How to improve ballet turnout

This article was co-authored by Geraldine Grace Johns. Geraldine Grace Johns is a Professional Ballerina and the Owner of Grace Ballet in New York and Los Angeles. Geraldine toured through New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and Korea as Jammes in Ken Hill’s Original Phantom of the Opera. She has studied with the Royal Academy of Dance in London and taught for the Kudo School of Ballet in Yokohama. Geraldine also ran her own Royal Academy of Dance School in New Zealand before studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City. Geraldine was a guest coach and Master Class teacher in Toronto for the Canadian Royal Academy of Dance’s “Dance Challenge” in 2018, 2019, and 2020. She was also a guest coach and Master Class teacher for the USA Royal Academy of Dance Challenge in Long Beach, California in 2019 and 2020.

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Correct turnout sets the stage for the majority of classical ballet’s beautiful movement. But poor or incorrect turnout can limit your range of movement and cause knee problems. Simply put, turnout is the basis for all ballet positions, where your legs move to turn your feet out and away from your body. Since this movement shouldn’t come from your knees, it’s important to strengthen the muscles in your hips which creates good turnout.

It seems that everyone is desperately on the hunt for solutions to all of their turnout woes. After a few clients were delighted with finding more rotation after just a little exploration and education, it got me thinking as to how I could share what I teach in the clinic, with all of those who can’t get in to see me.

So I created a little EBook called ” Tips For Turnout ” explaining all about how to improve your range, train your true turnout muscles and control turnout in high extensions. This is a great way to introduce you to some practical ways to get more range and control in your hips. It’s just $9 so that everyone can afford to learn the right way of working their hips.

However, I still wanted to share a few tips here!

So what is the issue with turnout? Why is it such an elusive quality and why are there so many myths about it floating around in the dance world? And perhaps more importantly, how can those of us with less than perfect rotation dance to our hearts desire without constantly irritating our hips?

How to improve ballet turnout

From my point of view, as a physiotherapist who works with dancers every day, there are a few main categories of people who have issues with turnout.

1. The “It-just-doesn’t-happen. ” people – With these dancers, no matter what stretches they do, their hips just seem to get tighter and tighter. They sit cross-legged and their knees go nowhere near the floor, and a lot of the time any stretches they try to do give them pain in the front of the hips…

2. The “It’s-OK-in-some-positions” people – These dancers finds turning out very frustrating. Sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not. They may find it easy to sit in second splits, but struggle to stand in 5th position. Or they can hold it in 5th yet not in a developpé devant.

3. The “It-just-hurts-to-go-there. ” people – This group may have good range, but whenever they try to train their hips, they seem to get more sore, especially in the front of the hips…

4. The “I-just-need-to-crack-them-first” people -This group will have a religious warm up that involves popping the hips either to the front or back to ‘release’ them before they can work in turnout. This may appear to work well for a while but it has diminishing returns… Often after a few months or years, they need to pop them more often, and may find that the pops are not quite as effective as they once were, or may find that the frequently popped area may start getting sore due to being repeatedly overstretched.

5. The “I’ve-got-so-much-I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-it” people – These dancers can also get very frustrated, as they are constantly told that they have great turnout, and can stretch into all kinds of wonderful positions, however they really struggle to show it when they are dancing, and often get told that they are just not trying.

So what is the solution? Do we all just give up and leave dancing to the ones who have ‘natural turnout’ and great control? Somehow I don’t think that that is an option for all of the millions of us who love to dance despite not having the most open hips! Instead we must discover a way to train each individual’s hips specifically, and to train dance teachers to be able to identify different types of hips early, allowing correct training of all students.

In this article we will be focussing on the first 2 groups of people described above and on ways that you can improve your turnout range safely.

The first thing we need to understand is the basic bony structure that gives our hips their stability. Most people know that the hip is a ball-and-socket joint, but they don’t realise just how different everyone’s’ ball-and-socket joints are. Some people have very deep stable sockets, some are more forward facing and some are more out to the side. Naturally open hips often have a shallow socket that faces more out to the side, but not always.

The biggest problem is that most of us ‘accept’ that our range is blocked by the bones when this is actually not the case. I had a massive rude awakening to just how much I had unconsciously accepted the fate of my not-so-flexible hips when at the ripe old age of 29 I had a massage that released lots of old, deep tension in my hips, giving me more range than I had at 16! This opened my mind to the possibilities for many other dancers, and lead to the development of a program to teach dancer how to open out their hips safely. (For more information on the Training Turnout Program CLICK HERE )

Turnout—a combination of rotational flexibility and the strength to properly hold that rotation—is the foundation for ballet techniques. In physical terms “turn-out” is rotation of the legs at the hips which causes the legs to turn outward. It gives you a greater range of motion, allows you to move faster and bigger. The stronger your hip turnout, the easier all the steps will be, it will allow you to move confidently and improve the results in all ballet steps.

