Though you may not think about it much, building strength in the muscles around the hips is a must for ballet dancers. Pacific Northwest Ballet’s physical therapist Boyd Bender even likes to think of the gluteus maximus, medius and minimus and the deep external rotators of the hips as integral core muscles. “They’re as important as the abs and posterior trunk muscles,” he says.
Why? Because they give dancers a strong support base for the torso and standing leg, so the working leg can move freely. And they’re key players in petit allégro, since these muscles help create propulsion for jumps and control the hips and the rest of the legs during landing. Bender recommends the following exercises, both takes on a basic squat, for boosting overall hip strength. If you’re not injured, they can be done every other day after warming up.
A clear space against a wall
1. Tie a Thera-Band in a loop around your thighs and position it just above the knees. Stand with both legs in a parallel position, knees slightly wider than your shoulders.
2. Lower into a squat, sinking your weight into your heels as your arms reach forward. Return to standing. The goal, Bender says, is to use your left and right legs equally. Try to counteract the resistance of the Thera-Band, which is attempting to internally rotate and adduct the hips.
1. Stand in parallel or with slight turnout, with your back toward the wall and one foot against it for balance. The raised shin should be parallel to the floor.
2. Keep a neutral spine as you lower into a one-legged squat. It’s okay to pitch forward slightly with your upper body. Bender says this alignment will challenge the gluteal muscles even more. Return to standing (keeping the back leg up on the wall) and repeat on the same leg. Do all reps on one leg before switching to the other.
Once you’ve mastered this one-legged squat, Bender says you can move away from the wall to add more of a balance component. Practice the exercise in center with one leg raised behind you in the same bent parallel position.
Switch up your reps: For a balance between strength and stability, Bender recommends the following rep patterns for both exercises. On Monday, do 3 sets of 10 squats at a moderate pace. On Wednesday, do 1 set of 10, pausing 5 seconds at the bottom of each squat. (Keep alternating the sequences each time you work out.) Remember: More squats build strength, whereas longer pauses focus on stability. “The holds also give time to ensure your technique is correct,” says Bender.
Think fast: Would you like a few more degrees of turnout? If your answer is a resounding “yes" (perhaps even punctuated by a grand jeté), you're not alone. Although natural turnout is largely dictated by the anatomy of your femur and hip socket, if your turnout muscles are weak, you could be missing out on those highly coveted extra degrees of rotation.
But there's good news: According to Shannon Casati, a former Miami City Ballet dancer who's now a physical therapist assistant at Reavis Rehab and Wellness Center in Round Rock, Texas, strengthening the muscle groups that aid in external rotation and hip stabilization, such as the inner thighs, glutes and piriformis, can make a difference. Casati recommends these three exercises to help you access your full turnout. Try them daily after warming up, or two to three times a week when your rehearsal or performance schedule is intense.
You work hard on turnout in class every day. But once you leave the studio, make sure you’re in parallel. Walking around turned out stresses your hips, knees, ankles and feet, causing micro-trauma that could lead to injuries like tendonitis or knee pain. It could also hurt your technique. “You’re overusing the muscles you need for ballet class,” says Erika Kalkan, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University Langone Medical Center’s Hospital for Joint Diseases. “Those muscles will be fatigued, so you won’t be able to use them as efficiently when you’re dancing.”
Kalkan explains that if your legs naturally turn out when you’re walking, your body is probably compensating for some weakness or tightness. Be sure to stretch your calves as well as your external rotators (sitting down with your left leg straight in front of you, cross your right foot over the left knee—making a number 4—and lean forward with a flat back, then switch sides). Kalkan also recommends strengthening your internal rotators with reverse clamshells (lying on your side with your knees bent and together, lift your top foot) and practicing doming exercises to build up the intrinsic muscles of your feet. Then, once you get on the street, consciously remind yourself to keep your toes facing forward until it becomes a habit. Your technique will thank you.
Have a question? Click here to send it to Amy and she might answer it in an upcoming issue!
I’ve been dancing for eight years and still have poor turnout. I’ve tried many techniques and stretches, but nothing helps. Any advice? —Allison, Kansas
It’s so frustrating when our bodies refuse to bend to ballet’s will! Unfortunately, we’re born with a somewhat fixed degree of external rotation. Your turnout might be naturally limited. My advice is to do the best with what you have. Strengthen your rotator muscles to hold your maximum turnout. Before class, stand in your natural first and fifth positions, taking time to activate and feel your rotators. Maintain these positions during class, and resist the urge to crank your turnout from your knees and ankles or twist your working hip open. As you get stronger, your turnout will look better because you’ll hold it correctly in place. Also focus on your strengths. Do you have a beautiful stage presence or a great jump? Develop these more! Along with strong technique, they will draw attention away from any imperfections.
When doing relevés on pointe, my roll up from half pointe to full pointe is very jolting. I have strong ankles; it is just the last part of the relevé that I struggle with. What can I do? —Alina, California
I spoke with Liz Henry, director of Westside Dance Physical Therapy, who suspects your intrinsic flexors (the muscles that move your toes) are weak, and recommends an exercise called “doming.”
With your foot flat on the ground, lift the row of knuckles between your metatarsals and your toes. “Allow the toes to be long,” says Henry. “Glide the toes along the floor in the direction of the heel, and create a ‘dome’ at those knuckle joints.” Make sure your toes are not curled or hammered. If you’re having trouble, use your hands to help shape the dome until you find the right foot muscles.
From here, Henry says, “Return back to flat the same way you came, keeping the toes long and straight without picking them up.” Then, keeping the ball of the foot on the ground, lift the toes up and return to flat. Start with 10 to 25 reps, eventually working up to 100.
Also practice going from demi to full pointe in your pointe shoes while sitting in a chair. Apply the doming principle as you articulate your foot (10 to 25 reps). Then, with doming in mind, try relevés at the barre, first with two feet, then one. Once your feet get stronger, you’ll have less need for the barre.
I have a really hard time finding my balance. Do you have any tips?
—Madeline, New York
Your problem may stem from improper alignment or lack of strength. Pay attention to which way you fall. If you fall away from the barre, you’re probably not “on your leg,” meaning the weight of your body is not centered over the ball of your foot. If you fall towards the barre, you’re probably lifting your working hip or sitting into your standing hip. If you’re wobbly in your ankles and torso, work on gaining strength. Check the alignment of your feet, legs, hips, pelvis, rib cage and shoulders from both front and side views on flat and relevé.
Once you nail down the problem, practice! At the studio, in your kitchen, at the bus stop—whenever you can. Set goals (10 seconds, 30 seconds, 2 minutes), and be determined to meet them.
Another tip: Think of pressing down into the floor during relevé, rather than rising up. If you push into the balls of your feet, you’ll engage your entire leg up to the area right underneath the buttocks. You’ll feel taller and much more stable.
Want to improve your turnout? Of course you do. (What ballet dancer wouldn't?) Check out this excellent clip of movement guru Irene Dowd explaining two exercises that can help you increase your outward rotation. Dowd, a longtime faculty member at Juilliard and author of the iconic kinesiology book, Taking Root to Fly, uses imagery and anatomical concepts to help dancers find more stability and ease of movement. Her turnout tutorial is information that's not to be missed.