It's easy to think of parallel and turnout as warring factions but their relationship is far more cordial than that, explains Susan Bendall.
YOU have spent years training your body into as perfect a turnout as your hips will allow. Then contemporary comes along and asks you to do the opposite – work with feet in parallel. Although logic tells us that this should feel more natural, it can often feel very strange. Just as you have had to work on your turnout, using and maintaining parallel requires conscious effort, technical precision and an understanding of how your body is working to hold your positions while executing training exercises or contemporary phrases.
Historically, turnout was developed to facilitate side to side travel and later allowed for the development of higher extensions and increased range of movement from the hip, especially a la seconde. The use of parallel in contemporary dance styles was, in part, a rebellion against the rigidity of classical ballet technique and a search for a less indoctrinated way of moving. The use of parallel also breaks the confines of the five fixed classical positions, freeing the body to explore a more flexible range of shapes and movement.
Anatomically, rather than being alien to one another, parallel and turnout are interdependent and assist one another in terms of strength and placement. The crucial starting point in working both in parallel and turnout is to understand a little about the anatomy and functioning of the hip joint, since this is where the rotation in and out occurs.
De hip bone connected to de thigh bone…
The hip is a ball-and-socket joint which allows for its versatile range of movement. It sits between the thigh bone and pelvis and is surrounded by large supporting muscles. The hip is also one of the body’s largest weight-bearing joints.
Tuning into your hip internal rotators
In turnout we engage our external hip rotators. These are six muscles that are placed deep inside the back of the hips. They are used when rotating into turnout from parallel, maintaining turnout. In contrast, when standing in parallel, you should be able to feel your internal hip rotators switching on. These are a series of muscles that include your gluteus minimus and your adductors (inner thighs). If your legs are hyper-extended, you may need to soften slightly at the knees in order to properly engage these muscles. This does not necessarily feel natural since classical training often leads to extreme pull up which in turn can result in locking of knees in order to feel fully stretched.
Although our external hip rotators are obvious players in turning out, they are also subtly at play to assist stability and correct tracking in parallel so that hips remain over the toes. It is incorrect to assume that these muscles are disengaged whilst working in parallel. In fact it is their stabilisation that allows us to tendu, grand battement, plie and lunge in parallel without our knees or ankles collapsing inward or twisting out.
Our first encounters working in parallel for contemporary will often be tendus and plies and this is a great place to return when checking placement. When standing in parallel, always make sure that a line runs from the hip bones to the knees and down to the centre of the feet. All should be aligned to enable safe tracking, without pressure.
Use tendu devant to visually check that the alignment is retained and notice any tendencies to shift weight forward. In second, check for sickling of the foot or raising the hip; and in derrière that the foot is behind you, kneecap in line with the hip and that your weight remains on your supporting leg. In plie, the kneecap should be centred over the foot in order to alleviate pressure on the knees. So you see, we can take many of our lessons from classical technique and apply them to our contemporary practice.
Working between parallel and turnout
Contemporary choreography often incorporates both parallel and turned out positions into its phrases. Indeed it is not unusual to commence a movement in parallel and then rotate it out or vice versa.
Being conscious of movement from parallel to turnout and back to parallel is useful as a basic unit of movement that is foundational for correct and injury-free technique. Remember those warm-up tendus at the barre that incorporate both turned in and turned out positions? They help you to make sure that all rotation is coming from your hips. Working gently from parallel to turnout will also help you to feel whether the knees or ankles are starting to twist.
How parallel assists turnout
Muscular tension in hip joints can inhibit both inward and outward rotation. Tension needs to be released in order for each to work optimally. Overworking turnout can lead to pinching and extreme tightening of the deep external rotators. This overtaxing can cause tightening in the lower back and glutes. Working parallel helps to balance this strain.
Pilates or associated practices can bring awareness to correct placement in parallel and assist in creating muscle memory. Of course your teacher can help you to feel the gradations of internal and external rotation.
This article was first published in the Feb/Mar '18 edition of Dance Australia, as part two of a five part series on improving contemporary dance technique. Buy Dance Australia from your favourite retailer, purchase an online copy via the Dance Australia app or subscribe here.
Pictured: Dancer Joseph Newton-Keogh, as a student at New Zealand School of Dance. Photo: Stephen A'Court.