What is Turnout?

3) What is Turnout?

Turnout is the outward rotation of the legs that gives ballet its characteristic aesthetic. Picture a dancer with heels together and toes pointing in opposite directions (First position) like a cartoon penguin, and you have the stereotypical idea of turnout. Dancers will go to extraordinary measures to achieve “perfect” (180 degrees) turnout.  The aesthetic of outward rotation comes from several historic factors: in the 17th century, when ballet was first performed by men in the court of Louis XIV (picture men in white hose, knee-length pantaloons, ruffled shirts, and black shoes with buckles and a heel) it was considered attractive for men to have a “well-turned calf”. Turning out the legs allows for quicker transitions of movement in various directions, as well as a technique called “beats” – in which the legs are crossed repeatedly in the air before landing. As the art developed, and women began to perform, turnout also allowed for the legs to be held higher. External rotation allows for greater range of motion and makes the uninterrupted “line” of the leg more pleasing.

Thanks to the popularization of dance,  physical therapists and some physicians are aware of ballet turnout as a function of the gluteals, which are  rotators of the thigh. However, the anatomy of turnout involves  abdominals and iliopsoas (core);  gluteals (butt);  hamstrings, abductors, and adductors (thigh muscles), gastrocnemius and peroneals (calf muscles),  even the foot and ankle. It is primarily an action, a spiral or spin of the muscles. It requires many years of training to implement. The most common mistake dancers make is turning out only from the knee down. The dancer becomes fixated on the position of the feet, and so imitates the “penguin” look without engaging the muscles above the knee that would support the rotation. This usually culminates in knee, ankle, and foot injuries ranging from dislocation of the patella and ankle sprains, to breaking the fifth metatarsal or little toe. Conversely, a dancer may turn out well enough from the hip and then fail to follow through in the lower leg and ankle. This is equally dangerous. In both situations, a torque is placed on the knee joint.

Turnout, or external rotation, is the cohesive factor or “glue” of ballet technique. Properly applied, turnout not only makes a dancer strong, quick, and beautiful, but keeps the body safe from injury. Turnout acquires a bad reputation from being misapplied and misunderstood. The human body is made to turn out at the hip, thanks to the rounded nature of the head of the femur, and the shallow socket where it rests. There is variation among individuals regarding the depth of the socket, and the tightness of the ligaments. Nevertheless, everyone is capable of some degree of turnout. It is a question of understanding how to achieve it. I tell my students: Turnout is a verb, not a noun. In other words, if you’re not turning out, you don’t have it. It is this fundamental shift in understanding – that turnout is a continually applied action, like a running engine,  an impetus that precedes each and every gesture and movement – that transforms this apparent physical distortion into a powerful technique. Further, turnout is a physical expression of the spiritual/emotional state of being open. One is turning from the inside out, exposing the core of the body, from the thighs to the heart itself, in a continual hum or “Om”. Experience leads me to wonder how much the achievement of it also depends upon a certain psycho-emotional maturity and willingness to feel exposed.

In some schools, turnout is “forced” – meaning that dancers are required to assume a 180 degree rotation of the feet whether they can actually sustain it muscularly or not. The theory behind this is roughly that 1) young children are so limber that it won’t hurt them, and 2) if they do it often enough they’ll figure out how to hold it. My thoughts on this are as follows: some bodies are more inclined to sustain such an extreme position without damage than others. Further, the older a student is when they begin to train, the more problematic this forcing becomes. As a dancer forces the feet, the foot arches collapse, the knees strain, and the pelvis tips forward,  arching the lower back in an attempt to counter-balance the forward trajectory of the weight caused by the collapsed foot arches. Thus, a dancer cannot even begin to use the correct muscles to develop turnout because their energy is being diverted into trying to maintain balance in very poor alignment. This scenario will invariably lead to injury in the near or distant future.

While a conscientious teacher will try to monitor each student in class to make sure they are not perpetrating the above disaster, tailoring instruction for individuals within a class situation is difficult. Furthermore, not all teachers are gifted at conveying how to achieve  turnout and strong technique. It is partly for this reason that professional schools tend to choose bodies that are naturally flexible. But even so, there will be children for whom turnout will be more of a challenge than for others. It is not only a matter of flexibility, but of strength, and the shape of the legs and feet. Dancers will go to great lengths to open or loosen the muscles of the hips and upper thighs to achieve turnout. But stretching is not enough because the trunk must not “sit” atop the hips like a lead box. Deep core conditioning outside of ballet class – Pilates, Rommett Floor barre, and private instruction –  may be necessary if not essential. Factor in that, throughout their training, dancers are growing and maturing. This compromises their proprioception – their ability to sense what their bodies are doing in space.

Finally, the influence of the Bolshoi and Kirov schools on ballet aesthetic in the 20th century cannot be underestimated. It began with Diaghilev’s tours of his Ballet Russes and culminated in the subsequent exodus of many great dancers, including George Balanchine. The emigre Russian teachers found their way into various schools, while George Balanchine founded New York City Ballet and its school, SAB, where his Kirov training was the springboard for what is now considered the American style of classical dance. It is important to understand this bit of history because it has a direct influence on how turnout is applied, and factors into successful ballet dancers’ careers. In the Russian schools, dancers were carefully and  scientifically selected based on physical measurements that predicted their capabilities. Bodies that did not adhere to the standard were not allowed to train in these schools. Thus, rigorous training that demanded perfect turnout was applied only to these elite, ultra-selected bodies. In the United States, such a selection process does not exist, even in schools like School of American Ballet and San Francisco Ballet School, for the simple reason that it would be economic suicide for these schools, as it would greatly reduce the pool of students. The result of this is that rigorous training demanding perfect turnout is being applied to less-than-rigorously selected bodies. Some manage to emerge strong and unscathed. Many do not.

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