It's all in the hips. Dancers require turnout for virtually everything they do. Starting with proper hip alignment sets the rest of the leg up for success with more visually appealing technique as well as preventing injury. Many types of injury can result from not using the turn out muscles correctly and forcing it from the wrong place: snapping hip, knee pain, fallen arches and big toe pain (just to name a few).
I work with a few local dance studios and this year the cool new trend is knee pain. I have pinpointed it down to almost the same cause in every dancer. Can you guess what that might be? Your right: Not using hip turnout! I still find it amazing that most dancers don't even know where their turnout muscles are. You constantly hear it in class from your instructors: "More turn out!", "Lift from under your leg!", "Stop twisting your knees!". But what does that even mean? Has anyone ever really explained how to do those things?
For anyone that has worked with me, you should know by now that I am in love with the turn out muscles. Training them has to start right out of the gate at a young age, because boy is it tough to try and change their habits once they are 16 and have been dancing for 15 years already. So here are a few ideas that I use with my dancers to help them find and utilize these muscles. And dance teachers, I highly recommend putting some of this information to work in the studio. I promise you will see results with your dancers technique and the amount they complain to you about pain!
FIND THE TURN OUT MUSCLES
Turnout comes from a group of hip muscles called the external rotators, which are made up of the piriformis, gemellus superior, gemellus inferior, obturator internus, obturator externus, and the quadrates femurs. Throw those names around and you will sound super smart to your friends :-) They are located on the back side of the hip underneath the gluteal muscles.
To find them try this: stand in 2nd position and press your fingers into your sits bones. You have to press pretty deep, remember, these muscles are under the gluts. Now turn your hips in and out. When your knees go inward you should feel the muscles relax, and when they go outward you should feel them contract. If you are doing this correctly you will notice the bigger glut muscle does not change, only the muscles right under your fingers and next to the sits bones will. Take note of that, it is important!! Many dancers try and tighten their glut muscles when they turn out because they think that is where it is supposed to come from. In all actuality, if you tighten your glut muscles you will end up limiting your turnout.
2. STRENGTHEN THEM!
If there is one thing you take away today, its this: Turn out is a measure of both flexibility AND strength!
As I mentioned, training the turn out muscles may be one of my favorite past times. There are so many fun and creative ways that you can strengthen these muscles as a dancer.I am going to share with you 2 simple strengthening exercises that every dancer should include as part of their everyday routine. They are quick and easy and work great to incorporate into your warm ups. They sort of "wake up" the turnout muscles, so that when you are doing barre work or choreography your muscle memory makes it a little easier to utilize them.
The Clamshell: Probably the most classic turnout exercise of them all.Lie on your side with knees bent to about 90 degrees. Lift your top knee towards the ceiling by rotating outward through the hip. DO NOT let your hips roll backwards, keep one stacked on top of the other the entire time. Repeat 3 sets of 10 daily.
Towel Turnout: Stand on a slippery surface, like the kitchen floor (I took this picture before I had hardwood floors!), with your feet on a towel. Leave the center a bit loose so you can easily move. Practice turning in and out using ONLY your hips. Repeat 3 sets of 10. The slippery surface reduces the friction on the floor so that you cannot get your turnout from the knees or ankles, only the hip rotators. You will notice you cannot turn out as far, thats a good thing! It is training you to stop "cheating" your turn out from the hips and knees. Less cheating, means less injury!
3. USE IT OR LOSE IT!
Practice, practice, practice! Most of you reading this have probably been dancing for many years by now, which means your body is set a rhythm or routine. Trying to break that is really hard. I spend many hours working with dancers trying to improve technique and it never works on the first shot. It takes a lot of repetition and hard work but it can be done, and once that happens you won't regret the results!
I recommend using barre work as the best time to put your new skills to practice. It is slower paced and focuses a lot of technique already. Lets think about the simple act of the demi plié for a second. It is a technique you use as part of virtually every movement in class, so if you are doing it incorrectly that many times you can imagine some type of overuse injury is bound to happen. If you start in a non-forced turn out position, like you learned from doing the towel exercise, you are already setting yourself up for success. The turnout muscles can properly engage because you are not forcing the knees and ankles into a twisted position. As you begin to lower into your plié think about keeping those muscles active so that the knees glide over the middle of the foot and your arches stay lifted. It's a little challenging the first time you really break it down and do it correctly because it takes more thought, but remember, you are trying to re-program those muscles and create a new rhythm for your body. If you then go back to doing it wrong, in a forced turnout position, you will probably feel much more stress on your joints. Your hips cannot adequately activate the turnout muscles, your knees feel twisted, and your arches drop. Thats not really a pretty sight either. Hopefully you are starting to catch on to my point here. Learning to use these muscles properly takes time, but can really improve the visual appeal of your dancing while keeping you healthy.
I hope you find these tips to be helpful. Give it a try and I promise you will be on your way to awesome technique! Stay tuned, there will be many more blogs touching on this topic. Its an important one!