Teaching Tips

Turnout 101: Where Does It Come From, and How Can You Get More?

International performer Joy Womack balances flexibility and strength to maintain her turnout. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe.

Turnout is one of the defining characteristics of classical ballet and the foundation of your technique, but the deceptively simple concept of external rotation can be hard to execute. For those born with hip joints that don't naturally make a tight fifth position, it's tempting to take shortcuts in the quest for more rotation, but you'll end up with weaker technique and a higher risk of injury. We asked top teachers and physical therapists to break down the meaning of turnout and offer safe ways to maximize your range.


Why Is It Important to Classical Ballet?

"Turnout really is an expression of what classical art is," says Xiomara Reyes, head of The Washington School of Ballet. "It's a physical representation of giving, opening, outreaching to the audience. And even if you don't have 180-degree turnout, you need to focus on it: All movements are from the inside out, not just the legs but the whole body." Otherwise, she says, you'll lose the clarity of your positions.

Where Does It Come from Anatomically?

Turnout, or external rotation, is most visible in the placement of the feet (toes back and heels moving forwards), but it's initiated from the top of the leg and involves the hip, thigh, knee, ankle and foot. Studies of professional dancers show that the majority of outward rotation comes from the hip joint itself, says Emily Sandow, program manager of physical therapy at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Health. Although the bone structure you're born with is not modifiable, with time and training, soft tissue such as muscle can adapt, biasing the hip rotation outward.

The best chance for that comes before a dancer's peak growth spurt—around 12 to 13 for women and up to age 16 for men. This is when bones and ligaments are most pliable, says Lisa Apple, doctor of physical therapy at Revitalize Movement Physical Therapy in Snoqualmie, Washington, and a former dancer. When that window of opportunity for increasing your range of motion closes, that doesn't mean you should quit working on your turnout. "When people ask, 'Can I get more?' " says Apple, "I say yes—as you get to puberty and start to develop more strength, it's a matter of learning to hold your maximum turnout, maintaining a neutral pelvis and feeling the rotators of the hip." (See exercises here.)

Finding Your Functional Turnout

Xiomara Reyes describes turnout as "a rose blooming from the inside out." Photo by media4artists/Theo Kossenas, Courtesy The Washington School of Ballet.

We think of "perfect" turnout as 180-degree outward rotation of the legs and feet, but that much flexibility is only valuable if it's functional—meaning you can keep your legs rotated while moving. Dancers often mistakenly grip or clench the most obvious hip muscle, the gluteus maximus (which works to lift your leg into arabesque), but the muscles important for turnout are actually buried underneath it and may be hard to feel at first. These deep rotators attach to the head of the femur and different points of the pelvis. When they're activated, you'll feel a wrapping or pulling together at the top of the back of the leg as you rotate. The adductor muscles will also engage to bring the inner thighs forward as the backs of your legs come together.

Former New York City Ballet principal Stephanie Saland uses imagery to help her students find and engage their deep hip rotators. "I call it spiraling," she says. "Stand in parallel with imaginary jars under your palms. Unscrew a jar to the right, and unscrew a jar to left, and then do the same with the thighs. The feeling of rotating with downward ground-reaction force gets the muscles to recruit in a way that's useful and consistent."

Rotation discs can also help dancers learn to activate their hip rotators without relying on friction from the floor. "When you turn out in plié on the discs and then straighten up, if the musculature isn't there to sustain rotation, it becomes very apparent," Saland says.

Avoid Turnout Cheats

Dancers are canny at finding cheats for "fake" or nonfunctional turnout, Apple says. A common but faulty strategy is the "bottom-up" approach: cranking the feet out 180 degrees, planting them to the floor with friction and bent legs, and then trying to straighten the knees. (If you have a "white-knuckle" grip on the barre to keep yourself steady, it's a red flag you're doing this.) The result is rolled-in arches, which puts excessive stress on the ankle tendons and intrinsic muscles of the feet. This can lead to tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, knee strain or shin splints.

It may be tempting to tuck your hips under or go into swayback to hold your rotation with straight legs. "But without a neutral pelvis," says Sandow, "you can't carry your turnout from barre to center. Think of your tailbone dropping down and your pelvis as a balanced bowl of water." As you dance, you don't want to spill the water.

Although mastering turnout is complex, learning to use it properly is worth it. "There is such beauty in being able to hold that openness with fluidity, while breathing through your muscles," says Reyes. "It's like a rose blooming from the inside out."

​The Ultimate Goal: Mobility Plus Stability

When it comes to maintaining your turnout, flexibility may be less helpful than you think. Dancers with naturally loose hips may have greater difficulty because they need as much (or even more!) muscular training and coordination to stabilize their turnout than those with more limited facility. "Core strength is very important, because that allows you to use the right muscles to access your turnout without gripping your glutes," says Xiomara Reyes, head of The Washington School of Ballet. "You need body awareness to create the right feeling of turnout without tension."

Regardless of your flexibility, physical therapist Lisa Apple says, you should always stretch within the limits of your body, being careful not to damage the ligaments. "Muscles repair and get stronger, but once you overstretch ligaments, you'll always have structural instability."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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