My conclusion: I really don’t understand why dancers turn CW.
February 24, 2017 8:45 AM   Subscribe

Ballet photographer Kent G. Becker asks, Why Do Ballet Dancers Turn Clockwise? While he doesn't come up with a good reason other than "tradition", it's an interesting look at how little variation there is, even compared to other spinning endeavors -- athletes seem to turn mostly counterclockwise, but not as overwhelmingly as ballet dancers.
posted by Etrigan (35 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Oops, forgot to say via Kottke.
posted by Etrigan at 8:48 AM on February 24, 2017

My guess is the coaches/trainers/teachers. They're used to teaching a specific direction of turn. Presumably, when doing any choreography, you want your dancers to turn in the same direction, and you'll tend to teach the direction you yourself were taugtg. And also you're used to seeing any technique problems from a particular orientation. I coach a sport, and when I have to deal with left-handed people who perform the sport in an orientation I'm less used to coaching, I find it takes a lot more mental adjustment than I would have thought.
posted by pipeski at 8:52 AM on February 24, 2017

ObZoolander: "All he had to do was turn left."
posted by mhum at 9:13 AM on February 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

Huh, this is really interesting. I would tend to agree that it seems odd that a presumably-right-footed dancer would want to turn clockwise. I'm really weakly left-handed (which is to say, right-footed) and I don't think I could turn clockwise if I tried, with any bit of grace (but of course I'm neither a dancer nor an athlete).

Also interesting with regards to sidedness in sport: professional wrestlers in the US and Japan always apply holds to their opponent's left side, while in Mexico the tradition is to apply holds to the right side. Either way, you always know which side to expect your opponent to grab. This lends a bit of credence to the pas de deux conjecture: that women turn clockwise because their partners (and maybe the audience) expect them to turn clockwise.
posted by uncleozzy at 9:20 AM on February 24, 2017

Ballet class begins at the barre for a half hour to 45 minutes of exercises and except the rare instance begins with the left hand on the bar and the right arm and leg active. Dancers are told to be ambidextrous and exercise symmetrically but pretty much all standard routines begin with a movement of the right hand or foot, then later the reverse. But there is a right preference except for the very exceptional turner. It's a discipline that does reward uniformity, everyone else is a good right turner, it's the exceptional person that wants to change the choreography to show their strong side.
posted by sammyo at 9:25 AM on February 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Right-handed, right-footed human here, cannot gracefully turn anything in any direction other than clockwise.
posted by Cosine at 9:41 AM on February 24, 2017

I can speak to the figure skating part of this, and how it differs from spinning and jumping in ballet-
Preference appears to be linked to handedness, with righties rotating CCW and lefties CW *but* there are exceptions to that rule. Some countries only coach CCW so beginning skaters are trained up to rotate CCW despite whatever initial natural tendencies they have. In environments where rotational preference is allowed to develop organically, it's been noted that *eye* dominance can override the righty/lefty divide on direction. Right eye dominance correlates to CCW rotation, not just being right-handed.

In skating, the mechanics of jumping and spinning incorporate a quick initial spotting to a forward tangent traveling off a running curve when rotation is initiated. The head is turned in this tangential direction, which means for a skater setting up a forward jump like an axel on a running left outside edge curve, the right eye will be aligned with the direction of forward air travel when the skater leaves the ice. (Since I'm already using an axel as the sample jump I'll describe what happens next and why the right side would be dominant throughout). There is an active "check" of the free side, in this case the right shoulder and hip are pressed back at take-off, and then the right leg kicks up and through at the same time both arms scoop under and travel up into the direction of flight- meaning the arms cut slightly across the torso and up toward the right side, not directly in front of the sternum. After the leg kicks up, the skater pulls up over the right side of their body, presses the right leg down while pulling the left leg across their right ankle, with their upper body and arms pulled into their right side with their right shoulder firmly back. On the landing, they touch down with their right leg first and stay solidly over their right side, with their upper body still rotated hard to the right to stop rotation.

In addition, all backward take-off CCW jumps can be performed (at least up through doubles) without using the left arm *at all*- in fact there are drills skaters use when the left side isn't staying still enough during take-offs , or when the right side and arm isn't being active enough that consist of placing their left hand on their right hip throughout the jump and landing.

In CCW spins, the right side on all entries does the bulk of the work- it's held back on the entry edge, the right leg and side comes around and gets "up over" the left side on the hook into the spin, etc.

Ballet doesn't deal with the same counter-rotational forces in play that skating does, and positions are less twisted and more "square" so I would guess that's why the issue of rotational differences isn't comparable.

(I'm a former figure skater who is back skating after a 16 years break and I've started coaching again so these are things I've been thinking about a lot. When I'm teaching a group lesson on two foot spins I always start the kids spinning CCW but if I see a child struggling more than the othersI have them try CW instead. I don't base their rotational direction on what hand they use but rather what feels more comfortable/natural for them)
posted by stagewhisper at 9:50 AM on February 24, 2017 [15 favorites]

Also a former skater, from the US, but at a lower level. I think CW spinners were less frequent in the population than left handed people are-- but I was skating c 25 years ago.

