Turnout: The external (outward) rotation of the legs that is the foundation of classical ballet technique. Although it is most visible in the placement of the feet, turnout is initiated from the top of the leg and involves the hip, thigh, knee, ankle and foot.
What is turnout?
The term “turnout” describes a positioning of the legs in which each leg is rotated in the opposite direction from the other. This means that, when they are observed from the front, a dancer’s legs (and, consequently, their knees and feet) face away from the centre of their body.
Turnout involves the external rotation of the femur (thighbone) along its axis in relation to a stable pelvis, which is supported by a strong core, so that true turnout is initiated by an outward motion deep within the hip joint. Hence, biomechanically functional turnout is turnout that is achieved from the hip and can be maintained while dancing. This is very different to merely forcing the external rotation of the lower leg and foot while standing in static, poorly aligned poses.
Turnout is a feature of many forms of dancing because outward rotation within the hip joint allows for greater extension of the leg, particularly when lifting it to the side and back. More specifically, turnout is essential to classical ballet technique because it is the foundation on which all ballet movement is built.
Understanding how to access and sustain realistic turnout will help dancers decrease the possibility of injury as a result of poor alignment and a misunderstanding of what turnout really is.
Origins of turnout
The codification of classical ballet
Historically, turnout evolved as part of the overall emergence of classical ballet as an art form.
King Louis XIV founded the former dance institution The Académie Royale de Danse in France in 1661. His passionate commitment helped to drive ballet’s transition from a pleasant social or courtly event to a distinct theatrical performance art, complete with codified rules, etiquette and conventions.
Initially, the preference for outward rotation was influenced by:
- the fact that courtly dancers wanted to show off the intricate designs on the heels of their shoes
- the need for dancers to be able to move in all directions without turning their back to the King
- the ease of movement observed when turned-out positions were used in fencing.
Louis XIV directed his personal ballet master, Pierre Beauchamps, to devise a way of making dance understood on paper. They believed codification would help ballet, which was swiftly developing as an integral part of French culture, become popular across Europe. The combined efforts of Pierre Beauchamps and two other prominent ballet masters, Raoul Auger Feuillet and Pierre Rameau, resulted in the categorisation, codification, recognition and subsequent notation of ballet as an art form.
The process of formalisation began with the five positions of the body, which ballet dancers still use today. These were known as “true” or “noble” positions and required that the feet be turned out at 45 degrees from the hip.
Positions of the feet (and legs)
- First position
An elegant resting position, with the heels together. The remaining four positions prepared the body to move.
- Second position
The feet pushed horizontally apart, with a space the length of the dancer’s own foot between them. Second position was devised so the dancer could travel side to side without turning away from the King (the most important member of the audience).
- Third position
The legs and feet pulled back together like in first position but slightly crossed. Third position lent itself to a dancer moving forward or backwards, one foot following the other in a straight line.
- Fourth position
With the feet separated by one foot, back to front. Fourth position was as if the dancer took a careful step straight forward but stopped midway, poised with weight on both feet (turned out).
- Fifth position
With the heel of one foot placed against the toe of the other, pulling the limbs into perfect vertical alignment. Fifth position was a summation of all the earlier positions. It prepared the dancer to move from side to side or front to back, while never straying from clearly defined paths of movement.
The proscenium arch stage
Before King Louis XIV began championing ballet as an art form, dancers had simply been performing in palaces, ballrooms and parks for the enjoyment of the aristocracy. During his reign, ballets began to be performed in venues more akin to the theatres of today.
These new venues featured the proscenium arch stage. In this stage setting, performers are elevated and framed by a “window” that requires consideration of only one perspective. This means that everyone in the audience views the onstage action from the same angle – as opposed to when audience members were positioned around the performers, as they traditionally had been.
The proscenium arch stage created a separation between the performers and audience and ensured that there was a distinct “front”. Using turned-out positions meant dancers could easily move in all directions while remaining at an aesthetically pleasing angle for their audience.
Furthermore, dancers had to share the stage with the main players (the singers) in operatic productions. Turnout enabled easy sideways locomotion so the dancers were able to occupy less space on the stage while still moving in a coordinated and visually pleasing way.
Mechanics of movement
Today, the five turned-out positions codified by Pierre Beauchamps remain the basis of classical ballet training and performance.
Turnout persists not only as a result of ballet’s historical and cultural background but also due to the mechanics of movement. Being turned out really does ensure the best stance of readiness for further movement in any direction and allows for greater extension of the leg, particularly when lifted to the back and side.
Pushing the limits
Notably, turnout was devised in a rather restrained manner. It was explicitly limited to no more than 45 degrees to avoid any possibility of the dancer veering toward the exaggeration of acrobatic performers.
Italian dancer and ballet master Carlo Blasis (1797–1878) later insisted on a 90-degree turnout from the hips. He discussed the positions in his textbook, The Code of Terpsichore, which laid the foundations for twentieth-century classical ballet.
