If you studied ballet as a young child do you remember being taught the positions of the feet? Do you recall begin told to put the heels together and turn the toes out? Many of us remember this and today many children will still be learning this way. We can help children to understand more about where movement begins right from the start by creating an awareness of where movement begins and what to focus on. So when teaching say, first position, we can focus on rotating the legs outwards in the hip joints (turning out) rather than focusing on the feet.
Encouraging students to think about what is happening in their hip joints will help them to pay attention to turning out in the hips rather than just turning out the feet. When the turnout focuses on the feet there is danger of pressure being put on the knees (and hips and feet) from the student trying too hard to achieve maximum turnout. You no doubt have seen students and dancers flexing their knees and forcing their feet into the turned out position by using the floor as leverage and then trying to straighten their knees. If their turnout muscles in the hip are tight then forcing turnout will just twist the knees and feet. Checking the alignment of the pelvis, knee and foot will tell you if anything is twisting.
Developing turnout safely
Turnout is affected by the structure of the dancer’s body – bones, joints and connective tissue all affect the capacity for turnout. So some dancers have naturally better turnout than others. It is important that we help each student to do the best turnout possible for them.
Turnout should be free of excess muscle tension – working towards developing a feeling of freedom in the hip and not tightness and restriction. We can teach rotation exercises in class even to the young students – do you get your youngest students to sit on the floor and rotate their feet inwards and outwards? Well try doing a very similar exercise but focusing on the rotation in the hip. Tell the students to turn the legs (and not the feet) inwards and outwards and let them feel how the leg rotates in the hip socket. If they only focus on the feet they do not necessarily use the rotator muscles in the hip to rotate the whole leg. It is important to do both inward and outward rotation so that the rotator muscles are not only working in one direction. We need them balanced and able to work through their full range.
Working towards good alignment is key when teaching turnout. Less is more when it comes to turnout and alignment in the sense that if a student cannot maintain good alignment with their knees over the centres of their feet then they need to reduce the outward rotation so that the knees are over the centres of their feet. Gradually they can work to increase their rotational capabilities in the hip and as they do they will be able to use more turnout and still maintain good alignment.
Tom Welsh’s book Conditioning for Dancers has a great chapter on Alignment for Dancers. The book was published in 2009 by University Press of Florida.