Hips and Turning out

My oldest daughter Molly started Irish dancing when she was about 6. She wanted to take dancing lessons as she considered it to be something that one simply did. She grew up in the dance studio, in the theatre. She was 1 month old when I went back to work with my dance company. She took her first independent steps in the theatre when she was 10 months old. When she was 5, my students and I all stole movement from her as we created a new collaborative piece…and when I re-set it on my company when she was 7, she not only gave the dancers corrections on steps, rhythm and timing, the dancers listened and sometimes sought her out for clarification!!!

So, when she asked to take some dance lessons, I could not refuse. I checked out the local non-ID dance schools and found the teachers sorely lacking. Those were out. People that I trusted, colleagues with the anatomical knowledge I wanted and the talent to teach children, either taught too far away or at times that did not work for us. I finally decided perhaps Irish dance might be the ticket because I mistakenly thought that it was like folk dancing in form and format which meant no true harm could come to my lovely daughter. I found a school nearby, and her first teacher was a good one for the most part.

But I will never forget the day I heard her say, ” Keep your knees facing forward and turn your feet out.” My jaw dropped. As soon as that class was over, I made sure to show Molly how to turn out her hips correctly. When she asked me about doing it differently than the teacher said, I told her I did not think her teacher would notice (she did not) and if she did to tell her to talk to me (she never did).

When I did some more research on this bizarre though widely held notion of only turning your feet out, I realized that somewhere the Irish dance style of keeping the knees close together had been corrupted. I have not discovered when or where having the feet turned out became desirable, but once again, there was not enough attention paid to how this was truly accomplished.

In order to turn your feet out, you must turn out from the hip. Period. Now, if you insist on turning out from the knees, ankle and tarsus, you will get the toes to face sideways…but I will guarantee you that the toes will never point as far side as you would like AND you will have knee problems and/or ankle problems and/or problems in your tarsus and foot. There may also be other problems that crop up in your hips and back. You will not dance for very long. Understanding how the body works is your ticket to a long and healthy dance career.

Last month, this post appeared on the main board. This is the post that got me going and actually writing about some dance kinesiology on my blog. Susan had been bugging me for a couple of years but, I was not interested. But something in this post gave me a push:

I need some help for my daughter (m) — mom, 17:28:07 07/29/07 Sun
My young DD has been dancing for over 4 years and has an aggressive schedule that involves Os and this was her first year at NANs. She has always had a hard time with turn out. She started complaining of ankle pain, and I took her in to her ped on Sat. Her ped talked to her about the amount of time she dances, we talked about flooring, I brought along dance shoes and had DD show her a bit of what she does, and my ped instantly yelled at her to stop. When I asked what was wrong, she asked why she is turned out that way–I explained that it is how she is supposed to turn out. She explained to me that DD is not turning from her hips, her knees point quite forward while her feet are pointing out to a reasonable irish dance stance–she is turning in her ankles. Ped is amazed that she hasn’t had a big problem before now. So ped (and I) are very invested in changing the way she is turning out, but I don’t know where to start. Obviously I am not thrilled with the TC, who sees her every week and knows she struggles with turnout, but has never said anything to her or me about the fact that she isn’t doing it right. So I am doubting my TCs ability to help with the turnout issues and am coming here with hopes that there will be suggestions with what to do. I know someone will suggest a change in schools, but it is not a possibility for us at this time, as the drive would be quite long and I have other children who do not dance, and a husband who works long hours.

I am throwing myself on the mercy of those who know more than I, before she is hurt, how do we go about fixing this?

Correct outward (lateral, external) rotation happens in the hip. Not the knees, not the ankle, not the feet. When the hips are rotated correctly, the knees, ankles, and feet are able to work in alignment and are safer. But remember, not everyone has the same range of motion in the hip socket so not everyone is capable of the same amount of rotation. Please do not waste your time comparing yourself to someone else.

I am a firm believer in dancers understanding how their bodies are put together…it is your instrument so know it!

The pelvis…identify on your body where you think your hips sockets are. Now look at this photo…what we feel on the side of our leg is not the hip socket. That bony protrusion is called the greater trochanter and it serves as a place for muscle attachments. Notice where the ball of the femur (thigh bone) articulates with the acetabulum (hip socket). Is your hip socket closer to your center than you thought?
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The basic placement of the hip socket and hence the head of the thigh bone is on the side of the pelvis. This is an outside view of the leg…notice the the relatively central placement of the thigh bone inside the leg.
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The head of the femur in the acetabulum (head of the thigh bone in the hip socket).
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Cross section of the hip socket/ the ball and socket joint…notice how deep it is. The shape, depth and existence or lack of bony restrictions help dictate your range of motion and how far you are able to actually rotate the femur. None of this can be changed.
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The head of the femur is held into the socket by ligaments. The angles of attachment of the ligaments allow certain movements and restrict others. Ligamentous fiber is flexible in that it allows motion but IT DOES NOT STRETCH! Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Can ligaments be stretched? If you are so weirdly determined, yes, to some degree, but you are then destabilizing your hip joint because they will not return to their original shape, and you will pay for that for the rest of your life.Your ligaments, along with the bony structure of your hip socket, dictate range of motion and degree of turn out. Click here for more bursa information.

