Your turnout is unique—no two dancers’ are exactly alike. That can make it hard to know whether you’re forcing yours into an unnatural fifth position, or underusing what you have. Either problem can cause a cascade of effects: When you’re not turning out properly, your pelvic alignment is altered, and the ability of the correct muscles to strengthen and work together is impaired, giving you less control over the turnout you do have.
In my practice as a dance physical therapist, it became clear that a scientific approach to measuring turnout would help dancers. So I put together a research team from Muhlenberg College, St. Luke’s University Hospital, Lehigh University and Temple University to investigate a measurement system so dancers could know definitively if they were turning out too much or not enough. Because once you know how much rotation you have, not only will you be able to properly align the hip in a turned-out position, you can train more efficiently and gain strength faster.
What You Have Vs. What You Use
A turned-out leg involves the bones of the hip, lower leg and foot. The hip can contribute anywhere from 36 to 58 degrees, the tibia in the lower leg can contribute 16 to 60 degrees and the foot about 15 degrees. Amounts vary between dancers, and can even be different between two legs of the same dancer. The sum of these contributions is considered the passive component of turnout—how much you have naturally. This is your turnout potential. You cannot change it because it is limited by the shape of your bones.
But that’s okay because your bones don’t turn your leg out; muscles do. Using the muscles to rotate your legs is considered active turnout. According to the research, most dancers are unable to access 15 to 30 degrees of their turnout per leg simply because their muscles are too weak. Even if you may never be able to hit a perfect 180, you likely have more turnout than you’re using.
You’ll be more able to use muscular strength to turn out, rather than forcing it unnaturally. The good news? Once you begin working correctly, the muscles can begin to get stronger in as little as two weeks and can instantly begin to improve their ability to coordinate the action of turning the leg out.
How Do You Access More?
To start, it’s helpful to know how much turnout you have passively and actively. A health-care provider can measure your passive whole-leg turnout while you’re lying on your back, and then measure your active turnout by having you stand in first position on the floor and also on rotational disks, which prevent forcing turnout.
To see if you are over- or under-turning out, compare your passive turnout with how you stand in first position. When you stand with more turnout than you have passively, you’re forcing your bones and joints beyond their natural capabilities.
To get a sense of your strength, compare your passive turnout with your turnout on the disks. If you have less on the disks, you need more strength. Most dancers fall into this category! That’s because turnout is a challenging skill, and when you’re not accessing it correctly, the key muscles go unused. Fortunately, research shows a targeted turnout-strengthening program can help dancers achieve most if not all of their turnout potential.
Find Your Alignment
To begin strength training, your pelvis and hip joint need to be aligned. This helps prevent the leg and foot from rolling in, the pelvis from tipping downward and the low back from hyperextending. You will know if you are correctly aligned when the points at the top and front of your pelvis—some people call these your “headlights”—and the top and back of your pelvis (where some people have dimples) form a line that is parallel to the floor or the dimples are only slightly higher than the headlights. The area between your thigh and pelvis will feel flat to your hand.
Our research team found approximately 75 percent of the dancers we measured had tight iliotibial bands, which can pull your pelvis downward. To temporarily correct this, try stretching (see picture above) or foam rolling. For a long-term correction, strengthen your gluteal muscles, which stabilize the hip joint, reducing strain on the iliotibial band.
Strengthen The Rotators
Use the clam exercise to first locate and then strengthen your six deep rotators for turnout. Begin by lying on your side with your hips and knees bent. Keep your feet together and rotate your leg (from the hip) as far as it will go. Use all of your turnout. Focus on rotation inside the hip joint rather than separating the knees. Bend the hip just enough to feel the muscle activating at the crease between the buttock and thigh. A Thera-Band tied in a loop above your knees can provide resistance.
Coordinate the Right Muscles
The other muscles involved in turnout are the inner thighs, abdominals and pelvic floor. Think of all of these muscles as one muscle and activate them at the same time. Practice the sensation with this exercise:
1. Begin in second position using two-thirds of your normal turnout.
2. Exhale and engage your deep rotators until you feel them lift your pelvis up in the front to open your hip joint and lift your heels off of the floor. The front of the hip should be flat.
3. As you relevé, exhale again to engage your abdominals, inner thighs and the pelvic floor.
4. At the height of your relevé, add the muscles of your back with port de bras. Imagine a string connecting your navel to your fingers.
5. Exhale again and grow another inch higher.
Memorize this sensation. Practice or visualize it four times a day for about a minute each time to create a new muscular habit. Progress to a narrower base in first position and then to single-leg positions, such as passé. You should be able to enjoy a new sense of lift on the first try and have it mastered within just a few short weeks of practice.