Shifting Your Brain by 90°: How Adult Ballet Starters Lose Turnout - And How to Fix it
Is this you: When you stand in first, you have a pretty ok to quite good turn-out.
You may even be able to keep it quite well at the barre, following certain cues and sensations.
But once you get moving in the center, the turn-out goes. Comes back when you think about it, and then you think you have it, but on pictures or videos of yourself - it’s lost again.
Why is it so challenging for adults to lock it in place?
I used to think it was mainly a strength and flexibility issue, and to some degree related to building new movement patterns. But when I taught my first 2-week online course recently, I gained a clearer picture of the issue and the struggle that comes with it. And I finally understood why it’s a struggle specific to adults starting ballet (not so much those who started as kids).
Essentially it has to do how the movement of the hip joint is represented in the brain.
So you may know that the hip joint is a pretty neat thing - it’s a ball and socket joint, which means that it can move almost spherical around the joint center. This is how it looks like in normal life:
So if you are a typical adult, that’s how you grew up.
In particular, it means that you have certain muscles/groups that are responsible for these movements. Your hip flexors (e.g. psoas, illiacus, quads) move the leg up in front of you; your abductors (e.g. gluteus medius and minimus) bring the leg out to the side; and your hip extensors (e.g. gluteus maximus, hamstrings) lift your leg towards the back. All kind of accessory muscles help out and then everything works in a way that your pelvis is stailized, too.
All this is firmly established in your brain, it happens automatically when you move.
And then you start ballet.
Which means: Everything is still the same, the world is still turning, BUT YOUR HIP JOINTS ARE ROTATED OUT BY 90°. BY DEFAULT. (Ok, maybe not 90°, but let’s for simplicity say close to it.)
What does that mean?
It means that moving your leg up to the front, the side, and the back is still beautifully happening, BUT THE RESPONSIBLE MUSCLE GROUPS ARE SHIFTED BY 90°!
Simply said: Moving your leg to the front has a siginificant contribution from the muscles that usually move your leg towards the inside. Lifting your leg to the side is accomplished by the muscles that usually lift your leg to the front. Moving your leg to the back is taken over by the muscles that usually lift your leg to the side!
Here is an illustration for the side lift case:
(And of course this is a schematic/simplified view of the issue. It’s never black and white in the body. This is a model for thinking about it, and like every model, it is idealized to a certain degree.)
All good, BUT:
Now your brain is pretty lost.
I think that when someone starts their ballet training early in life, the brain simply just builds the “90° switch” over time, without them needing to put much attention onto it.
But starting as an adult, we have to deal with a pretty strong hip joint brain map built over many decades. And the default of this brain map is to lift your leg to the side with your hip abductor muscles, intead of your hip flexor muscle, as a dancer would do.
That is the reason why you’re losing your turn out although you have it - it’s not that you’re not strong or flexible enough, it’s simply because the “wrong” muscle groups take over once you get moving! They are perfectly “right” in normal life, but “wrong” in the case of ballet!
So I think that in regard to hip work as adult-starting students and dancers, a lot of what we need to do is to target rewiring the respective hip joint brain maps. And you can see how this will change EVERYTHING in your ballet, not just your “holding your turnout”. It will enable you to move in a ballet kind of way.
So how do you rewire the brain map for a ballet-type of hip joint movement?
Focus on activating specific “points” along the leg, instead of “turning out”. That’s what we started doing in the online course that I refered to above. It shifts the focus from specific muscle activity (where the brain will tend to resort to its default) to focussing on a biomechanical outcome. For example, focusing on a spot on the outside of the hips will make sure that the muscles that are responsible for lifting to the side in normal life, will stabilize your turn out in the back (=90° shifted from the side) of your hip joint.
2. Go slow. I covered this before - it’s a requirement for neuroplastic changes!
3. Awareness. This is crucial for initiating neuroplastic changes, too. Using the first slow barre exercises to scan through all the points continously keeps graining the new 90°-rotated movement into the brain map.
4. Understanding. Even just the understanding and developing a perception for the fact that your hip joint muscle activity shifts by 90° is a powerful trigger for changes in the brain. So having a mental picture of the shifting geometry, playing with small movements and feeling muscle activity by placing your hand around the joint is a good way to start.
So: Losing your turn-out during center work - doesn’t have to be you any more! As all neuroplastic changes, this will take time. But once the concept of the 90° shift clicks for you - it’s a pretty big turning point! (Haha.)
Does this viewpoint make sense to you? Or do you naturally hold your turnout no matter what? (In that case - what’s your secret sauce?? :-P) And if all this speaks to you - then join the online course tribe of adults who don’t settle! If not - then let’s just stay friends anyway ❤