Partnering in ballet is one of the most exciting classes for many students – but it can be a little intimidating for sure. Students in local schools often find that their partnering opportunities are limited to conventions, rehearsals for specific shows and summer programs. For students seriously interested in ballet who do not have much access to partnering during the year, I encourage attendance at an SI where it’s offered three times per week or daily. (Some otherwise good programs offer it only once or twice a week – or not at all.) When its time to actually take the classes though, the initial excitement may morph into anxiety. What will pas de deux work be like? What if I mess up or can’t do what is asked? What if I don’t like my partner or he doesn’t like me? What if I do like him?
I promise you that you’re not the only one who feels this way. At many SIs, the majority of female dancers you are with will not have much partnering experience. And trust me, the guys are nervous too – they feel a lot of pressure to “be there” for the girls, and the less experienced ones may be very intimidated by those high expectations. Not to mention that they too have worries about getting steps right and getting along with their partners. Everyone is feeling pressure and nerves, but good pas teachers will do a few things to ease the tension for both sides.
First off, the pairing up will start the class. As you get more advanced, teachers may ask students to pair up on their own, but in the beginning and intermediate levels, the accepted practice is to line up the men and women separately by height and set pairs that match in stature. Some men may be asked to take more than one partner and execute each combination once for each girl. Partnerships might be set for the day, the week or the whole summer program.
In order to get the students comfortable with each other and to ease the tension, the teacher will usually start off with some very basic and often fun trust exercises. (This may be the case even with more advanced classes who are working with new partners.) These should also help both the women and the men feel comfortable with where the guy’s hands will be on the girl’s torso and extremeties. This is often done in a humorous, fun way, and you’ll have an opportunity to get to know each other better, experiment with the exercises and laugh-away some of that initial awkwardness.
From there, exercises will progress slowly with some basic hand-held walks and supported bourees. You might feel like these exercises are not what you came for, but as they say: you have to walk before you can run -or be spun and lifted! So don’t be dissappointed if you aren’t whirled around above the guys head in the first 15 minutes. Trust me that you will greatly benefit from mastering these nuanced exercises. And I think you’ll find that holding an audience rapt while gracefully walking across the stage and maintaining a connection with your partner is much harder than it looks.
Combinations will gradually add difficulty, with supported bourrees becoming preparations for supported pirouettes. Walking hand in hand across the floor may evolve into walking into a supported pique arabesque, which may in turn become a supported promenade. Jumps will start with basic entrechats in place and develop into well-coordinated lifts with running preparations. Before you know it, you will be pulling off multiple pirouettes, finger turns and a variety of fun, basic lifts. All in a day’s work for a dancer, right? By the end of the summer, you may be able to try your hand at some more intricate combinations and harder lifts or perhaps a small piece of classical grand pas choreography.
Dance Spirit recently published an excellent article with a collection of the best tips for partnering newbies from established principal dancers. I am loving this article because it gets down to the nitty-gritty of exactly what it’s like to deal with real-life partnering complications like accidentally hitting your partner and the difficulty of attempting to act as if you’re in love with a guy you barely know! Even many advanced students could stand to learn something from reading it; I remember a lot of women in my advanced classes who just loved to wear those tie-skirts with the ribbons out – not a good idea. So check it out for more details on what partnering class are really like and lots of do’s and don’t’s so you can be totally prepared, calm and collected when you get paired with that cute guy from Iowa for the summer!