hip joint, and recognizing false or improper turnout.

Here in Part II are three ways in which a dancer can nurture their ability to turnout and to actively maintain that rotation during movement — Awareness, Release, and Strengthen Without Tension.

Awareness

Photo by Sally M

Photo by Sally M

Awareness comes from developing an understanding of how the body, or specifically the hip joint in this case, works. We’ve talked about this in Part I. And then adjusting or bringing attention to the way you think as a result of this understanding.

The number one problem for students struggling with turnout is that often they are thinking about what they see happening to the pelvis rather than what is occurring in the joint. Teachers can help their students develop x-ray vision by discussing the actions of the joint in anatomical terms. Many students do not even have a clear picture of how their bones and muscles look so keep in mind that diagrams can be very helpful.

Of course, accuracy with terminology is great also, but what students really need to understand are the concepts behind what the bones and muscles are doing. This is far more helpful than talking about visual imperfections like “lifting hips” which occur when students are not properly using their turnout.

Use mental imagery to aid in this kinesthetic understanding.

For instance, in her article Turnout is a Verb (which is sadly no longer online), Linda Kjesbu suggests imagining the quadriceps “as you would a barber shop pole that continually rotates up and out, around the leg.” This image hints at the idea of upward lengthening and outward rotation of the whole leg – a different picture and feeling all together than opening the feet like a book or in the shape of a slice of pizza, which is only what we see happening on the outside.

In Conditioning for Dance, Eric Franklin uses the image of the pelvic floor opening like a fan in turnout.  With this tool one can visualize that the sitz bones come together as the femurs open away from each other. Attention is drawn to a very important portion of the body – the base of the centre – which will help students begin to harness the power of the pelvis in jumping, leaping, and other movements.

Use tactile information (sense of touch) to bring about awareness.

Encourage students to find bony landmarks on themselves and one another. Find ways to isolate certain muscles through manipulation and touch while encouraging the use of mental pictures. Again, I will highly recommend Conditioning for Dance as a wonderful reference for this type of sensory learning.  You will also find a variety exercises with bands and balls targeting specific areas of the body. For an in-depth understanding and analysis of joint and muscle actions, I constantly refer to Sally Fitt’s Dance Kinesiology. These make excellent additions to a teacher’s dance library.

Release

Too much tension in the musculature around the hip joint is often responsible for limiting the degree of turnout. Therefore, releasing that tension is key if you’d like to improve outward (and inward) rotation. Tight inward rotators inhibit outward rotation and visa versa. Dancers have varying methods which they use to accomplish release in the hips. Some use passive and lengthening stretches and others utilize props like balls to facilitate an opening within the joint.

A common stretch for the inward rotators is the prone (face-down) frog. In this stretch it important to avoid forcing or pushing the turnout of the hips because doing so can damage the tissues and ligaments surrounding and leading from the hip. A more gentle and effective version of the frog can be done lying supine (face-up). You might also try a less passive version: While lying, point both knees to the ceiling. Open one knee toward the floor and press down with this leg, lifting the thigh, hips and lower spine off the floor. Maintain this press and lift the opposite leg off the floor so that only the rotated leg and the shoulders are supporting the body. Hold this for 20-30 seconds (breathe!) and then release and lie with both knees open wide, then repeat with the other leg. This utilizes reciprocal inhibition, a method of increasing flexibility favored by dance medicine specialists.

Strengthen Without Tension

Many dancers have more turnout capability than they are able to use because they lack the strength in their outward rotators and supporting muscles to fully open and maintain turnout in the hips. Strengthening these muscles is a gradual process and can be done primarily during technique class, focusing particularly on rotation during plié, fondu, and passé/retiré exercises. Performing prone leg lifts and the Pilates side kick series also target the appropriate muscle groups. Make sure you have a trainer, guide, or teacher when learning these, however, so that you are not repeatedly strengthening or targeting the wrong muscles. Turnboards, discs, and other devices are also becoming popular for strengthening the outward rotators.

It is essential to focus on strengthening without tension in the muscles. “Squeezing” the buttocks is never a good idea when trying to achieve turnout. This language is often tossed around in dance classes, perhaps because the gluteus maximus is partially responsible for achieving turnout, and it is a muscle we can see working. However, squeezing implies that the contraction is a forceful one which will only lead to over-development of the muscle and possibly injury. Pay attention instead to the opening and lengthening aspects of turnout.

