"Dance, an art form; the body, an instrument. Learn to play the instrument so you can master the art form."-Debbie Dee
Turnout is an integral part of ballet technique. It involves externally rotating each leg 90° so that the inside of the leg is visible from the front. Turnout originated in the 1600’s during the reign of the French king, Louis XIV. Ballet was performed on a proscenium stage, which necessitated sideways movement while displaying as much of the body as possible. The shoes that were used were elaborately adorned, and it is believed that part of the reason for turnout was to display the beauty of the shoes while performing.
When the “rules of dance” were written down by Pierre Beauchamp, they included the five positions that are the basis for ballet today and the concept of turnout. Today’s turnout is much more exaggerated and extreme than it was originally, and perfect 180° turnout is the ideal to which today’s ballet dancers aspire.
Unfortunately, not everyone’s body structure allows for perfect turnout. The rotation must originate from the hip since it is the only ball and socket joint in the leg. The ability to turnout is predetermined by the shape of the head of the femur, or thighbone, the angle that is formed where it inserts into the pelvis and the flexibility of the muscles and ligaments surrounding the hip. While the actual skeletal structure cannot be changed, the flexibility of the hip can be increased through specific stretches to allow for a greater range of motion.
Since few dancers are born with an ideal body structure for turnout, ballet dancers often feel the need to force their legs to rotate more than is anatomically feasible. Dancers bend their knees, outwardly rotate their feet and then force the body to hold that position while they straighten their legs. It is quite easy to spot the dancer who is forcing turnout. Teachers need to check to see if the dancers’ kneecaps, or patellas, are facing the same direction as their toes. If they are not, the rotation is being forced and the dancer is probably struggling to hold the position.
It is the struggle to maintain forced turnout, which can lead to a variety of problems. In an attempt to hold forced turnout and remain balanced, the dancer begins to grip the floor with the toes, which keeps the plantar tendon in a contracted state which inflames the tendon and eventually results in plantar fasciitis. The dancer may also begin to pronate, or roll forward at the ankle. Pronation causes the dancer to use the inside of the foot when pushing off the floor for relevés and jumps instead of using the bottom of the foot. In addition to making the movement less efficient, this action puts pressure on the big toe joint, which will become inflamed and irritated, and eventually a bunion will develop.
Forcing turnout from the ankle also causes the tibia, the large shinbone, to twist. This twisting irritates the tibialis posterior muscle, which attaches to the tibia, and can result in shin splints.
All of the unnatural twisting weakens the ligaments that are responsible for the stability of the ankle and the knee and disturbs the natural line of the Achilles tendon, causing tendonitis. Tendonitis can also develop in the patellar tendon, which attaches the quadricep muscles of the thigh to the tibia.
Lastly, in order to balance while forcing turnout and pronating, the body compensates by tipping the pelvis forward. As this happens, the curve in the lumbar spine increases, causing swayback, or lordosis. Lordosis stretches the hamstrings, puts a strain on the lower back and decreases the shock absorption quality of the spine.
The feet are the body’s foundation. Just like any change in a foundation causes detrimental shifts in a building, when the feet are placed in an unstable position, the other body parts must shift to compensate for the instability. It is imperative that turnout originate at the hip joint and not be forced from the ankle or knee. An efficient, healthy dancer is one who learns to make the most of his or her body, respecting and working with its strengths and within its limitations.