Strong supporting muscles around your hips will not just prevent you from any potential injuries but also improve hip stability, the shape of your thighs, sculpting and perfecting beautiful ballerina legs.

Here’s a simple stretch exercise to improve the rage of your hip rotators:

Kneel and place a pillow under your left knee. If needed, hold a barre or chair to maintain balance.

With both legs turned in, lunge forward on your right leg until your right knee forms a 90-degree angle. Rest your hands on your right knee. Keep your hips level and tuck your tailbone under.

Continue to push forward into the right leg until you feel a gentle stretch in the outer front part of your left hip, and/or in your left thigh. Be sure to keep your back upright and your hips square.

Hold this position, keeping your buttocks tight, for 15 seconds. Repeat three to four times.

Repeat the stretch on the right knee.

Regular stretching improves flexibility in the hip join area, whilst professionally guided strengthening exercises brings stability. Combining both together creates long lasting results.

Check out our latest online class focused to improve your ballet legs & hip turn out HERE

In this article let’s look at how to improve ballet turnout safely, and why turnout is so important for dancers all over the world.

This article may contain affiliate links.

Why Do Dancers Need Turnout?

Why is turnout so important for dancers, especially if you do ballet or contemporary? In fact, the word ‘turnout’ may be the most commonly heard phrase used in dance classes around the world.

Dancers have been working on their 180-degree ballet turnout since the inception of ballet, and this seems to be the most desired leg position to have, regardless of whether or not dancers are pushing their bodies beyond their natural limits.

The reason dancers need to have ballet turnout is that it improves the look of ballet, makes the lines prettier, softer, and more beautiful. Turnout also enables the dancer to lift her legs higher and thus achieve higher extensions.

A turned out leg looks far prettier than a turned in one and it looks longer too.

Where Does Turnout Come From?

Unfortunately, not many people are born with natural turnout in the hip joints, which is why it has to be properly trained from a young age for years.How to improve ballet turnout

Beginners tend to want to emulate the “perfect turnout” by forcing their knees outward.

Of course, this method is extremely difficult to maintain while dancing, and not only that but this method will cause knee injuries over time.

Some dancers think that a consistent routine of stretching exercises will open up the hip joint’s range of motion, but it is more than simply stretching.

Turnout should never ever be forced, but rather worked on by strengthening the surrounding muscles that support and hold turnout as well as training the muscle memory with a series of ballet drills so that this becomes a natural process for the dancer over time.

Turnout initiates from the hips, not the knees or feet.

In order to understand how to achieve the greatest turnout, let’s look at the anatomy as this can help dancers get a better understanding of how everything inside works.

Turnout is supported by six deep rotator muscles surrounding the hip joint namely:

  • Piriformis
  • Superior Gemellus
  • Inferior Gemellus
  • Obturator Internus
  • Obturator Externus
  • Quadratus Femoris.

In addition, the Gluteus Maximus, the Posterior Fibers of the Gluteus Medius, and the Long Head of the Biceps Femoris also assist in lateral rotation.

Improve Ballet Turnout Without Injury

While most young dancers tend to focus a lot on flexibility, it is important to realize that to be truly effective and avoid injury, the muscles must not only be stretched but strengthened as well.

Always remember that with stretching comes flexibility and with strength comes stability. Both have to work together to shape the true powerhouse of a dancer.

It would be useless to gain a lot of flexibility and not actually have the strength to hold the position.

Here is a great turnout and flexibility test you can try that comes from the Easy Flexibility Program.

You will need two yoga blocks for this exercise.

The yoga blocks above can be ordered online simply by clicking on the picture if you don’t have any.

Sit on the floor with the legs extended to the front with your hands on the floor behind your hips. Place one foot on each block and turn the legs out, with the goal of placing the outer edge of the foot on the block and heels slightly hanging over the inside edge.

Keeping this position, lift the hips off of the floor and hold for up to thirty seconds. For more of a challenge, move the feet further off of the blocks, bringing the heels closer together. If this position is only able to be held for a short period, there is work to do on those turnout muscles. This test is an excellent gauge to track turnout strength over time.

Other exercises for strength in turnout can be performed in your regular ballet class. Plié and fondu are both wonderful basics that strengthen the deep rotators as well as the gluteal muscles, which is why every ballet class you attend will have these exercises incorporated into your barre work.