Avoiding Injury

Photo by Muffet
Photo by Muffet

Almost all injuries in dance are caused by imbalance. Imbalance in muscle strength is created when one muscle group is overused or underused in relation to the opposite muscle group. For instance, the excessive use of the outward rotators (turnout muscles) in dance can cause sciatic syndrome, a condition in which the sciatic nerve, which runs through the deep rotators, becomes pinched when this muscle group is constantly working without release.

Stretch the external rotators

We’ve all done the sitting yoga twist (pictured right), which is a great stretch for this muscle group. Reciprocal stretches, like the ones for the inward rotators above, can be effective for the outward rotators as well. Lie supine with your knees up and press the insides of your knees together, holding this for 20-30 seconds. Then, open the feet and drop one knee (in inward rotation) toward the floor. Press again and then drop the other leg.

Don’t Force Or Fake Turnout

When dancers chase the almost impossible ideal of 180º turnout, and outward rotation is forced beyond the range of one’s bone structure, an abnormal erosion of the hip socket occurs. This is probably the reason for the high numbers of aging dancers with arthritic hips.

Creating false turnout (as mentioned in Part I) can also lead to problems. Excessive pronation can cause shinsplints, strained arches, bunions, misaligned knees, and strained ligaments. Issues such as these have a way of working their way upward through the body, and will in turn cause strain in the hips or cause pelvic tilt, which leads to back problems and iliopsoas shortening/pain. Rolling in to get that little bit of “extra” turnout is clearly not worth it.

Conclusions

At the beginning of this two-part article, I asked two questions:  Is having extreme turnout really ideal?

What I hope you take away from this article is that it is not the degree to which you are capable of turning out, but the healthful and educated approach to achieving your potential for turnout that is important.

As for the importance of turnout itself, I believe it is only as important as we allow it to be. Even most ballet professionals, I think, would agree that having extreme turnout is trumped by mastering the ability to properly execute and maintain the degree of outward rotation that exists.  This attitude, when applied to training or teaching, can transform a student’s technique. Coupled with the knowledge of how turnout works, it allows the dancer to dance longer and stronger.

It is never too early for a dancer to begin to make anatomical and kinesthetic connections to the movements they are producing in dance class.

Dancers should always strive for better efficiency in movement. It’s about making the effort count, rather than wasting it.

“If the turnout is mastered early and properly, the student, and later the dancer, does not have to waste energy on the placement but instead can concentrate on the muscle energy needed to  jump higher to turn better, and to control the weight of the leg.”

- Istvan Ament, A Systematic Approach to Classical Ballet: A Four-Year Program

Dance Advantage recommends further investigation:

Tune Up Your Turnout by Deborah Vogel

Tune Up Your Turnout

FUNctional Anatomy for Dancers

Essential Anatomy

You can get all of the above at The Body Series. I have been following Deb’s work online for years and have such faith in her as an information source for dancers, that I don’t mind at all telling you that that link is an affiliate link. What's this?

Tell me about your successes or frustration with turnout.

Do you think too much emphasis is placed on the degree of turnout? If so, what are some ways that teachers or educators can correct this?

Do you think the ballet aesthetic is changing?

What are some images, stretches, or exercises relating to turnout that have worked for you?

Nichelle (admin)
Nichelle Suzanne began Dance Advantage in 2008, equipped with a passion for movement education and an intuitive sense that a blog could bring dancers together. Nichelle holds a BA in dance and is an instructor with more than 17 years experience. She covers dance performance in the Houston area as a freelance writer and balances daily life as a mom to two young children. In June 2012, Nichelle presented the whats, hows, and whys of blogging on a panel at the annual conference for Dance/USA, the national service organization for professional dance, to better equip artists and companies for engaging their audience and new readers through online communications and content.
Nichelle (admin)
Nichelle (admin)
Nichelle (admin)
Nichelle (admin)

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Comments

  1. ladyamalthea91 says:

    I definately think that the ballet aesthetic is changing!
    Modern dance & ballet have been coming together more and more lately. Classical ballet is becoming more “extreme” & mixing with the more powerful positions of modern. Modern does utilize turn out but it is less forced & there are many parallel positions. I think that modern & ballet together are beautiful & take the extreme parts of each style & balance them together.

