Turnout describes when a dancer rotates their legs outwards and is a major key aspect to the look and function of a ballet dancer’s technique. One of the first things a beginner might learn is how to stand in first position and how the toes should be facing outwards with the knees should be pointing over the toes. But there’s a lot more to it than that! It may be one of the first things you learn in a ballet class but turnout is one of the most difficult things to master because turning out is a very unnatural thing to do for most people.
One of the most common mistakes in trying to increase or show your turnout is forcing it with your feet. Forcing your turnout is one of the worst mistakes any dancer can make because it places stress on the joints and muscles and actually makes some steps harder to do. A dancer may try to force turnout by placing their foot on the ground in a very turned out position then trying to cram their legs together. Since many steps start, end, or pass through the positions of the feet (first, second, fourth or fifth) a dancer who forces their turnout will have a better chance of injury while also decreasing their overall ability to do steps.
The rest of this article will talk about different ideas about turnout. Keep in mind, the point isn’t to purposely turn in your legs or feet. It’s to properly turnout with what you have and try to improve your turnout safely, not forcibly. Hopefully some of the points below will be some food for thought about turnout, whether you’re a student, professional or even a teacher or director.
Let’s take a look at why forcing turnout is a bad thing with a few questions and answers:
Where does turnout show the most when standing in a position, for example, fifth?
In the feet.
So, when you don’t have a high degree of turnout, you may be tempted to plant your feet on the ground in a “perfect” turned out position.
Why is planting your feet for “more” turnout a problem?
There is a 99.9999% chance you are compensating somewhere else in your body to achieve that look of turnout.
Why is compensating a problem?
It’s not safe, it’s not functional, and the overall look of our position becomes affected.
Let’s look at each one of those major reasons as to why you shouldn’t force your turnout.
- Safety. When you plant your feet in one direction and your hips aren’t flexible enough to be equally turned out in the socket, you are placing unnecessary stress on your joints and muscles. For young dancers, they often don’t feel the effects(though the stress is still there) so the idea of safety is often ignored. However, it only takes one second of your knee to be not supported properly and not bending over your toes for a major injury to happen. Or, possibly over time, forcing turnout may wear down your joints because of poor mechanics. Imagine a door and it’s usual three hinges… what if those door hinges were crooked but was opened and closed 500 times a day. What will eventually happen? It’ll like break off from the door frame.
- Function. Behind the lines and the pointed feet and the turnout and everything else in ballet, your muscles must be functional in order to do steps. Its such a simple idea, but many dancers don’t think enough about it. Some dancers, even professionals, never grasp the idea of function and mechanics because they’re so concerned with how they look doing the step, not how their muscles and bones are moving to do the step. Its sort of a backwards approach when you think about it. If you think about functionally doing a step, the step will in turn look better. With our door hinge example again: imagine how much harder it is to open a door that has the hinges out of place? You’d probably have to force the door open… So instead of dancing smoothly, you are forcing positions. Ballet is often related to ideally looking “easy and flowing” not “forceful and jarring.”
- Overall look. When you force turnout, a compensation has to happen elsewhere in your body and this will look different for everyone. Some dancers will force their turnout and never straighten their knees. Some will try to force their turnout and when they plie, their knees move way inside of their feet (again, safety). Some force turnout with straight legs but then sway their back. So while a picture of someone’s feet in a perfect fifth might be neat to see, most dancers simply don’t have the natural flexibility to have the rest of their body look great.
So are you saying to purposely turn in?
Not at all! Turnout is very important to show, at the right times. For example, you want to be turned out in an arabesque… passe should be turned out… tendus, degages and so on. Its when you are in a position(or passing through it) with your feet on the floor that forcing turnout becomes dangerous and less functional. Its very hard to force turnout when there is no resistance from the floor, which is why a dancer’s true turnout will often show when they’re jumping or any step where a leg/foot doesn’t have contact with the floor.
It’s okay not to have perfect turnout.
Many dancers may try to force turnout because they’re trying to be perfect. Well, the sooner a dancer realizes that perfection doesn’t exist in ballet, the sooner they can relax and properly use what they have. This takes some practice and maybe some internal searching, especially for professionals. The best way to get over it is make a simple “would I rather” list. For example… Would you rather force your turnout or jump higher? Would you rather force your turnout or dance longer? Force your turnout or be more stable on your legs?
Why do many dancers still force their turnout?
This could be different for a lot of different dancers and situations. But, it almost always comes down to keeping up with the appearance of ballet and because someone, likely a teacher, keeps saying “you need to turnout!” If you’re that teacher, please reconsider, for the sake of your students how you teach the proper ways of turning out. Yelling “Turnout!” doesn’t bestow much knowledge or methodology to your students.
Try this simple exercise for more functional turnout.
Stand at the barre in your usual fifth position and plie. Feel where your knees are, if you’re square, if your back is swayed. Try to feel how “strong” you feel in the position. Could someone walk right by and knock you over with a little push?
Now, let your feet turn in one inch on either side. Plie again and now try to feel how it feels in comparision to when you were forcing your feet open. Does it feel like you could spring off the floor easier? Does your back and hips feel less pressure? If you’re most dancers, the answer to these will be “Yes!”
Almost every dancer is a culprit to forcing their turnout. If you want to have a longer career with less injuries while also gaining more function and strength, don’t force your turnout. Turn it in an inch and you may be amazed.