Dancer Turnout Talk: What does the science say?
Dance students and pre-professional dancers are often in search of ways to improve their turnout. Ballet certainly has a big focus on turn-out but it’s safe to say that many if not all forms of dance have some aspect of turn-out even if it’s not a top priority for the aesthetic. As a Physical Therapist, one of the top questions I get asked from aspiring dancers is “how do I improve my turnout beyond technique in class?” It’s an important question also from a dancer health and safety perspective in understanding not only what can be helpful to maximize turnout, but also what can potentially be harmful over time and affect the underlying joint structures. Before answering what can influence turnout, first we need to understand where turnout comes from...
Although it’s important to maximize motion, control, as well as maintaining your turnout from the hip muscles, the reality is there are other contributors to total turnout. Research has shown that turnout comes from a combination of motion from the hip, knee, and ankle/foot joints. There is a range in the literature of what percentage or degree each of those regions contributes to turnout. We'll focus here more on the benefits of understanding how much total turnout you have available and what you can do about it.
So what do we know about actually measuring turnout? There are different ways and variations for how to measure turnout and at this time there is no one single agreed upon way to do this. Despite no standard yet, there are good practical options for a dancer to understand how much turnout they have available and how much they are actually using functionally when they dance. Why is this of value? Understanding the difference between the two can help the dancer sort through whether they are forcing and/or compensating their turnout or if they have more available and are not accessing all the turnout with their current strategies. Each of those scenarios require different actions to help improve the dancer’s strategies to yield a positive outcome.
So what does all this mean? Here’s the truth: Much of turnout capacity is structural which means the total amount a dancer has available is unique to the individual based on their bony joint structure (shape of the bones) and the ligaments/connective tissue--this is what you are born with. I like to celebrate this with my dancers because loving your body's unique qualities should start at a young age! Instead of this being negative news, we should focus on what the dancer can actively do to improve turnout safely and with health in mind to set this foundation early. Some literature suggests that the bony structure of dancers is influenced by training over time but in terms of what an individual can safely focus on to influence turnout, here's a short list:
A dancer can...
improve accessing their full turnout by targeting specific muscles to maximize muscle recruitment and firing patterns
minimize over-recruitment of muscles that may hinder accessing full turnout
improve the muscular control of their turnout to change the quality of their movement
improve muscular strength and endurance to maintain their turnout in various positions and transitional movements while dancing
More truth: When dancers practice movements, exercises, or stretches to improve their turnout that place stress or strain on the joint and/or the soft tissues that hold the joint together, over-time that approach can lead to elevated injury risk by weakening the integrity and supportive nature of those structures. Although it’s understandable aesthetically why striving for increased turnout is a desirable goal, it’s best to learn your body’s individual movement capacity and learn safe ways to create opportunities for improving mobility so you can move smarter and move better for the long haul.
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Grossman, G. Turnout in Dancers: A comprehensive overview of active and passive turnout. JDMS. 2017(7):1-9.
Greene, A., Lasner, A., Deu, R., Oliphant, S., Johnson, K. Inter-rater and intra-rater reliability of a clinical protocol for measuring turnout in collegiate dancers. Phyiother Theory Pract. 2019;35(1): 94-99.
Carter, S. Lower leg and foot contributions to turnout in female pre-professional dancers: a 3D kinematic analysis. Sports Medicine and Biomechanics. 2018;36(19):2217-2225.
Washington, I., Mayes, S., Ganderton, C., Pizzari, T., Differentials in turnout among professional classical ballet dancers. Medical Problems of Performing Artists. 2016;31(3):160
Quanbeck, A., Russell, J., Handley, S., Quanbeck, D. Kinematic analysis of hip and knee rotation and other contributors to ballet turnout. Biomechanics. 2016;35(4):331-338.