Help students find, maximize and maintain their rotation.
Whether a dancer has too much or too little, turnout can be one of the most frustrating aspects of technique. Students often feel they must achieve 180-degree rotation to become successful in the field. In reality, the average person only has 45 degrees of external rotation in each leg, meaning their first position should be no greater than 90 degrees.
Because range of motion in the hip is ultimately determined by the joint’s structure, it is impossible for dancers to increase their structural turnout. Often, though, students do not use what they have to the greatest potential. By maximizing their mobility they will find greater ease within movement, improve lines and, most important, prevent injuries caused by forcing the joints.
Deborah Vogel, co-founder of the Center for Dance Medicine in New York City, says the best way to unlock external rotation is to balance out muscle strength and flexibility. “Dancers are working the turnout all the time. They’re always engaged and focused so much on using it. The minute they learn how to release those muscles they bring everything into balance,” she says. “That middle is where dancers last the longest.”
Here, Vogel suggests exercises that stretch and strengthen the muscles that activate turnout:
For stretching turnout muscles at the back of the pelvis
1. Sit on the edge of a chair with knees at a 90-degree angle and feet flat on the floor. Cross the right ankle onto the left knee. Lace your hands together and nestle them under the right knee, lightly pressing energy into your hands and toward the floor (though the knee should not actually move). Sit up straight—some may already feel tension here.
2. With a flat back, bring the belly button toward your legs. Continue gently pressing the right knee into your clasped hands.
3. Experiment with turning the upper body toward the knee or the foot to stretch different muscles.
For developing the hip joint’s surrounding muscles to control turnout
1. At the barre, stand in a natural first position. Bring the outside foot to coupé.
2. Keep the gesture leg turned out and rotate your hips toward the standing leg until it is in parallel. Return to the original position.
DON’T over-rotate and lose control of the turnout muscles as you move back to coupé.
Continue the exercise, keeping the hip extended long and focusing on pulling out of the joint. To increase difficulty, repeat away from the barre.
Finding Your Functional Turnout
A great myth is that the frog stretch measures turnout. “You want to test turnout when the hip is extended because the minute you flex the hip, you automatically have more range,” says Deborah Vogel. The following exercise will help you determine not your degree of natural turnout, but what your muscles are able to hold.
Lie down on your side with shoulders, hips, knees and feet stacked. Legs should be bent at a 90-degree angle. Keeping the feet together, slowly lift the top knee, stopping before your top hip tips backward. Note the angle of the leg. This is the maximum degree of functional turnout. Your first position should not rotate beyond this angle.
To strengthen and maximize functional turnout, return your top leg to its original position and continue opening and closing the knee until you feel fatigue in the muscles at the back of the pelvis.
Dancers often push beyond their natural rotation to achieve the perfect line. But this excess pressure on the knee and ankles can harmfully rotate young dancers’ bones. “Their tibia grows so that it starts to turnout [as pictured at right]. The bone itself has actually rotated differently in relationship with the femur,” says Deborah Vogel. The best way to monitor students’ turnout is by looking at their feet. If they’re rolling in, gripping or lifting the arches, they are standing in a position unnatural to them.
Photos by Amy Kelkenberg; tibial torsion photo courtesy of Deborah Vogel