Each time the dancer bends, there is a chance to stretch and lengthen as the hip joint opens to the side.

As the dancer stretches again, the gluteus maximus and piriformis are working hard to stabilize in the newly found space within the joint.

If you want to give these tried and tested exercises more bang for their buck and to improve ballet turnout, finish with a balance with the leg in retiré. This will work these muscles even harder by introducing an isometric hold, connecting back to the earlier block exercise.

Not all dancers are built the same, and some may have tighter muscles in the hip joint than others.

It is important to remember to work within your own range and strengthen the muscles in your own time, not try to compete with the girl standing in front of you that seems to have a 180-degree turnout.

Work hard, learn to use the right muscles, and over time your ballet turnout will improve and strengthen, without risking long term damage to your body.

Did you know that turnout mostly comes from the hips? Looking at a dancer, it can be easy to assume that the turnout is driven completely by the ankles but it actually all comes from the hips.

Try the exercises below to improve and strengthen your turnout.

First things first, when following any of the below advice or exercises, be vary careful not to over-turn or force your turnout. Forcing turnout can lead to knee, ankle and even hip damage so it’s important to take things slowly and listen to your body.

We always recommend warming up before trying any exercises or moves.

Standing Turnout

When standing, maintain glute engagement to keep your hips turned out safely. This means squeezing your butt really tight to allow your hips to turn out as much as possible.

Be careful not to stick your bottom out. It can help to think about tilting the pelvis slightly under and engaging your abdominal muscles. This will help to keep your lower back safe and your posture ballet perfect.

Tendu Turnouts – A Terre and En L’air

Tendus are great for improving turnout and building turnout muscle memory.

For this simple exercise, start sideways to the barre with your feet in first position (heels together, toes turned outwards). Tendu devant (point the outside foot to the front) keeping the leg turned out, turn the leg parallel so that the heel now points downwards towards the floor, turn the leg out again so that the heel points upwards towards the barre, close back to 1st.

Repeat to 2nd (side) and derrière (back).

Really focus on the turnout and the difference between the turnout and parallel leg positioning.

This exercise is also beneficial when practiced en l’air (off the ground). Legs don’t have to be high but holding the leg off the ground increases use of the leg and hip muscles.

Ronds de Jambe

Ronds de Jambe exercises look simple but good form and technique can take a while to master.

Rond de Jambe a terre is like drawing a semi-circle on the floor with a pointed foot.

Complete six to 12 reps of a strong rond de jambe a terre en dehors (opening the leg outwards from front to back).

really hold and maintain your leg turnout from the hip through every position and come through a well turned out first position as you bring the leg from the back to the front.

Reverse it to complete six to 12 reps en dedans.

This exercise can also be practiced with a resistance band just above the knees to improve hip and leg strength.

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

How to improve ballet 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.”

How to improve ballet turnout

One hundred eighty degree turnout. Everyone wants it. Unfortunately, however, only a very tiny portion of dancers are born with something even close to it. And for the majority of the others, natural skeletal structure “gets in the way” of this dream.

But it is possible for a dancer to enhance his/her turnout, and to stretch and strengthen the hip structure so as to maximize turnout. To help explain why dancers, particularly ballet dancers, need turnout in the first place, and how they can go about safely improving their turnout, Dance Informa turns to Nancy and Allegra Romita. Nancy is on faculty in the dance department at Towson University, and together, she and Allegra have founded the somatic approach called Functional Awareness®: Anatomy in Action.

Why turn out?

Turnout, or lateral rotation of the hip, is not necessarily important in all styles of dance. It is, however, certainly at the core of the ballet aesthetic and many other dance forms. When you turn out (from the hip), it can provide a more stable base of support through the foot, Nancy explains.

How to improve ballet turnout

Towson University dance majors use rotator discs at the ballet barre to enhance turnout. Photo by David Merino.

Is there a turnout limitation for each dancer?

“One hundred eighty degree turnout is the ability to rotate each individual hip 90 degrees to each side,” Allegra says. “The result is the toes pointing directly side, right and left. This is an extremely rare condition to the hip joint.”

When dancers force this turnout and try to achieve this position, they are putting too much rotational action in the knee joints, ankles and feet. This, in turn, actually destabilizes the knee and ankle and can result in injury.

“There are many considerations when it comes to improving turnout,” Nancy adds. “Some are structural and some are functional or related to habitual use of the body. Skeletal factors include the structure and facing of the acetabulum, or hip socket, the length, shape and angle of the femoral neck, and the elasticity of the iliofemoral ligament. Although these factors cannot be improved, tendon and muscle structures can support one’s lateral rotation to maximum advantage with training.”

