an exploration of knee hyperextension and turnout
by Esther Juon ©
inspired by Maria Pia
Chasing the ideal ballet placement
It’s my great pleasure to work with dedicated dancers and teachers via Zoom all around the world. This work has given me an insight into what dancers feel they must do to please the “ballet world”.
What is asked of, or expected of today’s dancer?
- · 180° degree turn out i.e., hip rotation
- · Incredible, to extreme flexibility
- · Artistry and creativity
- · Fluidity of movement
- · Speed
- · Virtuosity
- · Perfect balance
Is this humanly possible?
In my experience 180° turn-out is rarely possible, as we‘ve evolved to walk, jump and run with great efficiency in parallel.
The human body is a wonderful instrument with an individual make up that offers diverse possibilities. Consider the human face; in most people, the right side is quite different from the left. Differences like this are expressed in structure, joint range and flexibility variations both within each body, and in each individual body.
For example; the turn-out in each hip joint is individual and depends, among other things, on the depth of the Acetabulum, which is the socket holding the head of the femur. The shallower the socket the higher the potential degree of turn-out. As a consequence, it’s typically only the classical dancers with the shallowest sockets that succeed in the professional ballet world.
The hip joints are housed in the pelvis. When the pelvis is in neutral, full access to the turn out muscles is possible. Providing the dancer this knowledge, and assisting them to find this neutral position, will help the dancer learn how to more fully access their turn-out.
What I often see however, is that dancers have only a vague idea where their turn-out takes place, and as a consequence they’re not able to access the full potential of their range.
I often see their lower limbs twisted into flat turn-out causing incredible stress to the feet, ankles, knees and distortion of the tibia. As a consequence, these joints are at constant risk of injury.
The perfect balance on one leg can only be found through the centre of each hip joint – which makes finding the centre of paramount importance – the lining up of all the joints in the leg and ankle with the centre of the hip joint.
Considering incredible and extreme flexibility
Many dancers are obsessed with stretching and over-stretching, not realising that this can severely challenge and often damaged their joint structure, potentially leading to career ending injuries.
If we examine hyper-extension of the knees, an attribute often highly praised by the “ballet world”, and yet it does not take into consideration that the hyper-extension of the knees takes the legs out of the perfect alignment relative to the centre of the hip joint, knee, ankle, arch and ball of the foot. Hyper-extension also misaligns the pelvis into a backward slant and once the pelvis is out of the neutral alignment, access to the turn-out muscles is diminished and therefore the potential for turn-out is reduced.
A hyper-extended knee in an Arabesque can look delightful yet isn’t safe as a supporting leg.
Hyper extension also turns the legs in.
It seems to me that the “ballet world” cannot have it both ways; expecting perfect turn-out and hyper-extended knees.
When the dancer is supine i.e., laying on their back, they have better turn out because their pelvis is much easier to place in the neutral position. Yet when standing up, access to a neutral pelvis is denied because of the hyper extension of the knees.
One of the things all dancers who work with hyper-extension have in common is that they get away with it while very young, and yet as they get older and their work load increases, they tend to present with more and more knee injuries.
The same is true of the hip joints. The misuse and over-stretching of the hip joints causes instability in the joints and damage to the rim of the Acetabulum, which has led to dancers as young as16 years old requiring hip surgery.
Artistry and creativity, fluidity of movement, speed, virtuosity with perfect balance is better achieved when we start to think about things differently.
Every violin is built by hand of natural materials, and depending on the skill of the craftsman, each has an individual and distinct tone and feel. It is then played by an individual musician, who can bring their artistry and skill to the instrument. When playing in an orchestra, all of these wonderful nuances come together in a perfect orchestral tone which will be different with every performance.
So it should be with the dancer! Instead of chasing an unobtainable goal which is largely anatomically impossible, we should treat each dancer like a precious and treasured instrument. Our teaching should be based on exploring what the correct natural placement of the body is, then find the best ranges of the dancers’ movements and once found, let the dancer work with their instrument to build it into something extraordinary. Assisting the dancer to find the correct alignment will allow them access to the use of the correct muscles, and once they’re used correctly, they’ll become much stronger, giving the dancer incredible freedom of movement allowing the individual artist to fully emerge.
The dancer will then train safely all the way through, not putting their body at risk, and able to carry on into a full professional life, or carry-on dancing for pleasure injury free!
I think we also need to consider that dancers are often eager to please and give their very best all the time. When injured, they believe they’re likely to get pushed aside and simply replaced with another dancer, and so often choose to work with pain and injury due to fear of losing their spot in the company or performance.
