Expert advice on teaching partnering
Interviews by Theodore Bale
Two bodies that move together, supporting each other through movements that are impossible for a single person, often create some of the most breathtaking moments in ballet choreography. But hours of partnering classes don’t necessarily add up to artfulness in a pas de deux. To find out how to set young students on the road to sensitive, safe, and sensational partnering, Dance Studio Life sought out teachers from all walks of dance education.
What is the first thing you teach in a beginning pas de deux class?
Sarkis Kaltakchian, ballet instructor and faculty head, Tulsa Ballet Center for Dance Education: The first thing you teach is placement: the distance between male and female, the coordination and timing. Without these fundamentals, you can’t have a partnership.
Wendy Fish-Lawrence and David Lawrence, artistic directors, Connecticut Concert Ballet: The first exercises we teach are basic standing poses that allow both dancers to get used to being in close contact. We teach the boys how to interact with and present the girl and how to stand and guide her without being forceful or discourteous. We teach the girls how to present themselves as beautiful artists, to allow the boy to guide her while maintaining her independence, center, and stability. The boys are shown how to hold the girl’s wrists and waist in the correct position and manner and how to feel (not see) when she is on and off her center. The girls are shown how to stand strong and straight and not fidget or wiggle as the boys touch them. It can be very sweet and funny to see these first attempts at partnerships.
Tony Randazzo, ballet master, Boston Ballet: Generally, two hands on the waist is a good way to start, sensing very subtly where the sense of balance is in the woman. Maybe she’s in fifth position, maybe she’s in coup de pied, maybe she’s in passé—just having a sense of how to keep her on balance.
Bo Spassoff, president and director, The Rock School: I’ll go with the assumption that the students have already had a technique class so that they are warm. If there wasn’t any pointe work, I would make sure that the girls have some time to warm up their feet, and I would make sure that the boys do something to open and warm their shoulders and back.
Stephanie Spassoff, director, The Rock School: We don’t allow pas de deux classes to be taught unless the girls have had a pointe warm-up and both males and females have had a ballet class.
Warren Conover, assistant dean, School of Dance, North Carolina School of the Arts: The first thing I teach for a beginning pas class is simply holding the girl up on pointe in a passé as well as arabesque with a few promenades. I also teach walking together and the males presenting and escorting their partners.
How much of partnering depends on strength and how much is technique, such as physics and working together?
Sarkis Kaltakchian: Both are very important in partnering. You have to have a secure technique and an equal amount of physical strength. Timing, however, is most important.
Wendy Fish-Lawrence/David Lawrence: For girls, strong technique and physical strength are required, as is, even more so, spatial and directional awareness. Initially we teach the boys that pas de deux is 90 percent technique and 10 percent strength. As they progress that ratio lowers a bit, to 70/30 percent, and we introduce the concepts of nuance, anticipation, and musicality. For the girl to succeed she must be a master of her own technique with a strong musical and artistic awareness. For the boy, he must subjugate himself to the tastes and idiosyncrasies of his partner, always be supremely aware of her, and do all he can to make her look as beautiful as possible as effortlessly as possible. Physics and the willingness to work together are separate issues that enhance the overall success.
Tony Randazzo: To a large extent it has to do with technique, for the man as well as his partner. When it comes to lifting and carrying, especially with lifts that are held for long durations and lifts that travel in different arcs on the way up and on the way down, a base of strength is required. The more demanding the choreography is, the more strength and stamina come into play, especially the stamina needed to do several lifts in close proximity. In John Cranko’s work, for example, the pas de deux are very demanding, especially in Onegin, Romeo and Juliet, and Taming of the Shrew.
Bo Spassoff: It’s really both. Technique is perhaps the more important part. It depends on the kind of partnering you’re doing as well. We just taught Spring Waters, an older Russian pas de deux where he’s lifting her up and throwing her around. He has to make it look like it’s nothing, of course, and the girl has to have plenty of upper-body strength as well, since in one push-lift she has to push down.
Stephanie Spassoff: There has to be a similar way of moving. A lot of it can be achieved through rehearsal, but you have to move and breathe as one. You can be together in terms of timing, but if the breath and the preparation of a turn or a jump aren’t coordinated, then you’re making it hard for him and he’s making you look like you weigh a ton.