In contrast to the restraint of the past, today’s ballet aesthetic supports an idealised desire to attain a much more extreme 180-degree line of turnout.
Anatomically, this ideal 180-degree line of turnout is the expected outcome achieved through external rotation at the hip, knee and ankle. However, this ideal will not always be possible because everybody’s range of turnout differs – and that is okay! It is not necessary to attain the extreme 180-degree aesthetic to reap the benefits of turnout.
All the functional benefits of turnout (such as pulling the iliofemoral (Y) ligament of the hip joint taut for greater stability, distributing weight for efficient movement and being able to accomplish a variety of leg movements) are still achievable when turnout range remains below the 180-degree extreme.
Forcing turnout could result in injury. Dancers should therefore not aim for a particular amount of turnout. Instead, each dancer should strive to have the mobility and stability to achieve functional turnout that can be sustained while dancing. They should take the time to get to know their own body and think of dancing from the inside out.
How to turn out
Dance educationalist Kathryn Daniels advises dancers to:
- Think about turning out from the hip joint and the tops of the legs (not the knee or ankle).
- Stabilize the pelvis in neutral alignment (by using the deep core muscles) to maximise the rotation possible at the hip joint.
- Treat turnout as a verb not a noun – be “doing” turnout not just holding a position. Visualise and perform turnout as a constant activation of the turnout muscles by integrating the turnout action into every movement.
Daniels recommends that dancers engage in somatic exploration exercises for turnout awareness.
Turnout awareness exercise: Standing
- Stand in a wide parallel second position, bend your knees, and press one hip to the side.
- Run your hand down the side of your upper thigh to feel the greater trochanter (an irregularly shaped bony feature at the top of the femur bone in the thigh, located just below and to the outside of the hip joint). Find the trochanter on both legs.
- Place a thumb on the greater trochanter. Flexing the thigh on the same side, reach under the pelvis to locate the sitz (“sitting”) bone and place another finger on it. Repeat on the other leg.
- Keeping your fingers on the trochanters and sitz bones, place one foot on the ground on demi-pointe in a parallel first position. Rotate your thigh in and out several times. Notice that the trochanter moves toward the sitz bone with rotation. Feel the muscles that run between the two fingers tightening.
- Stand in parallel first with your feet together. With fingers on the trochanters and sitz bones, rock your weight onto your heels to turn your legs out from the hips. Notice the trochanters and sitz bones coming closer together and feel the muscles between your fingers engage.
- Repeat, with attention on maintaining a neutral alignment of the pelvis. Continue into a relevé, again feeling the deep rotator muscles engage to stabilize the pelvis and maintain rotation.
Turnout awareness exercise: Lying on your side
- Lying on your side, find the greater trochanter and sitz bone on the top leg. Take a parallel coupé and externally rotate the thigh, feeling the trochanter move toward the sitz bone. Rotate in and out, noticing the changing relationship of the bony landmarks and the muscle activation.
- To work on rotation in passé and développé, slowly bring your leg to passé, continuing to pull the trochanter toward the sitz bone.
- Lift the thigh and extend the knee to a développé to the side, focusing on the trochanter–sitz bone relationship. Periodically stop and, holding the knee still, turn the thigh slightly in and out to reinforce the sensation of the trochanter dropping under towards the sitz bones.
- Stand and repeat the same movement, focusing on the bony relationships as the leg extends and noticing any loss of rotation.
The trouble with turnout
Every dancer has turnout trials and tribulations. Turnout is individual, so each dancer must work within their own anatomical range.
Watch the following video for a quirky analysis of the origins of turnout, told through dance and spoken word:
This resource is intended as a helpful guide.
It was compiled using the following sources:
Daniels, Kathryn (2007) ‘Teaching Anatomically-Sound Turnout’, Journal of Dance Education 7(3) pp. 91–94.
Homans, Jennifer (2010) Apollo’s Angels: A History Of Ballet. London: Granta Books.
Krasnow, Donna and Virginia Wilmerding (2011) ‘Turnout For Dancers: Supplemental Training‘, International Association for Dance Medicine and Science. Available at: https://iadms.org/research-publications/resources-paper/#turnout (Accessed: 5 January 2023).
Morris, Merry Lynn (2015) ‘Re-thinking Ballet Pedagogy: Approaching A Historiography Of Fifth Position’, Research in Dance Education 16(3) pp. 245–258.
‘The Trouble With Turnout’. YouTube, uploaded by hallwaypro, 27 July 2006, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQzY8yg-srw (Accessed: 5 January 2023).
Wilmerding, Virginia and Donna Krasnow (2011) ‘Turnout For Dancers: Hip Anatomy And Factors Affecting Turnout‘, International Association for Dance Medicine and Science. Available at: https://iadms.org/research-publications/resources-paper/#turnout (Accessed: 5 January 2023).
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.