Sometimes, due to tiredness, stress or working with an injury an accident occurs and their career comes to a very swift end. I am very pleased to see that there are now companies around the world that treasure their dancers and look after them much better. To name only two such companies: The Australian Ballet and The Royal Ballet.
We must also consider the emotional and mental welfare of the dancer. Training our dancers to fully understand their bodies builds confidence and ease of movement, which is a joy to watch. If the body is happy, able to breath properly and move pain free so is the mind and spirit.
I believe that the way many continue to teach has to change and we need to explore with the dancer what they are feeling and experiencing and celebrate the differences between dancers to give them the confidence to work with their body and not someone else’s, or an “ideal” body type.
There should be much more dialogue in a class, as well as exploration of how best to work with each instrument. The very basic movements should all be broken down into such detail that the dancer can gain control and ownership over the movement. Yes, that takes a lot of time, yet it also saves a lot of time in the long run when we consider what ballet is made out of:
The correct basic placement through the centre of the hip joints
Equal weight over both legs
A pelvis that must always be in neutral with equal turn-out from the centre of the hip joints
The extension of the leg and foot correctly
Strong muscles throughout the body
Battement Tendu out of 1st and 5th position
Once these fundamental movements are perfected and the dancer has complete control then they can move confidently without the barre or a mirror.
Conclusion and Unpacking
It’s been my great privilege over the last two years to work with dedicated ballet teachers from around the world exploring the above information. I now understand that what they liked most about working with me and the Mentoring program I offer, was the chance to get to know their own body; what it can and cannot do.
We learned how to adapt the work to their individual bodies, how to make it organic and above all, how to move pain free. When the body is hurting it’s telling us that it’s out of alignment and something needs to change.
It’s my belief that, as teachers we have to move away from merely teaching steps and combinations learned by heart and better understand the individual components of each step.
As teachers, we are giving commands of what we want the dancer to perform, yet we give very little bio-mechanical information to the dancer of how to adapt the movement to their body, nor do we give the dancer time to explore what it feels like when the movement is correct.
From the teacher’s point of view the above all sounds very interesting yet is not practical with the work load that teachers have in terms of being able to prepare students for examining bodies like the RAD, BBO Dance, and others. There’s a rush and pressure for the dancer to learn the syllabus so exams can be delivered by the end of the year and for them to also compete in many competitions and prepare an end of year show….
Further, sadly, sometimes choreography for competitions is moving more and more towards the edge of doing dangerous movements, pushing the dancer to extremes, without considering the consequences the dancer might have to face if something goes wrong.
Would it not be better to teach the basic movements first, through play and testing what it should feel like, exploring what movements looks like on different dancer’s bodies?
Here are some fundamental principles that can be introduced to dancers from the very beginning.
Potential solutions for very young dancers, aged 5 to 7 years old:
The basic placement of a neutral pelvis can be explored when young dancers start basic movements in parallel. It can also be explored laying on their backs and playing with the movement of the pelvis.
Finding a connection from the hip joint through the knees, ankles and heel points. What does it feel like when the body is not aligned?
Teachers can build a story around the different body parts and give the dancers time to explore each part.
Note: a very young child will not have a perfect placement because the spine and upper body has not yet grown long enough to accommodate all of their organs. Their young bellies will hang out the front, but they can still become aware of where their pelvis is and how it can move.
Older dancers or adults:
Explore their basic placement in the centre, or laying on the floor.
Give a clear understanding of where their turn out comes from.
Explore, using the breath to support and engage the core.
Let the “out breath” be the power behind the movement.
Adapt the knowledge to the basic steps in centre, not at the barre.
Working in centre will let the body experience where the balance is! You might have the odd wobble but a clearer understanding of what the body needs to do to find the balance naturally and quickly. At the barre, finding the true centre is hampered by the temptation of the arm or arms gentle pulling, tying to help find the balance and so pulling the dancer out of the real centre. In my experience young or inexperienced dancers will automatically hold on to the barre too much especially if they are also struggling with remembering the patterns. I suggest an experiment: teach the movement in centre for a while and then let them return to the barre. Most young dancers will admit they started to cheat again. This might not happen so much with professional dancers.
I have also learned that we should talk to the dancer after they have completed an exercise rather than talking to them while they are working. Exploring what they experienced and why, will give them the key to correct their own movements. Filming them might also help, because what we think we do and actually do, are often two different things.
As I have explored all of this on my own body and with dancers and teachers around the world, I feel confident that it would create better and safer dance training for the future!
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