Turnout Insight for Dancers, Dance Teachers, and Dance Parents

By Jennifer Denys, Registered Physiotherapist

Turnout Tips Intro

Turnout - something every Ballet, Irish, and Highland dancer passionately tries to get more of, yet something many dancers get injured by doing it incorrectly.  In this upcoming series of tips, I would like to help demystify what turnout is and how you can approach the passionate pursuit of “more turnout” without getting injured along the way.  So here we go: 5 tips to help you understand and improve your turnout both safely and beautifully.

Turnout Tip #1: Learn where the turnout movement actually occurs in the body

Despite the observable change of the feet orientation when a dancer is “turned out”, turnout is actually a turning movement at the hip joint – the movement point that forms between your thigh bone and a socket within your pelvis.   You simply spin the beautiful round ball of your thigh bone on a beautiful bowl-like socket and the whole leg follows suit, displaying feet where the toes are pointing outwards in what we call “turnout”.  Sounds simple enough, right?  If only it could happen that easily in our bodies.

 Over the next few weeks we’ll explore all the reasons that something so beautifully simple can get so complicated.

Turnout Tip #2: Learn your own personal hip anatomy from your dance teacher or health professional

Few of us know what our hip joints are, because we can’t see or touch them.  The bones we can touch “near” our hips are actually parts of our pelvis.  The true hip joint is where the ball-shaped top of the thigh bone (known as the femoral head) meet up at a special bowl-shaped socket of the pelvis (known as the acetabulum).  This meeting is hidden from outside view – it’s on the inside of anything we can touch around the top of the leg or the pelvis – so we can’t touch the hip joint to guarantee how it is moving.

What can you do then? 

Learn where these bones are on your own body and how to make your thigh do the turning action at the hip joint.   Usually it’s hard to learn this from a 2-D picture on your computer screen, so having someone explain that to you with 3-D models and relating them to your own body can make all the difference in the world.  Find a professional who can show you where to find the key points of the pelvis and thigh on your own body. A very helpful point to find is called the Greater Trochanter.  It is at the top and side of the thigh bone and is a very chunky part we can feel from the outside.  It moves to entirely new places when we turnout in all the different positions of dance, and knowing where to feel this and feel where it moves to can create that ideal “aha” moment for your turnout dreams.

 Turnout Tip #3: Understand why a foot/ankle based turnout strategy leads to injury

The bottom line in this tip is that if you want to avoid injury, you have to get passionate about alignment as part of your overall turnout strategy. Truly, the center of the knee and the center of the foot have to remain in a line with each other to avoid a plethora of dance injuries.

 If our leg was one big stick, like a hockey stick, it would be quite easy to turn in an “aligned” way.  Just as a hockey player holds the top of the stick to move the blade to a new outward location, dancers need to do the same by rotating the top of the leg and allowing the foot to simply “show” what happened above.  The complication is that the leg is not one solid chunk of bone.  We have a knee, we have an ankle, and because of these movement points, it’s quite easy for the bones to get “out of line”, especially if these joints are especially mobile. 

It’s because we want a certain position for our feet, and because our ankle can move, that it can be quite seemingly natural and/or quite tempting for the body to try to “fake” turnout by moving the ankle to “wing” the feet away from the shin.  This is one of the biggest reasons dancers get injured, because with this strategy, the knees cannot line up over the center of the foot; instead they are lined up with the inside of the big toe or the floor in front of the foot.  The strain on the body in this poor “line-up” is intense, and can show up as pain/injury starting at the toes, arch, ankles, and moving all the way up to the knee, hips and even the back.  This strategy also makes your body less stable and so your muscles have to “grip” around your hip to keep you standing and not falling over.  The muscles at the front and side of your hip don’t actually like to turn out, so if they get tight from being overused, you will actually not be able to move the hip as much as it otherwise could.  Likely to get injured and limiting turnout....sounds like a big deal to me!

What can you do instead? 

Become passionate about true alignment and hip-based turnout strategy and don’t settle for any temporary “faking” that only makes you vulnerable to the most common dance injuries and actually limits your hips’ potential.

Turnout Tip #4:  Understand the true turnout muscles and those that are not so helpful

Much like the hip joint itself, the muscles that move the hip bone to turnout are also underneath anything we can easily touch with our fingers.  In fact, they are deeper than the gluteus muscles which are the thickest muscles in the body.  So, it can be quite tempting to try to squeeze and clench various muscles around the hip trying to turnout more, but meanwhile the true turnout muscles (deep rotators) work when you simply move the bones in the true turnout way.  What makes matters worse is that many of the “easy to clench” muscles can actually make you unable to reach your turnout potential if they get too tight from overuse. 

The other important thing to realize is that the deep rotators activate more like a dial than an on/off switch.  What this means is that not all turnout movements are equal in the effort required of the deep rotators.  For example, standing on one leg in turnout is almost twice as much effort required of the deep rotators than standing in 1st position on 2 legs.  For you to actually remain turned out for all of your actual dancing, you need to help your body realize the turnout work involved on the supporting leg.

How can you practice this?

Work on your proper alignment for 1st position, then transfer your weight onto one leg and see if you can keep your pelvis facing the exact same direction as it was on 2 legs.  If your pelvis rotates towards your supporting leg, it means your deep rotators didn’t “dial up” their energy enough for this new challenge.  With awareness and practice of this both in the studio and in your own work, you will improve.  Then work towards the same goal with single leg plié and single leg rise.

Turnout Tip #5: Celebrate your own unique anatomy

A very important thing to know, remember, and embrace is that that everyone’s body is unique.  The exact sizes and depths of the ball and socket of the hip joint vary from person to person and so exactly how much rotation is available at that joint can vary from person to person.   To enjoy dancing for as long as you want and avoiding serious injury, the goals here are to learn to embrace your own body’s capacity, find out how to optimize your potential, use the best strategies possible, make sure no muscles are “getting in the way”, and then enjoy the freedom of pain-free and beautiful movement!

Learning how to access this hip-focused turnout is well worth it as you can both get incredible turnout results from a “how it looks” perspective, and a “how it feels” perspective.   Beautiful pain-free turnout, reduced injuries....gotta love it!