Ballet Foundations: Recognizing and Improving Your Turnout

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.

The Importance of Turnout in Classical Ballet

In the grand scheme of Ballet theory, turnout has been recognized as an expression of what classical art is. It constitutes 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, you’ll lose the clarity of your positions and the style will be muddled.

What is its anatomical origin?

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. 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. When that window of opportunity for increasing your range of motion closes, that doesn’t mean you should quit working on your turnout.

Identifying your Functional Turnout

Dancers typically think of “perfect” turnout as a 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.

Do not cheat your turnout!

As dancers, we are incredibly tempted to jam your feet into the position we want and fool ourselves into a non-functional turnout. This fake turnout is especially exacerbated by our dependence on the barre. A common but faulty strategy is the “bottom-up” approach: cranking the feet out 180 degrees, planting your feet to the floor (especially if it’s a non-slip floor) with friction and bent legs, and then trying to straighten the knees. The result may look good enough from the top looking down but is usually accompanied by multiple alignment mistakes, as well as 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. Still, without a neutral pelvis, you can’t carry your turnout from barre to center. Try this: 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.

​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 a 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. You need body awareness to create the right feeling of turnout without tension. Regardless of your flexibility, 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.