Since ballet obviously involves partners, on some level pairs skating might be relevant- I'm curious if skating has examples of pairs where one spins CW and one CCW; I know there are pairs that are both CW, but I can't think of a mixed example.
posted by nat at 9:59 AM on February 24, 2017

This reminds me- back when I was skating in the 80s there were two main competing figure skating organizations- USFSA and ISI. USFSA test and competition structure was the feeder system for competitive skaters who wanted to skate at a serious level- USFSA was the qualifying system for regional, national, world, and olympic championships. ISI was the more "recreational" system, with its own test structure and sanctioned competitions.
USFSA tests and competitions had (and has, it's now just called USFA) no directional rotation requirements and does not reward nor deduct points for spinning and jumping in either (or more than one) direction. ISI, on the other hand, has landing single jumps in both directions as a *requirement* in its higher level tests. Most competitive skaters don't feel it's worth the focussed training time to rotate both directions when it's not rewarded in competition they could be putting that energy, coaching, and ice time into, for example, improving their double and triple jumps instead.

Not many skaters can perform doubles in both directions. That said, here's a clip of the amazing Rohene Ward when he was younger jumping (triples!) and spinning both CCW and CW (he's now a highly respected choreographer for top skaters)
posted by stagewhisper at 10:16 AM on February 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

I found the tap dancing conclusion interesting as I can turn in either direction but I am a little more wobbly on my CCW turns.
posted by MaritaCov at 10:25 AM on February 24, 2017

The questioner seems to presume that all "turns" are roughly the same physically/physics-ly. But if you actually look at the play of forces involved they are completely different:
the Ballet turns are radically different to all the others cited as they are repeated over and over in a way that cannot be done CCW (if your dominant leg is your right leg and your knee only goes one way!).

In the Ballet Turn the right leg swings Behind manipulating the angular momentum so as to enable repeated turns around the single fixed point - the left leg, and such that momentum can be gained by simply moving the right leg BACK and IN (which the human leg can do)

However in all the other turns cited they are "single throw" turns that are not repeated and rely on an initial push from the right leg swinging the body around the left leg. So are naturally going to be CCW.

It doesn't really seem a big mystery.
posted by mary8nne at 10:28 AM on February 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is really interesting! In West Coast swing dancing, connected one footed spins are usually clockwise, as an artifact of the most common lead into them--the right side is prepped forward with the left opening back, and then the left side closes forward to create the rotational energy. Conversely, freespins are often counter clockwise as the prep brings the left side forward.
posted by VeritableSaintOfBrevity at 10:31 AM on February 24, 2017

Interesting indeed!

From a completely different field of endeavor: in Army night navigation classes, you're frequently dead-reckoning a straight line path in the dark. You run into things. Lots of things. To stay on target when stepping around trees, tractors, giant holes, angry animals etc...we were trained to try to go in the opposite direction of our dominant hand about half the time. Because the normal inclination was to "follow your handed-ness" around obstacles. This could lead to you being meters off from your next waypoint...which would then throw you off even further on the next leg.

Try it yourself next time you're walking through the woods, and see if you naturally favor one side.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 10:38 AM on February 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

if your dominant leg is your right leg

It seems like gymnasts and skaters and suchlike who turn counterclockwise do so because they're left-leg-dominant. Are there no left-leg-dominant ballet dancers? Do they get selected out of the field early because they can't turn clockwise as well as right-leg-dominant dancers? Does it get trained out of them?
posted by Etrigan at 10:43 AM on February 24, 2017

I saw an interview of Mikhail Baryshnikov by a sportswriter. They were talking about jumping in ballet vs other sports and the writer suggested that with his leaping ability Misha could have played basketball. (use a Russian accent in your head) "No. I have seen Michael Jordan. When he jumps, he change direction... I cannot do this."
posted by Ber at 10:59 AM on February 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

Why Do Ballet Dancers Turn Clockwise?

Pretty sure this is only true in the Northern Hemisphere.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 11:33 AM on February 24, 2017 [21 favorites]

Gymnasts also have an individual dominant/preferred direction for twisting. I don't know much about it, but I do remember a college gymnast I admired commenting that he was an odd one because his preferred direction was different on floor than on vault, but that in both cases it was a matter of what came naturally to him.
posted by Orlop at 11:34 AM on February 24, 2017

So glad to see this article. I have wondered about this regarding figure skating v. ballet for years and years, and I got so tired of seeing blank looks whenever I brought it up.
posted by JanetLand at 11:51 AM on February 24, 2017

I would expect the CW-CCW decisions in filmed performances to have been made largely by the choreographers. No?

Waltzers are expected to turn both ways, but in my experience polka and contra go clockwise, though I have known people who could mirror-image anything. Contra especially might be a group-coordination problem; you don't have a lot of time to decide with each partner which way you're going to spin, so it's best to have a group norm.

Now I want to have a floorful of ambi-footed people and see them anneal into a norm. I will watch this through my -- spin glasses.
posted by clew at 12:04 PM on February 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

How did they decide which direction is clockwise? Seen from above or from below?
posted by signal at 12:22 PM on February 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

Etrigan: 'does it get trained out of them?'

