Turning is one of the quintessential dance elements. With the integration of core stability and control, balance, turn-out (in ballet, at least), weight shift, proper use of arms, and spotting, turning is a culmination of all of our training. For some, it comes easily and appears effortless. For others, turns be the bane of their existence. In today’s blog post, we’ll cover some tips and must haves for spectacular turns.
It should go without saying that you need great core strength, stability, and control to execute turns that are based on technique versus sheer luck. You must be able to keep your core muscles engaged with your ribs in so that your shoulders and hips stay level while turning. Some exercises that may assist you in this (outside of crunches and planks) involve core work on a stability or exercise ball. One exercise would be to perform a bridge with your feet on the stability ball. You can start with your arms on the floor and progress to lift them into 1st or 2nd position. There are certainly more exercises that can be done with the stability ball to increase your core strength. Stay tuned for links to other exercises and videos here, or contact me for coaching.
Ensuring that you can properly and efficiently shift your weight from two legs onto one leg is essential. Even in chaînés turns, the majority of the turn is performed on one leg, not two. You must start (even in turns from 5th position) with more of your weight on what will become your standing leg. This will require the least amount of energy input to get your weight where it needs to be (hence, efficiency) while minimizing room for error. In other words (and to be blunt), the more ground you need to cover to get into your turn, the more possibilities there are for you to screw it up. Also, many dancers tend to not shift their weight fully over their standing leg. Most err on the side of not pushing enough versus launching themselves off their back foot and falling forward (not to say that doesn’t happen). In a way, it’s much like kicking up into a handstand. Most will not kick enough for fear of going past vertical and falling into a bridge (or onto their backs). With that being said, you must shift your weight forward enough so that your hips and over the ball of your standing foot, and your head and shoulders are stacked beautifully on top. If you find you’re falling out of relevé, it’s often due to your hips falling backwards (behind vertical) and/or losing your turn-out in said position. Practicing your relevé balance from your preparation (in 4th, 5th or 2nd) and making sure you can hold this position is a great way to see just how much oomph you need (or don’t need) to get into your turns and stay balanced.
Speaking of balance and your relevé, it goes without saying that you cannot turn if you cannot first balance. And you must balance with your core engaged, your weight shifted properly, and your heel forward. Whether the leg you’re lifting is in passé, attitude, arabesque, a la seconde, or any other position, the principles remain the same. You must hold your turn-out (for ballet) on both legs. Letting go of the turn-out or not shifting the weight properly will often result in your heel dropping down and you completing your turn flat or falling out of your turn. In addition to the strength required to get into position and the balance to control and maintain it, you also need a little something called “eccentric control” to land your pirouette well. This refers to the control you need to have in your standing leg (especially the lower leg) as you lower the heel (so that it doesn’t just drop or you don’t hop and land). For this, I recommend doing controlled eccentric relevés. You can do these at the barre or off a stair even to begin, before moving center floor. With eccentric relevés, you rise up onto your toes as per usual, but you then take 5-10 seconds to slowly lower the heel with control without sickling and without rolling in as you lower. This can be done in parallel in the beginning, and can then progress to a turned out position. If you find that your ankles are weak, you can also begin by doing this on both legs before shifting onto one foot.
Arms have multiple purposes when turning. Their distance from us can affect the speed of our turning. They add to the aesthetics of the turn. But their often-neglected role is to provide additional balance for us. Most dancers know to keep the elbows lifted when turning with the arms in first or second position. The two things I find that dancers forget as they progress from first learning their pirouettes to doing them based on muscle memory (which can be good or bad, depending on habits) is their role in the initial spiraling of the turn and their role in keeping us en pointe, so to speak. The opening of the arm from our preparation into an en dedans or en dehors turn is often thrown away. The 2nd arm also often pulls in too quickly, making the dancer tilt to one side and fall off her/his leg. Inherent in this is the notion of the balance they (should) provide. When preparing for an endehors pirouette to the right, the right arm reaches forward in the preparation while the left arm reaches side. But more than this, the left arm should reach a little bit back (stemming from the shoulder blade) to begin to initiate the spiral that will spark the turn. While we don’t want to wind up too much, we need a little bit of tension here for a successful pirouette. Finis Jhung speaks of this often. Once the dancer begins the pirouette, the right arm opens to the side, and the left arm should pull out to the left somewhat to maintain a right-to-left balance during this phase of the turn. If we pull entirely to the right with nothing grounding us to the left, we will inevitable fall to the right. This holds true in fouettés, as well. As you come into the plié and begin your rond de jambe, the opposite arm should pull out the side and slightly back to help ground you and maintain the right to left balance during the turn. Without this balance between the arms and this opposition, we don’t stand a chance of consistently being balanced en relevé or en pointe.
Oh, the dreaded spotting. There’s a myth that’s been taught and perpetuated in our field that I’d first like to dispel. Spotting does NOT keep you from getting dizzy. I repeat: spotting does not keep you from getting dizzy. Spotting allows you to land where you need to land, complete multiple turns when doing so, and travel in a straight line or a ménage during traveling turns. For traveling turns, you must find your spot before you place your foot, as the placement of the foot dictates where you end up going. To spot effectively, you first must have good posture. The back of the neck must be long with the ears lifted and chin neutral. The head must remain in this position atop the spine while turning. Many lead with their head during turns, both endehors and (especially) endedans. When turning to the right, you must keep the left ear back in line with the left shoulder. When turning left, the opposite is true. This keeps the head over the spine and prevents you from throwing your head into the turn, which will ultimately result in a loss of balance. To make sure you can spot while still holding your balance, you can practice spotting without turning. To do this, you can try to relevé in first position with the arms in first, and practice maintaining the relevé (with turn-out, heels forward, and core engagement) while turning the head to one side, then the other, and then back to center. This should be done with an element of sharpness if you’re working towards traveling turns with speed or multiple turns.
Another element that goes without saying is that if you’re turning in a turned-out position you need to maintain that turn-out throughout the turn (and yes, there are a lots of turns in that statement). There are several exercises that can help you to tap into your turn-out and strengthen those muscles in the hip. You can do clams with a theraband while lying on your side or lifted into a side plank position. You can work your turn-out on rotation discs by going between parallel and first position or by doing pliés and relevés on them in external rotation. You can also work your turn-out in a bridge on the stability ball. Please keep in mind that these are just a few examples, and not nearly an exhaustive list. If you need more help going through some of these or need more ideas to improve your turn-out, I’m always available for more coaching.
Lastly, I’d like t leave you with a concept that Finis Jhung uses to teach turns, which is based on the physics of a spinning top. He teaches that you need the lift of the spine, especially in the plié preparation (and I’ll add the lift of the lower abdominals as an integral part of your core engagement), that a spiraling action through the use of the arms and torso (as described above) is necessary, and that a pressing down with back heel during the preparation of a pirouette as well as with the standing leg into floor is an integral part of turning. Your energy must be grounded to turn smoothly. You should not be hopping up onto your relevé or hopping out of it.
I hope you enjoyed this look into turns. If you have additional questions, are in need of more individualized exercises, or would like to schedule a coaching session, feel free to contact me here or here.
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