Welcome to technique review! In this new series of posts, we’re looking at some of the most important basics of Irish dance—from Beginner level to Championship. It doesn’t matter how many medals you may have won; every dancer needs to continuously refresh themselves on the fundamentals and continue to work on them! First on the docket: turnout.
Turnout is one of the most critical tenets of dance generally, and Irish dance in particular as every movement of Irish dance is performed in a turned out position. Not only is correct turnout one of the key points noted by adjudicators on both a technical and aesthetic level, it’s also crucial for safety of the dancer. In a study published in Sports Medicine-Open in 2018, researchers concluded that improper or overcompensated turnout is one of the leading causes of injuries across dance disciplines. This expanded the conclusions published in Open Access J Sports Medicine in 2013 that decreasing the likelihood of dance-related injuries is possible with attention to proper technique and physical training. And as Irish dance’s gravity-defying jumps are performed with less cushion (both in shoes and technique) than other forms of dance, the need is all the greater to know what proper turnout is and to practice on improving it!
Turnout in dance refers to an outward rotation of the leg, starting from the hip and continuing through the thigh, knee, ankle, and foot. The goal is a “perfect” 180 degree turnout—a straight line running from the left toe, through the left foot to the left heel, then through the right heel, foot, and toe. While some dancers win the genetic lotto and start with close to that 180 degree ideal, most dancers will have to continuously work on their turnout to achieve this!
First: what’s your turnout like naturally? Stand with your feet together, heels touching, and then try to make a V-shape with your feet, turning the entire leg from the hip while keeping your heels together. You’ll know if you’re overcompensating your turnout through a number of signs, including: discomfort, knee position not matching foot position, and a slight (or not so slight) forward roll on the inside of your foot. Any of those signs and you’ll want to close your V-shape into a narrower position—as we said before, dancing when overcompensating puts dancers at a much greater risk of injury (and your teacher won’t be happy either!)
But how does one improve their turnout? Like everything else in Irish dance: practice, practice, practice. The most important considerations are increasing the strength of your hip flexors and maximizing the range of motion in your hip joints. Exercises like clams, seated leg rotations, and parallel/turn out drills (among many others you’ll learn in class!) are the key to increasing that range of motion and strength. But none of this will help unless you also stay aware of your turnout while in motion while dancing. This focus can be difficult to maintain while you’re counting along to the music in your head and remembering your choreography, so Miss Courtney recommends giving yourself mental cues! Learning to remind yourself “heels forward, “toes out,” “show the inside of your heel,” or something similar while you dance is as important as the turnout itself–otherwise all that work won’t show in your dancing!
Sound like a lot of extra work on top of learning all that choreography? It is! But because of the safety issues (here’s another study looking specifically at injury in Irish dancers that correlates improper landing technique with injury,) not working on your turnout may slow down your progress as an Irish dancer. Not only is it a basic principle of any dance you perform, but Miss Courtney and your other teachers care about your safety first and foremost, and may choose not to teach you more advanced moves until your turnout improves. As, for example, landing jumps or leaps on a straight foot can lead to severe ankle sprains or even cause ligament damage that can take years to fully overcome, you can’t progress without good turnout!
This post the first in a series. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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