Turnout is the essential base of ballet. Not only is 180-degree rotation an aesthetic ideal—the goal that every student and professional continuously seeks—but it’s also the building block of technique. It’s a key element that, when mastered, can unlock the classical vocabulary.
“Turnout gives a dancer the agility and swiftness to move easily from side to side and front to back,” explains Maria Vegh, director of Maria Vegh Ballet Centre in Petaluma, California. “It gives a beautiful line to the body, and it lifts the torso so you get a higher leg line. That length helps you get higher on three-quarter pointe and maintain balance.”
In the rush to achieve perfect rotation by any means necessary, however, a dancer can develop a number of problems, including career-ending injuries. So it’s crucial to work properly to maximize hip flexibility and strength. Here are eight turnout do’s and don’ts:
Do work correctly at the barre. Using the barre as a crutch to force turnout will make it more difficult to shift your weight from one leg to the other—not to mention strain your feet, ankles, and knees. Test your balance often so you don’t rely on the barre to do all the work. “If you work incorrectly at the barre, turnout muscles won’t be strong,” says Kaila Lewis, a teacher at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School in Pennsylvania. “When you get to the center, your pirouettes won’t be as turned out, and you just won’t look as nice.
Do stretch and strengthen hips. There are two key components to turnout: hip flexibility and the strength to make use of that flexibility. You can develop the latter by taking class on a regular basis and by cross-training. For flexibility, stretch before and after class, especially your psoas muscles. Ariel Cisneros, a former Ballet Nacional de Cuba dancer and a teacher at The Joffrey Ballet’s Academy of Dance in Chicago, recommends these stretches:
Sit on the floor in second position. Rotate your legs outward as far as possible. Slowly cambré to each side and then to the front toward the floor, without letting your legs roll in.
Lie on the floor with your legs extended toward the ceiling in first position and your buttocks pressed against a wall. Imagine your legs are the hands of a clock. Begin at noon, then open the right leg as far as you can without lifting the left hip off the ground. Then, keeping the right leg where it is, slowly open the left leg as far as you can. Hold the stretch. Repeat this on each side several times, daily.
Do take note of where you lose your rotation. Pair up with a friend or ask your teacher to watch you closely and point out areas where you start to turn in. (You can also videotape yourself.) A few places to look out for: the standing leg in back attitude turns (en dehors), the step before a jeté, tricky petit allegro combinations, and cambrés.
Do use the floor. As you begin a tendu, dégagé, rond de jambe, or battement, press the working leg down into floor, rotating outward as much as possible without sinking into the hip of the standing leg. Cisneros says this is one of the best ways to build inner-thigh strength. “Brushing the floor gives you control of your turnout,” he explains. He also recommends using small ankle weights (when working on your own) for tendus, dégagés, and battements.
Don’t forget your standing leg. Nothing detracts from a beautiful piqué arabesque like stepping on a turned-in leg. In any extension, it can be tempting to turn in the standing leg to achieve a higher, more rotated battement, but this cheat won’t serve you in the long run. Turn out both legs equally as if opening a book.
Don’t neglect your turnout in the air. Practice jumps in first and second positions and in coupé. Do your hips rotate inward en l’air? “There’s a tendency for the lower part of your leg to angle back as you go into the air, so your legs look like fins,” says Vegh. “I see this a lot, especially in one-legged jumps.” When you sauté, rotate your legs up underneath you in line with your pelvis.
Don’t think “Turn out your feet.” This is a common but misleading expression. To turn out is to rotate the entire leg in the hip socket. “It would be better to say ‘Extend your legs into turnout,’ ” says Vegh. “It’s not just the feet and ankles.”
Don’t underestimate your artistry. If you have less than perfect turnout, don’t hang up your pointe shoes just yet. “Lots of dancers in companies don’t have perfect turnout,” says Vegh. “You may need cross-training, but it can be worked through. The important thing is to use what you have correctly.”
Kristin Lewis, a former managing editor of Dance Spirit, is a writer in NYC.
Model: Sonya Davenport of The Joffrey School. Photo by Erin Baiano.