As graduation day looms, college seniors might find themselves reeling with both excitement and dread. "They have to navigate this tender moment where they're opening their wings and about to jump out of the dance department and wondering if the ground is going to catch them," says Courtney Harris, interim chair of the dance and choreography department at Virginia Commonwealth University. Today's job market is no cakewalk, but there are meaningful steps that students can take throughout college to make the transition easier.
Update: Additional perspectives have been added to this story as more responses have come in.
"Every time I see a little girl in a tutu or with her hair in a bun on her way to ballet class, all I can think is that she should run in the other direction," she said, "because no one will protect her, like no one protected me."
It was quite a statement, and it got us thinking. Of course, it's heartbreaking to imagine the experiences that Waterbury lists in the lawsuit, and it's easy to see why this would be her reaction.
But should aspiring ballet dancers really "run in the other direction"? Were her alleged experiences isolated incidences perpetuated by a tiny percentage of just one company—or are they indicative of major problems in today's ballet culture within and beyond NYCB's walls?
Since its founding in 1999, more than 80,000 ballet dancers have participated in Youth America Grand Prix events. While more than 450 alumni are currently dancing in companies across the world, the vast majority—tens of thousands—never turn that professional corner. And these are just the statistics from one competition.
"You may have the best teacher in the world and the best work ethic and be so committed, and still not make it," says YAGP founder Larissa Saveliev. "I have seen so many extremely talented dancers end up not having enough motivation and mental strength, not having the right body type, not getting into the right company at the right time or getting injured at the wrong moment. You need so many factors, and some of these are out of your hands."
Once, while teaching in an opera house in Switzerland, Janet Panetta came upon a talented dancer wearing a knee brace. She noticed he was extremely over-rotated in first and second position, and suggested he pull back a little. He respectfully declined her advice, not wanting to disturb his line. “He had knee troubles, and probably shortened his dance life by a number of years based on that insistence," she says. “That was really hard for him to change."
The concept of turnout is frequently misunderstood and controversial. While 180-degree turnout has long been considered ideal, most dancers lack the facility to achieve it. Many agree that forcing rotation from the knees and ankles, as opposed to working from the hip down, causes counterproductive and unhealthy results. But by understanding the true nuts and bolts of turnout—its anatomical source as well as how to stabilize it—dancers can maximize their natural range and prevent injury.
“I think the term 'turnout' is very misleading because it creates an image of the feet at a 180-degree angle," says Panetta, who teaches ballet for contemporary dancers at Gibney Dance Center in New York City. “Turnout is actually a rotation of the legs in the hip sockets. I think the phrase 'rotation,' as opposed to 'turnout,' creates an image that's easier to understand."
Physical therapist Marika Molnar, founder and president of Westside Dance Physical Therapy in New York City, believes that turnout starts higher than the hips. “The whole pelvic girdle has to be in good alignment in order to let the hip rotate adequately," she says, noting that the hip has its most range of motion in a neutral position, as opposed to a swayed lower back and forward-tipped pelvis. “If the lumbar spine and pelvis are not correctly aligned, you'll struggle most of the time."
Alexei Kremnev, artistic director of the Joffrey Academy of Dance in Chicago, agrees, and implements this idea in the school's beginning level. Children first learn exercises in parallel to practice proper alignment. “Once the spine and tailbone are in an exact position, then we start turning out from the hips," says Kremnev. “Otherwise, you have to go back and fix their alignment a few years down the road."
According to “Turnout for Dancers: Hip Anatomy and Factors Affecting Turnout," a resource paper written by Virginia Wilmerding and Donna Krasnow and published by the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS), approximately 60 percent of turnout comes from the hip joint and 20 to 30 percent from the ankle. The knee and tibia pick up the rest. In addition, specific muscle groups aid in rotation and help dancers sustain turnout. The lateral rotators—a set of six small muscles located underneath the gluteus maximus near the pelvic floor—help pull the greater trochanter out and back. The sartorius and inner thigh muscles (or adductors) also contribute to external rotation, while the abdominals stabilize the pelvis.
Variables such as the femoral neck's shape, length, and angle; placement of the hip socket; muscle tightness; and ligament flexibility can help or hinder a dancer's rotation. Kremnev is sensitive to individual differences, and approaches each student differently to accommodate their physical abilities early on. For those with limited turnout, he implements a gradual, gentle stretching regimen. “We practice extending the muscles and then relaxing so they can reach their maximum," he says. “As the muscles get longer and looser, we try a little bit more. It's a step-by-step approach."
