Why Do Ballet Dancers Turn Clockwise?

Above photo: Creativity103.com The Winter Olympics are approaching and figure skating will be a main attraction. While watching skating several years ago, I noticed that almost all skaters turned in a counter-clockwise (CCW) direction. This contrasts to ballet in which dancers greatly favor the clockwise (CW) direction in turns and jumps. As a former dancer and avid ballet watcher, I thought that turning CW is natural; it was those strange figure skaters that were off base. However, I looked at other sports in which an athlete twists in one direction and found that gymnasts, aerial skiers, divers, and track and field athletes favor the CCW direction. After having a good time watching a lot of YouTube video, here is a summary:

Figure Skating

Most skaters I saw turned CCW. This observation was confirmed by Don Korte, a U.S. Figure Skating judge and former skater who runs an informative website dedicated to skating: “If you watch many skaters, you’ll notice that most figure skaters (about 90% in fact) jump and spin in a counterclockwise direction. While it’s perfectly legal to jump either way, more skaters feel comfortable with the CCW direction. Interestingly enough, most of the CW jumpers are left-handed.”

Also, two-time Olympian Michael Weiss estimates that 85% of figure skaters turn CCW. (As an aside, ballet dancers “spot” during turns, a practice almost never used by figure skaters. Spotting is a technique used by dancers during turns to achieve a consistent orientation by focusing on a spot and refocusing on the same spot after a turn. The YouTube clip lower in the post of Svetlana Zakarova illustrates the spotting technique.)

Gymnastics

I watched event finals in the 2012 London Olympics and recorded the direction the gymnast twisted. For women, about 70% turned CCW. Among notable gymnasts, all- around gold medalist Gabby Douglas twisted CCW while floor exercise gold medalist Aly Raisman, vault silver medalist McKayla Maroney, and Jordyn Weber twisted CW. In earlier Olympics, Nadia Comaneci, Shawn Johnson, and Mary Lou Retton turned CCW while Nastia Liukin and Carly Patterson twisted CW.

There was not much diversity among the 2012 Olympic event finalists for the men as over 90% turned CCW in the floor exercise, pommel horse, high bar, and vault event finals. From earlier Olympics, Nikolai Andrianov (third highest Olympic medal winner with 15), Peter Kormann (1976 U.S. bronze medalist in floor exercise), Paul Hamm (2004 all-around gold medalist), Bart Conner (1984 Olympic gold medalist) all turned CCW while Kurt Thomas (Thomas flair), Peter Vidmar and Tim Daggett (both 1984 Olympic gold medalists), turned CW.

Diving

On YouTube, I looked at about a dozen male and female platform and springboard divers in the semifinals and finals of the 2012 Olympics. All twisted CCW.

Track and Field

Field events that require turning include discus and hammer throw. The directional preference of a discus thrower depends on the hand used to hold the discus; right-handers will hold the discus in their right hand and spin CCW before releasing the discus. Hammer throwers may spin in either direction, but all that I have viewed on YouTube spin CCW.

All track events are run CCW around an oval track.

Aerial Freestyle Skiing

About 80% of the 2010 Winter Olympics finalists in aerial freestyle skiing twisted CCW.

Ballet

I selected about 50 great ballerinas over the past 50 years at major ballet companies and looked at a major solo that contained a turn sequence (generally fouettés). All female dancers turned CW. I could not find a single female dancer that favored CCW. Here is the Bolshoi’s Svetlana Zakarova performing fouettés from Don Quixote:

I selected a similar list for male dancers at major companies over time and focused on a major turn sequence such as à la seconde turns (see the YouTube clip below at 9:00 as an example); only Fernando Bujones, Angel Corella, Leonid Sarafanov, Daniil Simkin, and Vladimir Vasiliev turned CCW. However, there was more diversity among the men relative to the women. Some dancers, Baryshnikov the primary example, turned CW for pirouettes while performing coupe grande jete menage (split jumps in a circle) in the CCW direction. Also, many CW men perform assemblé en tournant CCW.