I would suspect yes. I did 4 years of ballet as a kid, I wasn't remotely talented at it but they trained us as if we would one day go on to the Royal Ballet. Most of it was trying to train us out of things and in to the 'proper' way.

Right handed/footed person who cannot fathom spinning anti clockwise. I'd trip over for sure. I feel like we were always leading with the right foot.
posted by kitten magic at 12:25 PM on February 24, 2017

Tintin's Law: characters usually move left to right, moving right to left is an ominous sign.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 12:49 PM on February 24, 2017

Because if you turn widdershins you might get burned as a witch?
posted by 445supermag at 1:00 PM on February 24, 2017

Sufi Whirling Derivishes spin CCW on their left foot and push with their right. From Wikipedia > Sufi Whirling:
"At the beginning of the Sema [ritual], by holding his arms crosswise, the semazen [dervish] appears to represent the number one, thus testifying to God's unity. While whirling, his arms are open: his right arm is directed to the sky, ready to receive God's beneficence; his left hand, upon which his eyes are fastened, is turned toward the earth. The semazen conveys God's spiritual gift to those who are witnessing the Sema. Revolving from right to left around the heart, the semazen embraces all humanity with love."
The rotation itself is on the left foot, the center of the rotation being the ball of the left foot and the whole surface of the foot staying in contact with the floor. The impetus for the rotation is provided by the right foot, in a full 360-degree step.
posted by cenoxo at 1:31 PM on February 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

Got to the end of the comments, found 445supermag has beat me to it. Etymology of widdershins is 'against the sun'. I read a fairy story decades ago where the hero was to circle a fortress clockwise to free someone, he made a mistake and went widdershins and the witch got him. So intentionally, in ritual, you might turn widdershins if your intention was destruction, and if you did it by accident even as a non-magic practicing person you were just asking for trouble*. Ballet's got, oh, maybe 500 years of tradition behind it? so it's quite old enough to have absorbed turning clockwise as a rule, even if noone remembers why nowadays.

* Robert Graves has pages of this stuff in The White Goddess (I think) specifically talking about clockwise and anticlockwise versions of the Sanskrit swastika, a sun symbol.
posted by glasseyes at 3:04 PM on February 24, 2017

If I remember correctly he also says that when the Nazi's hijacked the symbol they unknowingly picked the negative version, which, while accurate about themselves, entailed being all wrapped up in their own destruction from the beginning. I don't know if he's correct because I have absolute confusion about right and left and I can never tell which way the symbol is turning.
posted by glasseyes at 3:15 PM on February 24, 2017

Why not both?
posted by Rhaomi at 3:18 PM on February 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

"Since ballet obviously involves partners, on some level pairs skating might be relevant- I'm curious if skating has examples of pairs where one spins CW and one CCW; I know there are pairs that are both CW, but I can't think of a mixed example."^

It's pretty unusual but not unheard of. Kristi Yamaguchi and Rudi Galindo were a championship pairs team before both skaters switched to singles. They rotated opposite directions for both spins and jumps.

Here's a video of them winning the US National Championships in 1989
posted by stagewhisper at 7:44 PM on February 24, 2017

I'm impressed by that pun, clew. I feel like you could have worked "icing" in there given all the skating talk.

Thanks for the videos, stagewhisper- especially of Rohene- sure, jump both ways, why not!
posted by nat at 9:30 PM on February 24, 2017

Former professional ballet dancer here...

It's complicated. Ballet incorporates turns on both legs, rotating in both directions, with the 'gesture leg' being in any of, oh, six positions, so that's 48 permutations. And a turn is a movement, so you'll likely as not move through more than one position...

And a lot of contemporary ideas of ballet virtuosity are Russian-derived, and all that choreography was originally performed on a raked stage, tilted towards the audience. So when they jump from the back of the stage to the opposite front of the stage, it's not arbitrary, it's because it was exhausting to jump upstage.

There's a chicken and egg problem. Teachers will often repeat an exercise on the right side but not on the left side.

Righties are more common than lefties. Usually people can do one, maybe two turns more on their 'good side' than on their bad side. I was an unusually ambidextrous, good, but inconsistent turner. If I hit four or five pirouettes cleanly in morning class, I'd be happy all day.
posted by sixswitch at 10:29 PM on February 24, 2017 [10 favorites]

I'm very right handed. And I play a lot of TF2. And I tend to turn counterclockwise, which I do a lot.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:24 AM on February 25, 2017

Clockwise AND backwards in high heels?
posted by spitbull at 5:39 AM on February 25, 2017

Third comment. Good work everyone.
posted by iffthen at 6:46 AM on February 25, 2017

signal - one of my favourite questions. Seen from above. I haven't got a cast-iron rationale for why not from below.
posted by lokta at 4:20 PM on February 26, 2017

Hmm. I just got a chance to watch your Rudy+Kristi video, stagewhisper-- and I think when they do a spin together (as in both bodies in the spin, rather than two adjacent spins) they use Kristi's CCW direction. I wonder why? Now I want to see a an opposite direction pair who has the male-part skater going CCW. Can't decide if they'd pick CCW or CW.
posted by nat at 4:43 PM on March 1, 2017

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