Correct turn out happens when the femur is rotated in the hip socket. This is a pic from behind showing the direction of the rotation.
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Here is a nice drawing of the muscles responsible for outward/lateral/external rotation: the 6 deep rotators. Warning…the next few pics are more “real.”
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The 6 deep rotators attach on the back of our bodies, originating on the sacrum and the pelvis and then attaching onto the posterior (back) of the greater trochanter. When these muscles contract, they rotate the leg. It truly is that simple.
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The six deep rotators are the primary movers of the femur in the hip socket. This means that they do almost all of the work in rotation.
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I was told as a young ballerina to rotate my legs by squeezing my butt muscles…wrong. Squeezing the bum just gets to be a bad habit that actually limits rotation and gets you a bubble butt! The primary function of the posterior glutes (the bum) is to extend and stabilize the hip joint. The glutes are secondary rotators…they respond to the 6 deep rotators by stabilizing the femur in the hip socket. They help with rotation only in that they help the six deep rotators maintain the already rotated position. When the 6 deep rotators (the primary movers in outward hip rotation) are working, the glutes do kick in to help stabilize the extended hip joint…because we can SEE the glutes move, we incorrectly assume that they are the primary movers in hip rotation. They are not and in fact get in the way of full rotation when they are “squeezed.” The pic below is simply to illustrate how big and powerful our glutes actually are!
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So how do we get in touch with our lovely, magical 6 deep rotators?

These 3 videos are all of the same rotation exercise. The first 2 are short and to the point. The 3rd one is my favorite Australian PT Lisa Howell, and she again explains beautifully. There is a 4th video to show a stretch you may want to do after this exercise so that you won’t be too sore.


If you have not done this stretch before, you can also do it simply sitting cross-legged without crossing your legs over each other at all. This stretch keeps your 6 deep rotators long, and keeps you from walking like a duck!

Click for more kinesiology info: Dance Kinesiology

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Peggy
    Aug 23, 2007 @ 16:39:00

    Thank you again! This is such great information. When I was little we were told “turn out” but “rotation” was never used. It’s the language again- the difference between asking for a result instead of a process.

    I was wondering, is there a way to help young dancers and their parents/teachers/doctors identify their possible rotation? Before their bodies are pushed beyond what’s safe for them.

    It seems rough to show a young dancer that her body may never attain perfect turnout, but much better than dealing with injuries later!

  2. Littleskatersmom
    Aug 26, 2007 @ 14:09:00

    Once again I am completely blown away by your knowledge! With DD we’re having flexibility issues and I’m so glad I read through this before I start treating her like gumby!

  3. Ali
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 01:07:00

    You know, I sincerely hope that any of my children, should they exist and choose to dance, not have my flexibility. I’m hypermobile and wasn’t noted as such until repeated injuries took me out of dance (probably permanently) at the ripe old age of 20. When getting my knees looked at (chondromalacia patella, both sides), the orthopedic surgeon was astounded by the range of motion I have. No one expects the slightly chubby kid to be hyperflexible.

    Turning out has never been a problem for me. I did baby ballet as a small child (until I was 7 or so), and Irish from 16 to 20. When I was little, I do remember being corrected not to turn out so much (which is kind of reassuring in retrospect); in Irish my TC was so pleased I could dance turned out that she never checked to see I was doing it properly. Worse, I don’t hit any pain until I’m nearing 200+ degrees. My maximum safe turnout is the much-desired 170-185 degrees, depending on if I’ve stretched or not. Because of my very classic hypermobility, I can turn my knees, ankles, and feet without feeling pain, even though I know now how bad it is for me. So I often danced turned out only partially from the hip, and mostly with my lower legs, because it was easier for me to control my beats (in hardshoe) and have more powerful jumps (in soft). I knew it wasn’t stable after a couple spectacular falls (second feis ever, beginner jig, I sprained my ankle–and got a pity 4th place!) but wasn’t sure how to fix it until long after I was ordered to quit dancing.

    I do find it interesting that my mother, an x-ray tech and everything-but-radiologist-because-she-didn’t-go-to-med-school failed to notice this tendency in me. I walk turned out and often crossed over and have as long as I can remember. My brother is also hypermobile (to a lesser extent, being male and a golfer–though he has the same strain issues in his arms that I did in my legs from overbending), and we’re pretty sure it comes from our dad. Remind me, if we ever meet, to show off my party tricks.

    There’s a whole group of kids out there who are hypermobile and many TCs assume this is a good thing. Okay, so I can have great turnout and be very high on my toes, but if I’m not doing it in a way that is healthy for my body, it’s still going to be very bad in the long run–just as bad as forcing a child with less natural turnout into the same position I’m in. I’d love to see a post comparing extreme flexbibility and inflexibility.

    Sorry this turned into a mini-essay! Can you tell I’m avoiding doing schoolwork?

  4. Trackback: The magic spiral | jo skates

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