Maintaining Turnout

Turnout is a tricky, tricky thing.  Every dancer wants it, and in an audition insists they have it, and otherwise lie to themselves about it. That whole process can become quite problematic when you get to jumps, turns and balancés.  Today, we talk about how to maintain and fully utilize the turnout that you have.

False Friction

Some of you may be wondering, “I have great turnout in first or fifth position, but as soon as I lift my leg off the floor or go en relevé it’s all lost. Why is that?”  Well, my friend, friction is the answer.

With the stickiness of the floor, it’s easy to crank your legs into a more turned-out position than what would be your natural turnout.  Having achieved an abnormal amount of turnout in your hips (or bad, bad … your knees!) thanks to the friction or resistance of the floor beneath you, you will find it much harder to maintain as you lift and move the leg away from this fixed position on the floor.

Beware, however, that friction isn’t necessarily a fault.  Many dancers increase their turnout with friction, but not much friction – there will always be some involved. Yet they are still failing their technique, because they are sacrificing form for turnout.  Here are a few ways to tell if you are forcing your turnout in an unhealthy way:

  • Your feet tend to pronate, or roll in.
  • You have bad Achilles tendinitis. (Not everybody with Achilles tendinitis rolls in, but it is a common effect).
  • Your knees tend to be further forward than your feet when standing in a stationary position.

Photo Illusion

This is somewhat of a side note, but I thought it was important to mention.  While we are on the subject of turnout, it’s important to talk about confidence in your dancing and self-esteem, and how social media and photography influences that.  Many of us are doomed by the beautiful 180 degree turnout of all those wonderful Instagram ballerinas …but don’t worry:

Photos often lie. Many dancers actually force their turnout in a stationary position just to make that great picture.

Testing It Out

As I mentioned, too many of us (including myself!) are overconfident about our turnout.  We do endless weird stretches, crank our legs into these funny positions and then make eager faces at our friends as they tell us, “Yep, 180!”  We try so, so hard to have perfect turnout, and then when we can’t maintain it, dancing and exercises go horribly wrong.

So, the first task I have for you is to simply make an observation.  There are a couple of different ways to test your natural turnout. I have included the most accurate ones in the list below:

  • Come to what you think is your first position (hint: it’s a bit too turned out from what it should be).  Regardless however, go there.  Now, do a tendu to the front, maintaining as much turnout as possible, and then, keeping correct form and square hips, lift the leg off the floor.  Finally, not increasing the turnout from the extended leg, draw it back into first position.  Change the other leg to match the tested (working) leg, and you have your perfect first!
  • Sit down on the floor with both legs parallel, extended in front of you, feet flexed.  Then, rotate the legs from the hip socket to their maximum turnout.  This is your natural turnout, and the same amount should be utilized when standing.
  • Stand facing the barre in sixth position.  Use the fronts of your lower leg to rise the toes off the floor so all of your weight is on your heels.  Maintaining correct placement, use the backs of the legs to rotate the toes outward as much as possible.  Then, maintaining the amount of turnout gained, release the balls of the feet down to the floor.  This is your natural turnout!

Being Preventative

Things get really unattractive when you are dancing if one leg is very turned out (usually the supporting leg) and the other is turned in.  This causes weird twisting and hip cranking to occur and doesn’t make for the prettiest lines.  This can be prevented by only utilizing your given, meaning your natural, amount of turnout from the beginning.

If you don’t have anything to lose the moment the friction from the floor is gone, you are much better setup to maintain your turnout in various positions.

If you’re not satisfied with the turnout you naturally have, there are a few tips and tricks to maintaining the turnout you have the on the floor, which we’ll get to in a little bit.

Getting Stronger

Your turnout will never get better unless you challenge and strengthen it.  This comes with working with your natural turnout, then working in the correct way, to slowly increase it via external rotation of the femur bone in the hip socket.

In other words, continuously forcing your work outside of your natural turnout range won’t help you get stronger and increase your turnout. There is a correct way.  If you keep doing it wrong, you won’t progressively build up to the amount of turnout you achieved through force on the floor. Your natural turnout will stay exactly the same and won’t improve!

Maintaining a Natural Turnout

If you are a good girl or a conscientious boy and you are using your turnout correctly, you still may have some difficulty maintaining it in extended positions.  Don’t worry, I have some tips for you, too:

  • Feel the backs of your legs working as you come off the floor, especially in extensions.  We often compensate the lifting of our leg by using our quads.  The truth is that no matter how hard you work to engage the backs of your legs, engaging your quads will always reduce the amount of turnout maintained.  So don’t think of just turning out, but analyze how you lift the leg as well.
  • Focus on the transitions.  As we go in or out with the leg we tend to lose our turnout.  Especially during battement movements such as tendus and dégagés, make sure you initiate with the heel and bring the leg back with the toes (the opposite for tendu back).
  • Do some exercises to maintain turnout in unstable positions.  For example, many students will notice that during adagio in center they tend to lose turnout in both the supporting and working legs.  This is inevitable as you no longer have the stable support of the barre.  Do some hip stability exercises such as clamshells with the shins elevated off the floor, both hands behind the head.*

*A good tip in general concerning movement rehabilitation: The exercises that you do with the goal to resolve a specific problem should mimic the characteristics of the problematic movement.

Thanks for reading today’s post.  See you on Sunday!

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