It is important to note that ballet dancers must be able to turn in both directions. This is in contrast to gymnastics where a gymnast that turns in one direction never turns in the other direction. In ballet class, dancers execute combinations on both sides in an effort to avoid being one-sided. After the teacher demonstrates a combination (usually with a CW orientation), students perform it several times. Then the combination is reversed to the other side and all steps are reversed to CCW. Some ballet pieces require the dancers to do basic turn sequences in both directions (double/triple pirouettes and double tours for men, for example). However, dancers that have difficult turn combinations favor CW (fouettés for women and turns la seconde for men) and I doubt that they could perform these complex steps as well in the opposite direction.

Tap Dancers

• Fred Astaire had a CW orientation in his tap dances. Several websites say that he was left-handed (although he hit golf balls right-handed in a tap solo from Carefree from 1938).

• Gene Kelly had a CCW orientation. In his solo in Anchors Aweigh (1944), he performed pirouettes à la seconde CCW.

Gregory Hines turned CCW in his tap dance solo in White Nights.

Michael Jackson turned CCW in his moon walk spins.

I looked at other tap dancers. Because some seemed to prefer CW, I can’t draw any conclusions on tap dancers.

The difference in turning preference between ballet dancers and athletes in the above list is stark: dancers overwhelmingly prefer turning CW while athletes choose CCW. Why do dancers prefer CW while athletes choose CCW? Also, in ballet, why are there no women that predominately turn CCW on stage? I asked several former dancers who thought my question is strange because the answer is obvious: “Dancers turn CW because it is natural.” Information on the web suggests that the CCW figure skating world has the same view but opposite direction; in a right-handed dominated world, it is natural that skaters favor the CCW direction.

My colleague Doug Lucas, a former dancer at San Diego Ballet, suggests that ballet dancers’ preference for CW may relate to leg dominance. Right-footed people use their left leg for support and kick with their right. On CW en dehors pirouettes, the dancer’s left leg is the support leg with the right leg in passé (right foot touching the knee) with the left leg largely responsible for balance.

I looked at scholarly articles in the Lateral Dominance literature for guidance. Lateral dominance is the tendency to preferentially use the organs such as hand, foot, ear, and eye of the same side in motor acts and the area is studied by biologists, neuroscientists, sports scientists, and psychologists. I found a 2011 study by Velotta et al. from Purdue University that looked at leg dominance and balance for college-age students. They found that for manipulative tasks such as kicking a ball, most subjects had a right foot preference. In contrast, more than 50% of the subjects preferred the left leg when the task involved stabilization such as standing on one leg (what they refer to as stabilization and postural control).

However, dancers that turn CW en dehors (turning on the left leg) generally turn on their right leg CW on en dedans and pique turns.This YouTube clip provides an example:

Vladimir Vasiliev of the Bolshoi Ballet performs en dehors pirouettes CCW on his right leg at 6:20 followed by eight impressive turns en dedans the same CCW direction on his left leg.

Reasons why dancers turn CW while athletes favor CCW? Leg dominance may play a role in explaining dancers’ CW tendencies. However, the results from the Velotta et al. study are not overwhelming as greater than 50% prefer balancing on their left leg. It also does not explain why dancers prefer turning CW on their right leg on en dedans and pique turns. A more important factor explaining CW turning may simply be convention; most dancers turn CW, so the tendency is to go with the crowd.

I could not find any women that turn CCW in major turn sequences in my sample of 50 dancers. Partnering relationships may explain this as men support women on turns during a pas de deux. Having all women turn CW requires less adjustment for the men. There may also be a perception that audience members appreciate the consistency of a CW orientation during the pas de deux.

As a left-handed dancer, I thought I was going against the flow by preferring the same CW direction that right-handers favor. After thinking about the issue, it is odd that presumably overwhelmingly right-handed ballet dancers generally turn CW. Left-handers like me generally have a CW orientation. For example, I draw circles CW unlike right-handers, run on an oval track CW, and as a gymnast many years ago, preferred CW.

My conclusion: I really don’t understand why dancers turn CW.

These are my thoughts on directional preference in ballet from the perspective of a ballet fan, former gymnast and dancer with no background in academic fields that focus on Lateral Dominance. I welcome any thoughts on the subject so feel free to drop me a line in the comment box.