Warren Conover: In pirouettes, the ladies should not try to help their partners but have the technical ability to execute pirouettes on their own.
How do you address issues of trust and communication in your classes?
Sarkis Kaltakchian: Trust and communication are important aspects of a successful partnership. It starts in the classroom. As a teacher, I try to create an atmosphere of openness, not only to taking correction but to communication between each other.
Wendy Fish-Lawrence/David Lawrence: We start with some modern-dance trust exercises: allowing both men and women to be led by the other with eyes closed and using off-balance poses and experimentation to emphasize the importance of alignment to both partners. We also emphasize the importance of body language and facial expression at all times; dancers must always be positive and eager with their partners as well as with choreographers, teachers, and directors. This attitude creates a positive and supportive environment within which the students work and learn.
Tony Randazzo: Partners each have certain responsibilities. If they really focus on their task, trust will happen over time. It’s when they start interfering with each other’s job and get outside of their own responsibilities that they start developing the wrong relationship and trust cannot come about. It’s a learning curve for the men and the women. The women have to hold themselves as they would if they didn’t have a partner, and the men need to develop the skill of sensing balance. If the women keep trying to help the men by trying to get themselves back on balance when they’re slightly off, then the men never have the opportunity to discover that the balance is off. The man just senses that the woman is kind of twitching, so he doesn’t have the opportunity to learn and improve. Then he feels mistrusted and she feels not cared for, and it develops a negative cycle. They have to encourage each other for quite a while, and then they will notice that things really do start to come along if they stay in their own domain.
Bo Spassoff: What I say in the beginning is always a joke: “No matter what happens, it’s always the boy’s fault!” It makes the girls feel better! I think in each class we stress a clear understanding between the partners of the principles they need to know, and how to do it and communicate together. We have a lot of boys in our school, and we don’t think it’s productive, obvious, or logical to have the same partner day in and day out. Coaching a pas de deux for a performance, of course, is different than a partnering class. We stress that they talk to each other, and when you see they’re having problems, you take them aside. It’s that personal touch of asking them what the issues are, what could be working better—and then you work on that. It’s pretty much like coaching anything.
Stephanie Spassoff: I usually tell the girls that they must understand that they are at the mercy of the guy. He can make you look supremely talented or like a blithering idiot, no matter how gorgeous a dancer you are. No matter what you think of the guy, you have to be nice and respectful, understand his point of view, and do everything you can do to help him help you. You don’t give attitude, you don’t get huffy, and you don’t treat him like he’s there to serve you. It’s a working partnership, and you have to have mutual respect. The bottom line is that he can totally ruin you, so you don’t want to have arguments with him. Aside from the fact that you shouldn’t treat a human being like that, it’s in your own best interest to make sure that he wants to make you look good. A lot of wonderful, strong dancers try to do the entire pas de deux by themselves—the balances, the turns, all of it alone. The woman needs to be as self-sufficient as she can be.
Bo Spassoff: Lupe Serrano, who was director of The Rock School before I was here, would try to do all of Black Swan pas de deux by herself, saying, “Then I knew I wouldn’t have a problem with the guy.”
Warren Conover: Trust and communication are encouraged by having the students verbalize what is needed in order for the ballerina to maintain her balance and placement. Sometimes I have the ladies fall backwards into the guys’ arms in order to learn trust. This has to be monitored carefully, making sure the guys are prepared to catch their partner.
Some schools teach students mainly the grand pas de deux, which are fun and exciting to learn—but wouldn’t it make more sense to teach soloist parts, such as the peasant pas de deux in Giselle, which they might have a greater chance of performing early in their careers?
Sarkis Kaltakchian: It is crucial to choose repertoire that fits the abilities of the students. That’s why, for beginning levels, it is important to choreograph small exercises that will benefit the growth of their partnering technique. When the students mature and grow stronger, the instructor can begin to introduce repertory which fits their abilities without having to change the choreography. Each student has different strengths. It is important to choose choreography that will suit the student’s strength, physically and artistically.
