International performer Joy Womack balances flexibility and strength to maintain her turnout. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe.

Turnout 101: Where Does It Come From, And How Can You Get More?

Turnout is one of the defining characteristics of classical ballet and the foundation of your technique, but the deceptively simple concept of external rotation can be hard to execute. For those born with hip joints that don't naturally make a tight fifth position, it's tempting to take shortcuts in the quest for more rotation, but you'll end up with weaker technique and a higher risk of injury. We asked top teachers and physical therapists to break down the meaning of turnout and offer safe ways to maximize your range.


Why Is It Important to Classical Ballet?

"Turnout really is an expression of what classical art is," says Xiomara Reyes, head of The Washington School of Ballet. "It's a physical representation of giving, opening, outreaching to the audience. And even if you don't have 180-degree turnout, you need to focus on it: All movements are from the inside out, not just the legs but the whole body." Otherwise, she says, you'll lose the clarity of your positions.

Where Does It Come from Anatomically?

Turnout, or external rotation, is most visible in the placement of the feet (toes back and heels moving forwards), but it's initiated from the top of the leg and involves the hip, thigh, knee, ankle and foot. Studies of professional dancers show that the majority of outward rotation comes from the hip joint itself, says Emily Sandow, program manager of physical therapy at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Health. Although the bone structure you're born with is not modifiable, with time and training, soft tissue such as muscle can adapt, biasing the hip rotation outward.

The best chance for that comes before a dancer's peak growth spurt—around 12 to 13 for women and up to age 16 for men. This is when bones and ligaments are most pliable, says Lisa Apple, doctor of physical therapy at Revitalize Movement Physical Therapy in Snoqualmie, Washington, and a former dancer. When that window of opportunity for increasing your range of motion closes, that doesn't mean you should quit working on your turnout. "When people ask, 'Can I get more?' " says Apple, "I say yes—as you get to puberty and start to develop more strength, it's a matter of learning to hold your maximum turnout, maintaining a neutral pelvis and feeling the rotators of the hip." (See exercises here.)

Finding Your Functional Turnout

Xiomara Reyes describes turnout as "a rose blooming from the inside out." Photo by media4artists/Theo Kossenas, Courtesy The Washington School of Ballet.

We think of "perfect" turnout as 180-degree outward rotation of the legs and feet, but that much flexibility is only valuable if it's functional—meaning you can keep your legs rotated while moving. Dancers often mistakenly grip or clench the most obvious hip muscle, the gluteus maximus (which works to lift your leg into arabesque), but the muscles important for turnout are actually buried underneath it and may be hard to feel at first. These deep rotators attach to the head of the femur and different points of the pelvis. When they're activated, you'll feel a wrapping or pulling together at the top of the back of the leg as you rotate. The adductor muscles will also engage to bring the inner thighs forward as the backs of your legs come together.

Former New York City Ballet principal Stephanie Saland uses imagery to help her students find and engage their deep hip rotators. "I call it spiraling," she says. "Stand in parallel with imaginary jars under your palms. Unscrew a jar to the right, and unscrew a jar to left, and then do the same with the thighs. The feeling of rotating with downward ground-reaction force gets the muscles to recruit in a way that's useful and consistent."

Rotation discs can also help dancers learn to activate their hip rotators without relying on friction from the floor. "When you turn out in plié on the discs and then straighten up, if the musculature isn't there to sustain rotation, it becomes very apparent," Saland says.

Avoid Turnout Cheats

Dancers are canny at finding cheats for "fake" or nonfunctional turnout, Apple says. A common but faulty strategy is the "bottom-up" approach: cranking the feet out 180 degrees, planting them to the floor with friction and bent legs, and then trying to straighten the knees. (If you have a "white-knuckle" grip on the barre to keep yourself steady, it's a red flag you're doing this.) The result is rolled-in arches, which puts excessive stress on the ankle tendons and intrinsic muscles of the feet. This can lead to tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, knee strain or shin splints.

It may be tempting to tuck your hips under or go into swayback to hold your rotation with straight legs. "But without a neutral pelvis," says Sandow, "you can't carry your turnout from barre to center. Think of your tailbone dropping down and your pelvis as a balanced bowl of water." As you dance, you don't want to spill the water.

Although mastering turnout is complex, learning to use it properly is worth it. "There is such beauty in being able to hold that openness with fluidity, while breathing through your muscles," says Reyes. "It's like a rose blooming from the inside out."

​The Ultimate Goal: Mobility Plus Stability

When it comes to maintaining your turnout, flexibility may be less helpful than you think. Dancers with naturally loose hips may have greater difficulty because they need as much (or even more!) muscular training and coordination to stabilize their turnout than those with more limited facility. "Core strength is very important, because that allows you to use the right muscles to access your turnout without gripping your glutes," says Xiomara Reyes, head of The Washington School of Ballet. "You need body awareness to create the right feeling of turnout without tension."

Regardless of your flexibility, physical therapist Lisa Apple says, you should always stretch within the limits of your body, being careful not to damage the ligaments. "Muscles repair and get stronger, but once you overstretch ligaments, you'll always have structural instability."

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From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.


For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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