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All photos by Kyle Froman for Pointe, modeled by Gwen Vandenhoeck of Ballet Academy East.


1. Rotator Activation

Kyle Froman

This simple exercise isolates turnout from the hips, says the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries' Emily Sandow. Lie on your back with legs in the air and feet flexed. Rotate from parallel into first position and back again, seeing how the upper leg rotates and the feet follow. Feel the muscles at the backs of your legs—where the elastic of your leotard's leg seam is—and your inner thighs engaging to make the rotation happen. Notice how you can turn out without using your bigger gluteal muscles.

2. Clamshells

Kyle Froman

Physical therapist Lisa Apple recommends doing this common exercise against a wall to prevent tipping the pelvis backwards or forwards. Lie on your side with your back and feet flat against a wall, both knees bent and the legs stacked. Open your top knee as far as you can. Hold this position before slowly bringing your knee down. Repeat until the point of fatigue and switch sides.

3. Hip Abduction with External Rotation

Kyle Froman

Still lying with your back against a wall, bend your bottom leg with your foot flat against the wall and straighten your top leg. Turn out the top leg and lift it slightly (like a small dégagé), keeping it firmly pressed against the wall. Progressively lift your leg an inch or two higher at a time, holding at each level for 1–2 seconds. Go as high as you can go without losing contact with the wall. Lower slowly with control, maintaining the turnout you achieved on the way up. "Holding your placement against the wall going both up and down is key for pelvic alignment," says Apple. Start with 6 reps per side, aiming for quality over quantity.

To reproduce this feeling standing, Apple recommends standing in parallel with a paper plate under each foot (or rotation discs if you have them) and rotating to first using the same muscles.

4. More is Not Always Better

Kyle Froman

Spending hours each day in turnout causes the external rotators to shorten, tighten and work less effectively, Sandow says. To maximize your potential turnout, balance stretches (like the figure four stretch and pigeon pose above) with strength work and spend time not turned out. "If you're taking class and rehearsing all day, walking turned out just leads to chronic overuse of those muscles," she says. "Plus, you're unnecessarily stressing the ankle ligaments and tendons." Try something as simple as walking in parallel.

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

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.

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I don't have full 180-degree turnout, so I can't make the same beautiful lines that other dancers can. Even if I strengthen my body enough to utilize my full range of motion, will anyone ever hire me? —Carmen

Let's face it—very few dancers are born with a "perfect" ballet facility. Some struggle with their feet or knees; I dealt with an inflexible back. Part of being an artist means learning to work with the body you have. I personally have known several beautiful dancers with less-than-ideal turnout who went on to have successful careers. Sure, sometimes their limited turnout was noticeable. But for the most part, my eye was drawn to their strengths.

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Photo by Emily Giacalone, modeled by Nicole Buggé

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.

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Photos by Nathan Sayers, modeled by Gabrielle Andriello of The School at Steps.

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'll need:

  • a Thera-Band
  • a soft, soccer-sized ball
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It's important to let your body find parallel, as well as turned out, positions. (Photo by Isaac Aoki)

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.

lograstudio via Pixabay

I recently started doing yoga and am wondering if it could have a positive impact on my turnout. If so, what poses do you recommend? —Emily

The answer is yes—but not in the way you might think. While it's true that yoga offers some deep hip stretches (like half pigeon, when done correctly), other not-so-obvious poses help strengthen your overall hip rotation. "What happens is that a dancer's muscles get really strong one way, but really weak in others," says TaraMarie Perri, director of The Perri Institute for Mind and Body in New York City and MBD/Mind Body Dancer. So while we have strong external rotators, our turn-in muscles—such as our inner thighs—probably need some work. "Yoga helps develop and strengthen those weaker muscle systems, which dancers can use to safely sustain turnout and not strain their joints," Perri says. Specific poses can help correct your muscular imbalances, giving you more support to use the flexibility you have.

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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.

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