As part of our BTEC studies we recently completed an assignment related to dancer’s anatomy. In groups we covered various elements of the muscular, skeletal and nervous systems, but we each had to do individual research. I focused on turn-out and thought it might be interesting to share my work here with you.
Why do dancers turn-out? What is it? Turn-out enables classical ballet technique, allowing stability, range of motion, mobility, strength and the development of leg muscles dancers desire. It is an action initiated in the hip and thigh which consequently rotates the knee, calf, ankle and foot. Ideally the relationship of each part of the leg should remain the same as when the leg is in neutral. Turn-out is a balance between strength and flexibility.
How does turn-out happen? Turning-out involves primarily the hip-joint which in simple terms is made up of a head, a neck and two bony protuberances called the greater and lesser trochanters. The femoral head (the femur is the thigh bone, the longest bone in our body) fits into the front of the pelvis forming a ball and socket joint. This joint would have an unlimited freedom of movement and lack of stability, if it wasn’t braced by the strongest ligament in the human body, the iliofemoral. Its tautness varies in each individual and is a factor in the amount of turn-out that can be attained.
Do muscles aid turn-out? There are four groups of muscles in the thigh which enable rotation, stabilize the pelvis and allow flexion/extension in the hip-joint. These muscles are the adductors, the gracilis and sartorius, the quadriceps and the hamstrings. Weakness in any of these would limit range of motion in the hip-joint and place undue stress on the knee. The gluteus maximus should only be automatically engaged by the action of turning-out and by any leg lift to the back. It is normal to relinquish the hold when the hip is flexed, for example when we bend our knees or lift our leg to the front. This is when the deep outward rotators and the inside thighs should be making a combined effort to establish and maintain turn-out.
How is turn-out improved? The shape of the femoral neck and the angle at which the head is inserted into the socket determines the degree of possible turn-out. This cannot be changed but what we do have control over is fully activating the turn-out we can command, the flexibility of the ligaments and the strength of the muscles in and around the hip and thigh. As teachers often say, there is no point in forcing your turn-out from the feet because rotation will be untrained and difficult to maintain when it comes to moving at speed. Working in classical ballet with perfunctory turn-out encourages ‘chunky’ muscles and causes dangerous distortions that may lead to injury. An important rule to remember is to stretch inward rotators (box splits) and strengthen outward rotators (side clams).
I put all this information together and felt confident when presenting it verbally for our recorded assessment. I now have a much better understanding of the anatomy of turn-out and have found myself trying to sense and visualise what was actually going on inside my hip-joint during class.
It is important for dancers to have knowledge and awareness of how our bodies function and I am keen to do more in-depth anatomy studies in the future.