Factors that can inhibit or decrease turnout include imbalanced pelvic alignment, anterior tip of the pelvis, the act of gripping or tucking the pelvis, tension in any muscles of the hip, and overuse of muscles you don’t need.

“One can work professionally as a dancer and contribute to the field of dance performance best by working within their considerations of their own structure and maximizing a balanced neuromuscular approach in order to stabilize the leg for action,” Allegra says.

What are some ways to safely improve turnout?

The key word is safely. Nancy shares that dancers can safely improve turnout by equally training the muscles of the medial rotation (or internal rotation) as well as the lateral rotation (or external rotation).

“Training should be a combination of strengthening and stretching the entire hip structure,” she adds. “Too many dancers just practice a couple of exercises to improve turnout and, by doing so, create an imbalance that defeats all their efforts.”

As an example of an effective exercise, Nancy notes that at Towson University, ballet faculty Catherine Horta Hayden has her students use Balanced Bodies rotator discs within the ballet barre work. This exercise has been shown to improve her students’ turnout and stability of the standing leg in maintaining turnout during action.

Even though it may seem helpful to spend most of your time in a turned out position to get your body accustomed to being that way, overuse of turnout muscles can actually backfire.

How to improve ballet turnout

Towson University dance majors integrating rotator discs into classwork to enhance turnout. Photo by David Merino.

“Do not walk, stand and sleep turned out all day, every day,” Allegra advises. “Allow your body to move toward balance by coming back to neutral. This will give your body an opportunity to release unnecessary tension, recruit for appropriate muscle action and recuperate.”

“If the aesthetic of the dance form requires lateral (external) rotation, dancers should be encouraged to focus on healthy and biomechanically smart ways to achieve their maximum amount of turnout,” Nancy adds. “Continuing to consider a neutral pelvis and utilizing the deep lateral rotators of the hip will help improve turnout and maintain healthy turnout in the long term.”

Work within your structure.

“’Perfect’, or 180 degree, turnout is an unrealistic ideal for most dancers and can lead to pain and injury in the hip, knees and ankles,” Nancy stresses. “Work within your physical structure. A quantitative measurement tool for turnout is called The Functional Footprint.”

Functional Footprints® are small boards that have a swivel design to place the axis of rotation at the source of one’s turnout – the hip. This exercise will train dancers to use their turnout properly and also features a degree indicator to check the symmetry of both legs’s turnout.

In addition, Nancy and Allegra encourage dancers to increase their turnout through releasing unnecessary tension. Their tips include:

  • Release the muscles of the hip that are not needed to engage in rotation. A tight IT band and tensor fasciae lattae muscle often impedes recruitment of the deep lateral rotator muscles.
  • Stretch the medial and lateral rotators of the hip, the hamstrings and hip flexors to ensure resiliency of action for turnout. Foam rolling, for example, can release this tension as well.
  • Somatic practices such as the Functional Awareness®, Bartenieff Fundamentals, Alexander Technique or Feldenkrais Method are useful to discover ease in action and to release unnecessary tension.

To learn more about Nancy and Allegra Romita’s Functional Awareness®, along with their upcoming workshops and tips, visit functionalawareness.org .

By Laura Di Orio of Dance Informa.

Photo (top): Genée International Ballet Competition 2013. Photo by Andy Ross.

This story originally appeared in the August/September 2016 issue of Pointe.

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.

  • a Thera-Band
  • a soft, soccer-sized ball

Natural-Turnout Test

How to improve ballet turnoutNathan Sayers

  1. In socks or ballet slippers, face the barre standing in parallel.
  2. Without lifting your toes, slide both feet along the floor into first position. “This is a good way to see how much turnout you naturally have,” says Casati.
  3. From there, plié and slowly straighten your knees without losing any turnout. This simple test will provide a benchmark while also strengthening your external rotators.

For the Piriformis

How to improve ballet turnoutNathan Sayers

  1. Tie a Thera-Band to the barre and loop it around your working knee. Start standing in parallel and come to retiré.
  2. Pushing against the resistance of the band, slowly rotate to a turned-out retiré for 10 reps.
  3. Repeat the same sequence with the standing leg turned out. Then switch sides.

For the Inner Thighs and Glutes

How to improve ballet turnoutNathan Sayers

  1. Lie on your back with your feet on the floor in parallel about hip width apart and a ball squeezed between your knees.
  2. Press into a bridge, while keeping your core tight and engaging your glutes. Squeeze and hold the ball for a count of 5. Do 10 reps of squeezes.
  3. With the hips still lifted, do 20 quick pulses of the ball before lowering to the ground.

How to improve ballet turnoutNathan Sayers