Friday, 2 October 2015

Ballet Steps: Turn Out

The latest instalment of the ballet steps series explores turn out – the outward rotation of the legs from the hips. 

Alina Cojocaru and Alejandro Virelles
in Swan Lake
Photo: Photography by ASH
Whilst used to some extent in many other dance styles, turn out – especially to the degree that is expected of modern-day ballet dancers – is very particular and integral to classical ballet technique. It comes primarily from the outward rotation of the femur (upper leg bone) in the hip socket, which is made possible by several deep hip rotator muscles. A small degree of additional rotation is also possible in the knee and ankle. Turn out means that when the feet are on the ground (such as in the five ballet foot positions), the toes point outwards, and when the legs are lifted, there is greater freedom of movement in the hip and therefore the potential for greater leg height.

An ideal turn out – of 180 degrees – is extremely rare, but a high level of natural (untrained) turn out in the hips is a prerequisite for entering most elite classical ballet schools. The level of natural turn out can be ascertained by lying on the floor with heels together and the knees dropped out to the side – the closer the knees are to the floor, the greater the natural outward rotation in the hip. Up to the age of around 11, bone structure is malleable and ballet exercises, if correctly performed, can permanently increase the degree of outward rotation in the hip. Older dancers can increase their level of turn out (to a lesser extent) by gradually increasing the hip’s outward rotation over time.  

Vadim Muntagirov in Onegin
Photo: Tristram Kenton / ROH
For young amateur dancers, turn out can very difficult to master and outward rotation is often lost as soon as one leg is lifted off the ground. Serious ballet students are more likely to force more turn out than they are capable of, such that the feet roll forwards, the torso and/or upper body posture is incorrectly adjusted to compensate, and the glute muscles are over-activated. This can cause serious damage to the knees and ankles, as these are the joints which bear the strain of over-forced rotation.

If turned out correctly, the knees will be in line with the toes and weight will be distributed evenly across both sides of the feet. Fortunately, less than perfect turn out can be ‘masked’ by a dancer who is able to maintain their maximum level of outward rotation and employs correct leg and body placement.

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