One is fun, but two can be terrific. Partner dancing is all the rage today, with couples twirling and dipping everywhere on TV and in the movies. But before they can thrill audiences with a one-handed overhead lift, students need to learn the basics of good partnering—trust, timing and communication.
“There’s no better feeling than dancing with a partner, moving as one, playing off each other,” says Melanie LaPatin, co-owner of Dance Times Square in New York City, who was featured on the June 2008 cover of DT. “It’s give and take, action and reaction. It’s having a non-verbal conversation.”
Partnering is an artform in itself, and attempting it for the first time is often a nerve-wrecking experience for students. Even if they’ve been studying for many years, adding another body into the mix can be intimidating. Taking time to ease their fears and bring out their talents will have your dancers impressing audiences before you know it.
When LaPatin and her partner of 27 years, Tony Meredith, work with beginners, their immediate goal is to establish a sense of trust between the couple. To achieve this, they start with a simple exercise that requires the couple to hold hands while the woman closes her eyes and allows her partner to guide her around the room. They walk forward, backward, sideways, with the man pressing down with his thumb to signal a change of direction. Then they switch, and the woman guides the man. Not only is this lots of fun but both partners realize fairly quickly how important it is for the woman to let go and trust—and for the man to earn her trust by guiding her safely and confidently “without bashing her into a wall,” jokes LaPatin.
To keep beginners from getting too comfortable with the same partner in a group class, LaPatin lines the ladies up on one side of the room and the guys on the other. When the music starts, all dancers walk straight across and pair up randomly. After a short time, the students switch. “You have to trust someone you’re not too familiar dancing with,” she explains.
The importance of mixing up couples also holds true for ballet. When former Houston Ballet dancer Parren Ballard introduces partnering to his advanced dancers at the Boston Ballet Center for Dance Education, he is careful to have the pairs rotate often. “It’s not beneficial to stay with the same partner,” Ballard says. “The boy might be with a girl who turns fabulously on her own, then be surprised when he moves to the next girl who needs a lot of help.” Still, even as they switch, teachers should be aware of dancers’ heights, and aim to place students with similar statures together.
Trust hits its biggest roadblock in ballet when dancers begin overhead lifts. “I’d say 90 percent of dancers are tentative about those,” says Ballard. When teaching lifting technique, he slows down the class considerably and works with one pair at a time, pointing out the timing and the mechanics. Usually once a couple completes a successful lift, the other dancers relax. “Everyone says, ‘Oh look, Sally did it, I can do it.’ They see it’s not scary, and develop trust. But they need little successes for that to happen,” says Ballard.
Timing, an element crucial for lifts, turns and intricate footwork, takes dedication to master. To encourage couples to synchronize their movements, Meredith teaches dancers the “mirror” game. Facing each other or standing side by side, one person makes a movement that the other must mirror. There is no contact in this game, and it’s important that one person is the leader and the other the follower, he says. From there, he puts together an easy combo with minimal contact for them to master, perhaps with pulling or pushing movements. The amount of contact is increased gradually.
In ballet, preparations are key to mastering synchronization. Ballard explains to his female students that, for the male to properly time himself to her movement, she must make her preparations large enough for him to see. For example, when going up for an entrechat, she must make her plié deep and obvious, or he’ll miss the timing. The same applies with the tendu leading into turn preparations. “It cannot be a short prep that surprises the boy,” Ballard says. “Right away, I get the girl to understand she must move deliberately. You’ll never be successful without the right timing. If you are too close or far away, you can fix that, but if the timing is off, you are pretty much dead in the water.”
Ballard often instructs girls to practice an adagio combination, while the boys follow along, figuring out where and when they would lend a hand in partnering and focusing on her timing. So much of partnering is experience, he says—the more they do it, the better they get.
Ballard encourages conversation, allowing time during class for couples to talk to one another. This allows the girls to quickly discover why a step worked with one partner and not another, and by listening to her words, the boys can figure out what they need to do. Leaving them to guess or read the other dancer’s body language is never effective. “I tell the girls to talk, not to say, ‘I don’t know,’” says Ballard. “Instead, I suggest they try, ‘I need my balance forward’ or ‘I need to feel your hand on my hip.’ It’s very important to tell the boys what you need.”
Lastly, to understand good partnering, dancers need to see good partnering. LaPatin and Meredith often demonstrate together, while Ballard uses an advanced female student to show promenades or finger turns during classes.
“Rather than just teaching them, demonstrating allows them an opportunity to see what makes a good dance team,” Meredith says. “Then, they get to experience it for themselves. You don’t realize how limited you are on your own until you have a partner. It’s amazing.” DT
Karen White is a freelance journalist and longtime dance instructor in Taunton, MA.