Do a Google search for “turn out ballet” and you will find a wide variety of articles to supposedly help you train better and healthier. Going down the list of search results, article after article is loaded with “myth busters”. However, very few of these articles (if any) actually cite scientific findings on the matter. Therefore, I have written this article with ZERO fluff and ONLY those claims which have scientific studies to back them.
Let’s do the REAL “myth busting” now, shall we?
Here we go. Based on the scientific studies cited below, I have identified 2 of the biggest myths about turn out…
The Top 2 Turn Out Myths:
Myth #1: Hardly anyone is born with 180-degree turn out.
Myth #2: The knees and ankles are not designed to rotate, therefore turn out must come from the hips only.
These statements are proclaimed all over the internet and even in some popular books on ballet, yet, THEY ARE CATEGORICALLY FALSE.
Myth Buster #1: Most people ARE born with the ability to turn-out (read the rest of this article for the scientific and mathematical proof). Therefore, the real challenge is not turning out itself, but building the strength to HOLD the turned out position while dancing.
Myth Buster #2: The knees and ankles DO have a natural ability to rotate outward (a.k.a. “external rotation”, abbreviated “ER”). According to the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS)1:
“Teachers encourage their students to turnout only from the hips, and as a working cue, this is sound advice. However, anatomically, there are contributions to a fully turned out leg that come from the structure of the knee and lower limb joints. Research suggests that on average, 60% of turnout is created by outward rotation of the hip. Twenty to thirty percent of turnout may then emanate from the ankle, with the remaining percentage created by the tibia and knee joint.”Turnout for Dancers: Hip Anatomy and Factors Affecting Turnout1
“It may be good in a psychological sense to tell students to turn-out from the hips because that is where MOST of the turn-out happens, but a fully turned-out leg is actually the sum total of rotation in the hip, knee and ankle joints.”
(Funny that the latter part is exactly what Agrippina Vaganova stated in her book, “Fundamentals of Classical Dance”, first published in 1934, over 80 years ago. Lucky guess? Or way ahead of her time? Ahem, tangent, sorry… Back to the SCIENCE!)
To prove this point that the knees and ankles do in fact have a natural capacity to rotate outwards, obviously I decided to “cut the crap” and cite nothing but the scientific facts. I wanted to find out what the normal range of motion is for any average, non-dancing person. But rather than attempting to find data which agreed with my pre-conceived notions, I did an unbiased search for any scientific articles which showed the normal range of external rotation in the knee, ankle and hip joints.
Here’s what I found (without weeding out any data which better suited my own personal beliefs):
According to physiologist Susan Hall, author of “Basic Biomechanics”, normal external rotation in the knee joint is 30-40 degrees2 (Jot that down… we are going to use this number later. And yes, I double checked with a few other sources too which also gave a similar range.)
Rotation in the ankle joint is a bit trickier to measure because, in ballet, “rolling over” (a.k.a. “everting” the ankle) by relaxing the instep is unacceptable as a means of standing turned out. However, a study conducted in 2003 by the American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society showed that the ankle joint is actually capable of considerable movement in the transverse plane (a fancy name for the plane of the floor). That range of external rotation (measured from a standing position with the feet flat on the floor) is generally greater than 15 degrees.3 But for the sake of being conservative, let’s just say 15 degrees.
Normal external rotation of the hip joint for the average person was relatively easy to find, and the widely accepted number is 45 degrees.4
Adding up the minimum normal external rotation in the hip, knee and ankle joints for the non-dancing average Joe, we get a sum-total of:
+ 30º (knee)
+ 15º (ankle)
= 90º of external rotation per leg
HEY! That’s exactly what one needs in order to fully turn-out!
90º right leg
+ 90º left leg
= 180º total turn out
I’m going to state the obvious and qualify this by saying that of course each individuals degrees of rotation will vary. However, I think it’s pretty darn cool and amazing to think that 180 degrees of total turn out is within the normal range for average people! What do you think?
For the turn-out nerds among us, I went one step further:
What if we looked at the scientific studies which showed the range of turn-out in ballet dancers?
There is one such study published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 19995, which measured the turn-out of 77 female novice ballet dancers, age 8-11 (recruited from 35 classical ballet schools throughout Melbourne, Australia, who trained an average of 4.7 hours per week), compared with 49 “controls” (non-dancing girls age 8-11). Surprisingly, they found that the ballet dancers actually exhibited LESS external rotation than the non-dancers! Of course, the mean difference was only 5º, which could be partially explained by measurement error (I am quoting from the article here).
But even more surprisingly, the mean turn-out in the hip joints of the dancing girls was only 32.3º. That’s over 12º BELOW the widely accepted average range of motion for a normal person! Why on earth would that be?
The answer is in the way that they measured the turn-out. In this study, turn-out was measured ACTIVELY, meaning the dancers had to use their own muscle strength in order to turn out. For example, when they measured turn-out while standing in first position, they instructed the subjects to begin in parallel with the hands on the hips. Then, they were asked to turn out from the hips into first position with one single sweep. As stated in the article, because the range of motion was tested actively (heck, they weren’t even given a barre to hold onto for balance!), the results “may have been influenced by joint and soft tissue tightness as well as by muscle strength.”
Turn-out is extremely difficult to hold in the center unless you have already been practicing turn-out, which most ballet schools do not teach, rather relying on the students to decide for themselves to what extent feels “comfortable”. So why in the world they did not also test the PASSIVE range of motion in order to compare functional vs. structural turn-out I don’t know, but this omission renders the whole study rather useless for determining whether most students can actually turn-out, in my opinion. If anyone has come across any other studies measuring turn-out in dancers, PLEASE let me know!
What are your thoughts? Do you think that most people have the natural ability to turn-out, if only we could unlock that potential? Let me know in the comments below!
1. Turnout for Dancers: Hip Anatomy and Factors Affecting Turnout by the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science
2. Basic Biomechanics by Susan Hall
3. Transverse Plane Motion at the Ankle Joint. Christopher J. Nester, BSc (Hon), Ph.D.; Andrew F. Findlow, BSc (Hons); Peter Bowker BSc (Hon) Ph.D.; Peter D. Bowden, MSc. Published 2003 American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society, Inc.
4. Goniometry Standards MacDermid, et al. J Hand Therapy 12:187-192, 1999.
5. Hip and ankle range of motion and hip muscle strength in young novice female ballet dancers and controls. Kim Bennell, Karim M Khan, Bernadette Matthews, Melissa De Gruyter, Elizabeth Cook, Karen Holzer, John D Wark. Published Br J Sports Med 1999;33:340–346.