Partnering Without Boys
One of the things I loved most about dancing was the feeling of connectedness, as if I were one with my classmates. Now, as a teacher, I help my students experience that by having them dance as partners. Partnering teaches many valuable lessons, and these can be learned with or without boys in the class.
I advocate starting partnering as early as kindergarten. Young children can do simple partnering, like a polonaise step across the floor while holding hands. This cuts down on wait time and builds social skills. Doing polkas facing each other, holding hands and spinning under each other’s arms, teaches coordination, timing, and spatial awareness.
To encourage interest in classical ballet (and as a treat that each student gets to do at least once), I allow one student to be my prima ballerina and I partner her in a fish lift.
In ballet classes for older students, one student partners another in attitude promenade in relevé, ending in an arabesque allongée. This teaches both dancers about balance, weight bearing, and optimal partnering distance. We work on finger turns to teach the concept of arm placement when partnering, and do combinations like chassé pas de bourrée glissade pas de chat, with one student lifting the other on the pas de chat. This teaches them that lifting is a 50/50 job.
I have my female students do planks and push-ups to build upper-body strength, not only because it’s necessary for all dancers, but also because we do a lot of group lifts in our modern and jazz classes. Learning to partner—whether dancing traditionally female, traditionally male, or coequal roles—teaches dancers control, how to dance within their own space, and how to be in the right spot at the right time.
This work will make my female dancers more ready to partner with male dancers when given the chance. But what’s most important is that they understand the importance of strength, trust, and confidence in their dancing.
After teaching my students new choreography, I end the class or rehearsal by saying, “Don’t forget to review before we meet again.” However, in the next class I often need to reteach the movement rather than reviewing and adding on. To the students’ explanation that they don’t have time to practice because of school and other activities, I respond, “Practice in your mind,” because we all have time for that. To help them learn to do this effectively, I incorporate creative visualization into class time, a process that is often referred to by sports psychologists as “mental rehearsal.”
At the end of my teen classes, I take 10 minutes for this activity. Dancers put on clothing that will keep them warm and comfortable. I dim the lights, have the students lie on the floor with their eyes closed, and lead them through a guided meditation. The more senses they incorporate, the more they will benefit from this mental exercise.
I tell them to picture themselves doing the choreography. What do they see? Perhaps they are wearing their favorite leotard. What do they hear? Besides the music, they might hear their feet against the floor. Maybe they hear you (the teacher) counting aloud. Can they smell anything? Rosin on their shoes?
Then I stop talking and the dancers continue with their visualizations on their own for about five minutes.
The dancers stand up, and we run through the choreography. This reinforces the visualization with muscle memory. Because their muscles have cooled down, they do not have to dance full out.
I ask the dancers to rehearse mentally during the week. They can do it in bed before they go to sleep, when they brush their teeth or do their hair, or on their way to school. The idea is to get them into the habit. By combining mental and physical practice, your students will see improvement in their retention of choreography.
Artistic director at Sonshine Academy in Conway, Arkansas, Michelle Knell teaches most of the advanced classes. A former professional dancer and actress, she also choreographs for Sonshine Academy’s competition dancers.
Debra Danese, RDE, is the director of Kdance Productions. She teaches and choreographs across the United States and abroad.