In ballet/Barre, turnout (also turn-out) is rotation of the leg at the hips which causes the feet (and knees) to turn outward, away from the front of the body. This rotation allows for greater extension of the leg, especially when raising it to the side and rear. Turnout is an essential part of classical ballet technique.
So what is the issue with turnout? Why is it such an elusive quality and why are there so many myths about it floating around in the dance world? And perhaps more importantly, how can those of us with less than perfect rotation dance to our hearts desire without constantly irritating our hips?
There are a few main categories of people who have issues with turnout.
1. The "It-just-doesn't-happen..." people - With these dancers, no matter what stretches they do, their hips just seem to get tighter and tighter. They sit cross-legged and their knees go nowhere near the floor, and a lot of the time any stretches they try to do give them pain in the front of the hips…
2. The "It's-OK-in-some-positions" people - These dancers finds turning out very frustrating... Sometimes it's there and sometimes it's not. They may find it easy to sit in second splits, but struggle to stand in 5th position. Or they can hold it in 5th yet not in a developpé devant...
3. The "It-just-hurts-to-go-there..." people - This group may have good range, but whenever they try to train their hips, they seem to get sorer, especially in the front of the hips…
4. The “I-just-need-to-crack-them-first” people -This group will have a religious warm up that involves popping the hips either to the front or back to ‘release’ them before they can work in turnout. This may appear to work well for a while but it has diminishing returns… Often after a few months or years, they need to pop them more often, and may find that the pops are not quite as effective as they once were, or may find that the frequently popped area may start getting sore due to being repeatedly overstretched.
5. The "I've-got-so-much-I-don't-know-what-to-do-with-it" people - These dancers can also get very frustrated, as they are constantly told that they have great turnout, and can stretch into all kinds of wonderful positions, however they really struggle to show it when they are dancing, and often get told that they are just not trying.
Let’s focus on the first 2 groups of people described above and on ways that you can improve your turnout range safely.
The first thing we need to understand is the basic bony structure that gives our hips their stability. Most people know that the hip is a ball-and-socket joint, but they don’t realise just how different everyone’s’ ball-and-socket joints are. Some people have very deep stable sockets, some are more forward facing and some are more out to the side. Naturally open hips often have a shallow socket that faces more out to the side, but not always.
The biggest problem is that most of us ‘accept’ that our range is blocked by the bones when this is actually not the case. I had a massive rude awakening to just how much I had unconsciously accepted the fate of my not-so-flexible hips when at the ripe old age of 29 I had a massage that released lots of old, deep tension in my hips, giving me more range than I had at 16! This opened my mind to the possibilities for many other dancers, and lead to the development of a program to teach dancer how to open out their hips safely.
Step One: Become Aware of the Exact Point of Restriction.
Many people blame the bony structure of their hips for a lack in turnout, but actually feel the block on muscular structures around the hips. When you go into a frog stretch, a grande plié, second splits or are standing in 5th, close your eyes and see if you can really feel what is actually stopping you from going further. Is it the front of the hips (TFL?), inside the hip (Iliacus or Psoas Major?), the inside thighs (Adductors and Pectineus), the sides of the hips (Gluteus Medius and Minimus?), the back of the hip (Hip Capsule or SIJ?), or perhaps even in your low back (Lumbosacral Junction).
Step Two: Release.
Now you may think that you have tried everything to open out your hips, but often the solution to your restriction is in the opposite direction to the goal when it comes to turnout. Once you have found the point of restriction that is blocking your range, the focus should be on releasing that structure, not necessarily into turnout. However once it has let go a little, you will find that it ‘allows’ more turnout in the positions that you need it.
For restriction in the sides of the hips – Try the ‘Fire Log Pose’ to gently stretch out Gluteus Medius.
· Sit on a yoga mat with the legs out in front, as if to sit cross-legged
· Bring the heel of your right foot to sit on top of your left knee
· Try to make your shin bones parallel with each other
· Lean back on your hands and allow the knees to drop out to the sides
· If the hips are very tight in this position, use pillows under your knees initially to allow the hips to relax in a supported position
· Slowly start to lean forward from the hips (keeping the spine straight) to increase the stretch
· Breathe into any feelings of restriction, and focus on consciously relaxing the points of tension in your hips, for no longer than 30 seconds
For restriction further into the back of the hips - try the 'Yogi Sit' stretch for a deep stretch in Piriformis.
This is especially good if you find it hard to hold your turnout in devant. Please note - this should not cause pain in the front of the hips or your knees. Please do not hold for longer than 30 seconds or if you feel any pain in the front of the hips.
· Sit on a yoga mat as before, but cross the legs so that the knees line up on top of each other
· Lean back on the hands to settle in to the position before slowly leaning forward from the hips
· Focus on keeping the spine long from tailbone to crown and consciously releasing, rather than pushing into the stretch
Step Three - Train the correct muscles
This exercise is wonderful for finding the deepest external rotators of the thigh bone, in the position that you will need them when in standing. It is perfect for including in a rehab program for foot and ankle injuries, but is also wonderful for your regular dance conditioning. Try doing this exercise before class to help you have more natural activation of your turnout muscles in class.
Have the top leg supported with a cushion, and make sure the spine stays in neutral. Focus on isolated rotation of the thigh bone in the socket to take the foot towards the ceiling. This may be done with assistance initially, with a partner lifting the leg into position, and then the dancer attempting to control the lowering. Make sure to keep the hip flexors and outer gluteals relaxed.
This exercise is called "Will I ever dance again?".
Step Four: Work out why the muscles are so tight!
The main problem in resolving restrictions around the hips is that people miss out this very important step. Any tension that is being held in your body is there for a reason, and the true ‘cure’ for improving your range is actually in identifying why those muscles are getting tight in the first place. I commonly tell people that “The body is in a constant state of reformation” in that it is always adjusting and readjusting to the messages that you give it.
If you repeatedly clench a muscle, it may continue to hold tension long after it is needed. This can happen for many reasons, but most often it is due to chronic emotional stress, anxiety, trying too hard, compensation for other weaknesses or faulty technique, to name just a few. Quite often these are simple things that you do unconsciously during the day.
Once you can identify what is tight and why it is tight, you will be armed with a completely new strategy to improving your turnout range. Please do not simply force the knees or hips open into classic stretches (froggy, side splits etc). These stretches do not usually help if you have a restriction in range, and sitting for long periods in these poses can actually damage the front of the hips.