Wendy Fish-Lawrence/David Lawrence: We believe in both. The pas should provide challenges appropriate to the level of the dancers’ skills. No matter the pas, the music and the chance to learn actual choreography should be exciting to the students, not frustrating.
Tony Randazzo: Depending on the curriculum and how much time is available, there are advantages to diving into the exciting. That gets students inspired and gives them immediate feedback as to where their skills are lacking or where they have a natural proficiency they didn’t expect. On the other hand, it’s very important to go over all the rudimentary skills; something like the peasant pas is more basic, and that’s a way of building confidence without overwhelming the students and risking injury. Also, it’s not just repertory that is important. There should be exercises that are well balanced on both sides, such as promenades in both directions, on both arms, with women balancing the body on the right and the left. Sometimes choreography is very unilateral, so the students will never learn how to do something on the left in a piece of choreography the way they might in a class exercise. There are advantages to both approaches.
Bo Spassoff: The students definitely want to do the grand pas. The reality, for me anyway, is that you teach bits and pieces of the technique involved in the various pas de deux. Sometimes you might do just 8 to 16 counts of a pas de deux. Teaching a straight pas de deux in a class is very time consuming, especially when there are 15 to 20 couples. Also, it doesn’t serve the cause as well as an understanding of the pieces that go into the puzzle. Certainly we do coach and work on pas de deux for competitions, but the most important thing is individual technique. When it comes to auditions, you will be looked at first and foremost as an individual.
Stephanie Spassoff: The grand pas de deux have been choreographed for more mature artists, people who have spent a good deal of time in class perfecting their craft and their art. As Bo says, there are segments you can pull out that are wonderful teaching tools.
Warren Conover: A grand pas de deux is taught usually to only top-level students. Although all levels are eager to learn a pas de deux, students need a strong technical foundation, as well as physical strength for lifting for the males. Physical strengthening for the guys takes time. Bodies develop at different times of maturity and speeds as well.
What’s your single best piece of advice for men?
Sarkis Kaltakchian: I offer the same advice to men and women: Be open-minded. Listen to your partner; work as a team. Create trust and harmony. That is when the true art of partnering comes to life and two individuals start moving as one.
Wendy Fish-Lawrence/David Lawrence: Learn to see with your hands. Be aware of and ready for anything that may happen to your girl and solve it as seamlessly as possible. Make presenting her and dancing with her the obvious joy and privilege of your life. Her success is your success!
Tony Randazzo: Core stability, core strength. Abdominal and back strength are so important. The whole core stability regime is very important for any young man who wants to become skilled at pas de deux, be capable, and remain injury free.
Warren Conover: When I performed Paul Taylor’s Airs with American Ballet Theatre, Taylor came to a rehearsal. We ran the piece and danced our hearts out. After, Paul said to us, “Come here, sit down; I want to talk with you.” We expected some great technical insight about our dancing, but instead he said, “You need to go out and have lunch together. You are not dancing with each other; you need to get to know each other.” Those words remain fresh in my mind. It was the best advice I ever received.
And the best single piece of advice for women?
Wendy Fish-Lawrence/David Lawrence: Develop your technique, strength, artistry, and musicality as well as you can, and let your partner (or require him to) enhance your beauty.
Tony Randazzo: Just have the best possible technique that you can have, because that’s what you’ll need to dance well with a partner. All the man offers you is greater expression within the technique that you have. He can’t fix your technical flaws. He can’t save you; he can help you only to express more fully what you have mastered on your own.
Bo Spassoff: It’s called “partnering,” not “soloing.” So be conscientious, sensitive, and listen to your partner. It’s a team effort. Yes, there are moments when the female shines more, but in the end it’s for both of you. You have to have a mental and intellectual sensitivity and approach, and then everything else will follow.
Stephanie Spassoff: You have to get your ego out of the way. If you want to look better, or you think, “He’d better make me look good,” that will only trip you up. You have to go into it wanting to express the choreographer’s intent and to bring joy and inspiration to the audience and to the art form. And to make it as comfortable for the poor guy who is schlepping you as you possibly can! You have to go into it with a comfortable, supportive, and loving attitude or it’s going to show in the pas.