    I have been struggling with my turnout for a few years now. My teachers have always labeled by turnout as poor, & have told me I will never be able to improve it. I went to physiotherapists for help & they told me that my hips were weak & damaged.
    Since then, I’ve been doing small amount of hip exercises (the clam), taking mooooore ballet technique classes (which have helped an incredible amount), & i have been stretching my hips as much as possible.

    My favorite hip stretch –>

    you are sitting in a double-stag position on the ground. “Open” your legs more, as in, unbend your knees, unscrunch your stag position.
    Then, lean onto one side of your hip so you can lean over your front leg. You can extend or contract your legs to get more stretch.
    Its my favorite!

    Thank you so much for these turn out articles, they have really encouraged me to keep working on my turn-out. Also they have given me hope that turn-out isn’t everything.
    Thanks!

  2. You’re very welcome. I’m so glad you found the articles helpful. I have never had great turnout either but some of the release techniques really make a difference. I get particularly tight in the hip flexors if I neglect them. And I think you are right about modern’s influence in ballet.

  3. wow great information! As a professional modern dancer who trained extensively in ballet I have seen the effects of overusing turnout not only in my own body, but now in my pilates clients. Unfortunately the ballet aesthetic puts way to much strain on the hip joint. It overemphasizes turnout without training in parallel and even turn in. A normal person has equal amounts of turnout and turn in. If you ask a dancer to turn in from the femur chances are they won’t go very far. I could hardly turn my legs in or keep them in parallel for long periods of time. Red flag!! The key to hip longevity and injury prevention is to equally strengthen all muscles in the hip…in parallel and turnout. Ever since I was introduced to modern and pilates my sciatica disappeared. Even when I take ballet classes I have to watch my alignment and make sure I do all I can to keep those deep rotators loose and happy. Thanks for sharing! I know it’s a huge problem for a lot of dancers.

  4. Amber, thanks for sharing your personal experience with the overuse of turnout. I hope other dancers and teachers will read what you’ve written and take to heart the need to seek balance in muscular training.

  5. These are great posts Nichelle. As a young dancer, turnout was never fully explained to me. It was not until college I learned I was forcing my turnout as you explained in Part 1. Thankfully, I never got an injury and was able to recondition my body using proper turnout techniques. When I became a teacher I made sure I explained in full the process and use of turnout. I still get students looking at me with bored faces and if they could I know they would say, “ok, we get it Miss Leslea” or “we have heard this before.” I use many of the exercises and descriptions you mentioned. One other that I often use is my fist over a cuffed hand to represent the hip socket. I find it very important as a teacher to explain technique and how the dancers body functions. I am going to refer all my students to these posts. Thanks Nichelle =)

  6. Thanks Leslea. Again, I am so glad that folks are finding this useful. The understanding and implementation of proper turnout is so important!

    It can be difficult to find new ways of getting students excited about this part of their education. Perhaps the trick is to just keep trying to present it in new ways (which is why it is great to read others’ suggestions). I’ve found that going the extra mile and bringing visual tools of the anatomy into the studio also have a positive affect. Results in dance are sometimes slow but when a student does get results from working properly, it is an amazing transformation as they seek to know more.

  7. Christine says:

    I cannot overemphasize the importance of not forcing the body to do what it is not able to do. I started dancing at age 7-8 and had my first knee subluxation soon after. In eleven years of training, including three years at the SF Ballet School, my knee subluxed five times and jammed once followed by my first knee surgery. Too late. My career was over before it had a chance to begin. I then had a partial knee replacement in my mid-thirties, and now, a decade later, my “good” knee is trying to dislocate. So . . . if a student’s body isn’t suited to ballet, consider steering that student into a different activity. If the student is as stubborn as I was, get physical therapy going asap!

  8. Hi there- Thanks for such a clear explanation of the turnout. I started dancing in college four years ago, and last two years I started having a lot of problem in both of my hip sockets, and my lower back. And the pain usually happen together and on the same side. Naturally, I very little turn out, and so I always feel pathetic in dance classes where every one else has a better turnout than me. So may be I was forcing it in class and didn’t know until my back and hip sockets started to hurt. I went to physical therapy this summer and he recommended me to strengthen my external rotators with some exercises. I also want to work on release them as well. You wrote about releasing the inward rotators, but do you have ways to release the external rotators as well? Thanks and I appreciate your post!

