A friend on Facebook asked the following question:
“I’ve been asked to teach/coach gymnasts – who compete at a provincial and national level – “ballet basics” to help with artistry and refining foot, leg, core, shoulder and arm work. It’s not rhythmic gymnastics, just regular.
What are the rules for teaching turnout? It gets utilized in various moves but their feet mostly stay in parallel for safety and strengthening reasons during tumbling and anything using an apparatus. Thank you for any help!”
She gave her permission to share the question, and here was my response, which I though might engage my friends on the blog.
“Turnout” is simply the amount of outward rotation of the femur at the hip joint. The value of the the turned out leg is that it allows the dancer to move transversely across the stage while facing the audience, something which is very appealing in ballet, and around which much ballet vocabulary has been developed. This general idea has developed into the aesthetic of turned out legs for their own sake. This development is not bad per se, but has caused some students and teachers of ballet to merely approximate the look of a highly turned-out hip.
The reason all of this preamble is necessary, is so we can talk about the things that people should do to maximize their turnout, in contrast to what they try to do to make it look like they have lots of turnout, and the special considerations of gymnasts who tend to have anteverted pelvises (lumbar lordosis) and hyper-extended knees.
As a general rule, the kneecap reveals the rotation of the femur in the hip joint. When the kneecap points forward, the femur is at zero degrees rotation. When the femur is outwardly rotated, the knee caps point outward. The feet should follow the alignment of the femur, with the line between the second and third toe pointing in the same direction as the kneecap. This alignment is evident and impossible to ‘cheat’ when a dancer is en pointe or demi pointe. When the dancer is standing on straight legs, it is possible to sneak the toes and lower legs into a false turnout by using the friction of the floor to hold the foot and lower leg in greater turnout than that possessed by the femur. Likewise, while in plié, the ligaments of the knee joint are slightly lax, and the tibia can be cheated into greater turnout than the femur. The problem with this cheating is that it causes considerable stress on structures of the knee, particularly the medial collateral ligament, the anterior cruciate ligament, and the medial meniscus.
At the hip joint, turnout is limited by bony impingement between the acetabulum and neck of the femur, by ligaments (especially the iliofemoral ligament or ‘y’ ligament) and the joint capsule, over-tight inward rotating muscles of the hip (not so common) and under-recruited or weak outward rotating muscles (more common). In young dancers and gymnasts, exaggerated lumbar curvature (lordosis) tips the pelvis forward, and slackens the iliofemoral ligament. In the younger dancer the lordosis can be caused by weak or under-recruited abdominals, while in the gymnast it is more likely caused by habitual hyperextension of the low back. This pelvic tilt allows greater turnout, however such malalignment of the pelvis carries its own risks and problems. In a similar manner, individuals with hyperextended knees tend to have greater ligamentous laxity, and greater risk of injury to the ligamentous structures of the knee, however this sloppiness in the knee permits greater outward cheating of the tibia relative to the femur, giving the appearance of greater turnout.
All of this is to say, that with a gymnast, there are some important considerations. First, start with a neutral pelvis: The anterior superior iliac spine (ASIS) and pubic bone should be perpendicular with the floor, or the coccyx and pubic bone should be parallel with the floor. These bony landmarks are a good rough guide. A neutral pelvis can be maintained using the image of having the pelvis be a bowl of water that you don’t want to spill out the front.
Equally, the knees should be neutral in stance. For those with naturally hyperextended knees, ‘neutral’ may feel like the knee is slightly flexed, so it will be challenging to have them not push back into hyperextension. Once you have these two important considerations addressed, you can move on to turnout. There are two very good ways to determine maximum turnout for an individual. The first is to put the person on two freely rotating platforms and ask them to maximally outward rotate from parallel stance. Because there is no friction on the floor to hold the foot beyond the rotation of the femur, the feet will accurately reflect the turnout of the femur. You could also use very slippery socks on a polished floor. The second way is to have the person stand in parallel, then bring one gesture leg to coup de pied parallel, turn out the leg, then place the foot on the floor from this position. Do the same on the opposite foot. Be careful that the student does not move the gesture hip backward nor slide the toe backward along the floor. It will be astonishing to many that this is the limit of their turnout.
Turnout can be increased in stance by use of the gluteus maximus, but this muscle is phasic and tires quickly, so not good in the long run. Further, because it is a hip extensor, it inhibits forward locomotion. The six deep outward rotators (pyriformis, obturator internus, obturator externus, gemellus superior, gemellus inferior and quadratus femoris) are better suited for this role, and in some individuals must be strengthened. I am not convinced this would be the case for a gymnast however it might be necessary to train the gymnast to recruit those muscles without engaging the glute max. So you would be looking for increasing turnout while keeping the glute soft. Likewise, I doubt that tightness of the internal rotators would be a problem for this population.
If I were working with this group, I would encourage them to understand that they are learning a different aesthetic with slightly different objectives than gymnastics, then use their remarkable body awareness to focus on neutral pelvis and knees, a modest, natural turnout aligning knee and the middle of the foot, and working toward healthy movements within that range. I hope you have lots of fun with them.