After age 13 or 14, there's not much a dancer can do to increase their natural range, but strengthening the proper muscles can help. “Many dancers think they don't have enough turnout," says Molnar. “But what they really lack is strength at the very end range of motion, so they can't hold it." She recommends supplemental strengthening exercises provided on the IADMS website. “If you increase your strength, you improve your ability to reach your maximum."
Forcing that maximum by torquing the knees and ankles can have damaging results. Wear and tear on the hip joint's surface can result in arthritic changes and impingements. Over-rotating from the knee and ankle can cause kneecap subluxation in adolescents, strain ligaments, break down the arches (causing feet to roll in), and increase the likelihood of bunions.
“The top of the leg is the real barometer for turnout," says Susan Jaffe, dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, who sees poor knee-over-toe alignment, cupped feet, and gripping toes as signs of over-rotation. She observes that many students lack a clear comprehension of how to sustain their turnout. “Most people understand turning out from the front of the leg," she says. “But there's a circular spiraling that happens throughout the entire leg, not just the front."
Jaffe stresses that the abdominals should feel scooped in and up to create space for the legs, as opposed to held statically. In addition, she tells students to visualize their leg muscles wrapping around their bones, and emphasizes activating the muscles surrounding the hamstring insertion. “If you're not engaging that little one-inch space of the buns, right above the hamstring, then you can't get to the top of your turnout."
Many confuse that with gripping the larger gluteal muscles. “A lot of people think turnout comes from the butt," says Molnar. “But the deep rotators are located more in the center of the body going outward towards the top of the greater trochanter. The bigger muscles—the buttocks, quads, and hamstrings—are your moving muscles. But to correctly position your femur into the hip joint, the small, local muscles need to work."
Molnar, Panetta, and Jaffe note that turnout is often taught as a static concept, rather than a whole body experience. “Some people put a huge emphasis on standing in turnout, but how often do we actually stand in fifth without moving?" Molnar says. “The amount of turnout you need is dependent on what it is you're doing." Kremnev notes that teachers can help dancers develop a visual understanding to improve their lines, using other aspects like épaulement and foot positions.
“The element of turnout is important, of course, but it's a whole-body experience," says Jaffe. “We're not only training to be beautiful—we're training to be healthy."
Last August, former American Ballet Theatre star Susan Jaffe became dean of the School of Dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. “Both ABT and UNCSA will have a deeper relationship, and there will be a crossover between the two schools,” says Jaffe, who danced with ABT for 22 years. “ABT and UNCSA have an exclusive affiliation which will require all of the ballet instructors to take the ABT teacher’s training, Primary through Level 7.” (Jaffe says that some of the UNCSA contemporary faculty have expressed interest in the training as well.) She would also like to host the ABT Studio Company on campus, to work with the ballet and contemporary faculty, and possibly have the contemporary faculty create a new work on the group and UNCSA students.
Jaffe’s wish list as an educator demonstrates ambition and imagination: to continually bring the latest discoveries in the field of dance to the school, whether in training, choreography, cross-training, or performance-based outcomes; to expand the training and rehabilitation facilities; to form more bonds with professional troupes; to involve the local community; to work with museums to link dance and art; and to develop graduate and outreach programs at UNCSA.
Former ABT principal dancer Ethan Stiefel served as the previous dean from 2008–11 before becoming artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet (see “Transitions,” Sept. 2011). The new dean brings her vast experience of performing, coaching, and teaching to UNCSA, where she currently instructs the upper levels. Jaffe, who was a ballet mistress at ABT before accepting the position at UNCSA, says she misses the dancers and administration at ABT. “Still, I am the kind of person who must always be challenged outside my comfort zone, so taking on the dean of dance at UNCSA seemed to be a good fit,” says Jaffe. “The job has tremendous diversity, and so far I have enjoyed every minute of it.” She occasionally returns as a guest teacher for ABT’s company class.
“I miss her every day,” says ABT soloist Isabella Boylston, who was coached by Jaffe in roles like Odette/Odile. “It takes a while to build that kind of coaching relationship. She was always so generous with her time. The way she’s invested in the dancers is unmatched.” No one has yet been named to replace Jaffe as ballet master. —Joseph Carman
Photo of Jaffe by Ramon Estevanell, Courtesy Dance Teacher magazine.
Jennifer Kronenberg and Carlos Guerra, principal dancers with Miami City Ballet, welcomed their first child, Eva Carlynn Guerra, in November. Kronenberg, who graced DM’s cover in October 2009, said, “Nurses were amazed how immediately expressive she was. We weren’t so surprised—she had been preparing her grand diva entrance for quite a while!”