    • Happy that you found the explanations helpful! Per your questions on releasing the external rotators, you could use pinkie balls (a small, firm rubber ball) or foam rollers to release the deep rotators. Basically you would roll your glutes/deep rotators over the object (in other words, the object is between you and the floor). I believe the Conditioning for Dance book above has examples and other ideas, and you might search The Body Series blog (http://blog.thebodyseries.com) for some additional thoughts or exercises.

      The yoga twist stretch (above) is another way to “get at” those often tight external rotators. Or, lie on your back, bend one knee and bring it into your chest, then drop it across the body so that the knee is touching or nearing the floor in a twist. I’ve found that I can address different areas of my rotators and IT band depending on where I place the knee (closer to my shoulder or lower, etc). Also consider massaging the area with your fingers or a pinkie ball during the stretch to help release.

      Hope this helps! Thanks for reading!

  9. “You might also try a less passive version: While lying, point both knees to the ceiling. Open one knee toward the floor and press down with this leg, lifting the thigh, hips and lower spine off the floor. Maintain this press and lift the opposite leg off the floor so that only the rotated leg and the shoulders are supporting the body. Hold this for 20-30 seconds (breathe!) and then release and lie with both knees open wide, then repeat with the other leg.”

    I can’t visualise this stretch. Could you please link to a youtube video or explain it with photos or something?

    Thanks for this comprehensive article which both explains the anatomy side of turn out as well as ways to do it. I have been struggling with turn out and You have no idea how much your article encourages me :)

    Explain that stretch/exercise!

    • Hi Vivien! I have yet to find a video or image of this specific exercise – and I’m currently too pregnant to make a one myself – but it may help to visualize it as similar to a Pilates “bridge” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3t2oFd58h7c).

      Opening one leg, you use it (and your other foot) to press into the bridge. Lifting the opposite leg once you’re up just makes it harder so start with just the press up. This actually works the external rotators (turnout muscles). The stretch part (opening both legs in the belly-up frog) actually comes AFTER. The idea is that contracting the opposing muscles helps to release the ones you’re trying to stretch.

  10. This was such an informative, excellent article! Thank you so much. I have recently started training in earnest again to take a teacher’s qualification after a long formal break from ballet. Turn out has always been my biggest problem, but I feel now that I need to strengthen what I have and perfect my range of motion rather than forcing something my body cannot do. Thank you!

    • You are so welcome, Mia! It sounds like you got out of this article exactly what I hoped you would. Work with what you’ve got and use it to your maximum advantage!

  11. Hello,
    for year i have struggled with limited turnout and have spent hours doing exercise trying to release and strengthen the correct muscles. I am interested to try out any exercises that you may have that would strengthen the turnout muscles.
    I would be very grateful if you could explain or give links to exercises that would strengthen the correct muscles.
    Thank you

  12. This article has helped me very much so I wanted to thank you for it. I realized I must have been forcing my outward rotation because I have a sciatica issue (which it’s healing thanks to a chiropractor and the help of my trainer Paul Zaichik from ElasticSteel). I practice martial arts (I’m horrible at dancing!) and one stretch that works for me is you sit with your legs straight, then place one ankle over the thigh of the other leg, relax for a moment, then with your hand press the knee out and down and contract the muscles as if you wanted to lift your knee (isometric contraction), no movement should take place, after you contracted for a few seconds relax and the knee should go lower. Isometrics is what works best for me for this stretch.
    Thank you also for your book recommendations, I’ll keep them in mind.

  13. Hi my name is Emma, I’m 13 and have been dancing since I was 3. Turnout is my biggest problem! You wrote a lot of stuff that I’ll definitely take up! Do you know by any chance why when I go it to frog position as in when your legs are turned out and close to your body while sitting on the floor. Anyway, when I push my legs to turnout more all in my upper legs through to my hips hurt. I don’t know why my hips do this and I have tried lying on my stomach in frog their and I just can’t get into that position and it hurts more! Is their anything I can do to help it not hurt? And improve my turnout?
    Thanks

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