Discrete populations of brainstem spinal projection neurons (SPNs) have been shown to exhibit behavior-specific responses during locomotion, suggesting that separate descending pathways, each dedicated to a specific behavior, control locomotion. In an alternative model, a large variety of motor outputs could be generated from different combinations of a small number of basic motor pathways. We examined this possibility by studying the precise role of ventromedially located hindbrain SPNs (vSPNs) in generating turning behaviors. We found that unilateral laser ablation of vSPNs reduces the tail deflection and cycle period specifically during the first undulation cycle of a swim bout, whereas later tail movements are unaffected. This holds true during phototaxic, optomotor, dark-flash-induced, and spontaneous turns, suggesting a universal role of these neurons in controlling turning behaviors. Importantly, we found that the ablation not only abolishes turns but also results in a dramatic increase in the number of forward swims, suggesting that these neurons transform forward swims into turns by introducing turning kinematics into a basic motor pattern of symmetric tail undulations. Finally, we show that vSPN activity is direction specific and graded by turning angle. Together, these results provide a clear example of how a specific motor pattern can be transformed into different behavioral events by the graded activation of a small set of SPNs.