First-time partnering can be as nerve-wracking for teachers as it is for students, requiring daredevil feats to complete impressive tricks and lifts. Dance Teacher spoke with instructors to find out how to prepare students for their first pas de deux.
For students to get the most out of partnering class, they must be prepared both physically and mentally for the challenge. In addition to sufficient physical strength, all students should have solid technique and comprehensive knowledge of dance vocabulary before they start, says Leslie Browne, former American Ballet Theatre soloist and star of The Turning Point, now a partnering instructor for The School at Steps in New York City.
For girls, partnering requires a high level of proficiency acquired only after a few years of training on pointe. In addition to strong feet and backs, they need good, solid balance and the ability to stay on their leg before adding a partner. For boys, upper body strength and the confidence to lead and lift fellow dancers are essential. Most dancers younger than 14 years old may lack sufficient back strength. All students must also be mature enough to accept responsibility for another body onstage.
At the same time, the fearlessness of youth is an advantage, so once students are ready, don’t hold them back. Begin early to familiarize dancers with the physical sensations of accommodation and complementing a partner.
Regardless of whether your studio offers formal partnering classes as part of the curriculum, your students can reap the benefits of dancing informally with a partner from a young age. “If a girl hasn’t started pointe yet, you can still practice partnering skills,” explains Travis Walker, a Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley company member and partnering instructor at the BSJSV School.
“Even if it’s just skipping across the floor with each other, [instruct dancers to] do it so that they’re in sync.” For little ones in pre-ballet classes, being aware of other dancers onstage improves stage presence, coordination and timing that lay the foundation for successful dancing—partnered or not.
As girls progress on pointe, they can practice skills essential to being partnered. Balance is particularly important. Lise la Cour, director of Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley School, recommends a very simple exercise for this skill: Have dancers use the barre as a partner by balancing on relevé with one leg in attitude, first holding onto with both hands, then removing one hand and varying their arm positions. Girls will also need substantial core strength to hold themselves up during lifts and Walker recommends Pilates to help them maintain strong trunks and an awareness of their centers.
To help boys strengthen their upper bodies for dead lifts, recommend push-ups and weight training. It’s important not to overemphasize upper body strength, though. “You cannot only lift with your back, you have to lift with your legs as well,” says la Cour. Powerful pliés require strong quadriceps, but this should not prevent smaller boys from becoming successful partners. “You don’t have to be a big bulldozer to lift a girl,” she explains, because lifting combines strength with a couple’s timing and the girl’s carriage.
Introducing basic, non-weight-bearing work in a pre-partnering class can also help prepare students with the skills to jump into full-fledged partnering classes. “Pre-partnering class would include a supported arabesque promenade, bourreés into fourth position preparations for pirouettes. No major lifts,” says Browne.
Ideally, partnering classes are co-taught by a male and female instructor to make adjustments and corrections from both perspectives. For example, Browne frequently co-teaches with brother Ethan Brown, former ABT soloist, in his partnering class at The School at Steps to provide corrections for female dancers. If only one teacher is available, use an advanced dancer or couple to assist with demonstrating steps and combinations.
When structuring class, “always build the class on the boys, because you don’t want them doing some difficult lift at the beginning of class,” says Browne, “you want to warm them up.” Because partnering classes doesn’t have a formal warm-up, female students should always precede them with a ballet class to be prepared.
Brown divides his classes into three general segments: adagio, turns and lifts. A simple adagio at the beginning of class helps partners adjust to each other. (Because partners may change every week, students need to use those initial combinations to become acquainted with unfamiliar bodies and movement styles, such as the timing of pliés or the location of a partner’s center.) Small jumps might precede turn combinations, which are then followed by lifts that gradually increase in difficulty.
Because partnering involves such a specific skill set, ease into each one slowly. For first-timers, begin with promenades and penchés that require minimal weight bearing on the part of the male dancer. These exercises help boys gain an awareness of the location of their partner’s center, as well how to accommodate her shifting balance from the beginning to the end of the movement.
Simple assisted pirouettes en dehors can be executed as students become familiar with one another’s timing. Girls should be able to execute the first two or three turns on their own, and then boys can assist for the next few, suggests la Cour. Such practice develops boys’ understanding of momentum and the pressure needed to start and stop a turning body. As dancers advance, trickier turns, including whip turns and turns en dedans, might come next.
Small, stationary jump combinations can help partners feel each others’ pliés. Once students are comfortable with plié timing, begin traveling with simple lifts—tombé pas de bourrée coupled with a pas de chat or saut de chat, for example. Traveling exercises teach partners to match the length and speed of their steps.
When students are ready to hold fully weight-bearing lifts, have them try an arabesque into a fish dive. Simple sit lifts—with spotters in back of the couple—might come next. Avoid press lifts and jumps into catches until students have more experience and strength. Then, explosive tour jetés into fish dives and crowd-pleasing helicopters may be attempted.
Audiences are most captivated by partners who engage each other physically and emotionally. However, expressing a relationship onstage can be one of the most difficult lessons for beginners to master. Establishing connection takes time and commitment from dancers and teachers alike.
Encourage students to start connecting with one another by performing in class, long before they reach the stage. “There has to be a connection there—they must acknowledge their partners,” says Browne. Eye contact, while initially difficult for shyer students, becomes a reassuring gesture. The same goes for confident, strong grips from boys, rather than weak or timid holds.
Attending to subtleties is part of good partnering technique—a tilted head here and a smile there can make all the difference. Encourage students to think through and establish a relationship between their characters. Are they royal spouses or simply two teenagers onstage? How does that affect their interactions? This attentiveness to character and stage presence will improve all their performances.
Once your students begin partnering training, you will begin to notice an overall improvement in the quality of their dancing. You’ll see increased strength, flexibility and coordination. For girls, partnering will augment balance, as well as back strength and pointe work. Dancers’ body awareness and timing becomes precise, and their ability to blend and dance in a group improves, too.
“If you want to be a professional dancer, you have to be a good partner,” Brown explains. Starting your students off right will give them an edge in their careers while providing your studio with a fun class that may quickly become everybody’s favorite. DT
Laura De Silva is a freelance writer whose work has also appeared in Dance Spirit and Decore & Style magazines.