Partnering – C’est tres difficile!

You’re at the theatre watching a full-length classical Ballet, and they’ve just reached the iconic Pas de Deux. Let’s forget the variations at the moment and just concentrate on the entrée, adagio and coda. There’s the gorgeous Ballerina looking resplendent in her tutu, and the handsome Prince supporting her as she pirouettes, arabesques and penchées.

As a guy, I’ve always though this must be the easiest part of the Ballet for the danseur – I mean he just has to stand there while the Ballerina does all the work, right? Wrong.

I want to dispel a myth right now. That partnering is easy for a guy. No way! I attended a partnering workshop today and although I can’t speak for the girls, as a guy it’s certainly a lot harder than it looks!

If you’re here looking for a load of tips on partnering from the pro’s, you’re out of luck. Instead, check out the amazing post that Henrik and Rebecca from Tights & Tiaras and Tendus Under A Palm Tree have just done – A Virtual Pas de Deux. They’ve posted part one, and they’ll be putting up part two very soon. It’s a great article all about partnering from the people in the know.

Instead of all that useful knowledge, I’m going to talk about what went through my head as we went through the class, and what I learned from it. The second half of the workshop is next Saturday so I’ll write another post after that to see if anything has changed!

So how did I end up at the workshop? Well on Wednesday after a great class, my teacher Edward Urwin approached me saying he was hosting a partnering workshop at the weekend and thought it would be “right up my alley.” To say I was interested was a complete understatement – I had accepted the fact that open enrolment partnering classes just don’t exist, so to get this unexpected chance to take part in one was a dream come true. I was slightly worried that I wouldn’t be good enough but Ed reassured me that, even if the girls had more Ballet training than me, we would all be beginners at partnering so I should be fine.

So I headed to Doylestown, PA this morning slightly nervous and not really sure what to expect. Ed had trained at this studio when he was younger, and was returning to teach this workshop and a boy’s class. Upon arriving, I saw immediately that it was a much smaller studio than Princeton – only one room, and no guys changing room! Nipping to the men’s bathroom down the hall I got changed and waited while the girls did their pointe warm-up class.

Ed soon arrived, along with Marc St-Pierre, another of the company dancers – he had actually danced the Cavalier in ARB’s Nutcracker when I saw it in December and was absolutely brilliant. The girls had had to take class beforehand, plus pointe warm-up to make sure they were ready, but nothing like that had been mentioned for the guys. I later realised this was because I wouldn’t be doing that much actual dancing per se, but I made sure I got warmed up in the corridor – I might not be about to do loads of pirouettes, but I would still be doing plenty pliés and lunging, which you don’t want to be doing with cold muscles.

We headed in to the studio, and the girls lined up in height order to get paired with partners. There were 7 girls in total, and 4 guys (Ed, Marc, a 13 year old boy who SI-ed at SAB and me [feeling totally inadequate compared to the other guys!]). Having three of the guys at around 6 foot 1 and the boy nearer 5 foot meant the splitting was pretty straightforward and after some (very) brief introductions to my two partners, class began.

First thing we learnt: partnering is all about trust (with a little bit of timing too). Second thing: if something goes wrong, it’s always the guy’s fault (even when it’s not). So no pressure there then!

Paloma Herrera and Marcelo Gomes make it look easy - but it's harder than it looks!

Our first exercise was simple enough, the girls sous-sous-ed and then the guys tilted them right, left, forward and back while the girls kept their feet still. Sounds easy, right? Like pretty much everything else in the class, this was harder than it looks/sounds! First off, as a guy I needed to make sure I was holding the girl in the right place – on the hips, not the waist; and the girls had to keep straight and almost plank-like to avoid shifting their weight unexpectedly. When we moved onto doing the same with passé, things got a little easier as both of us relaxed a little. As Ed told us, if the girl is balanced she should feel weightless to the partner, when we feel weight on our hands it means she isn’t quite there.

We moved onto turns, both initiated from the guy and the girl. From the guy’s end, the onus was on us to both push and pull on the girl’s hips to rotate them to keep them over their leg. It turns out that my timid first efforts weren’t enough to get the girl around, and even by the end of the class I still was finding every so often I would not quite give them the impetus to make the full 360 – I was just worried I was going to turn them too quick!

Another point I never thought of – when on stage, most of the time the girl won’t be able to see the guy – you have to communicate tactilely. So if the girl is about to go for a string of pirouettes, make sure you have her hips before she starts her plié – else you might have slipped and be clutching a broken ankle and she would know nothing of it! I also started to realise that everything the guy does on stage is all about presenting the girl: she bourrées forward, you spread your arms to second to frame her; you hold her on balance, she must be in front and the centre of attention. To be honest, as someone who is a little nervous about holding the limelight, this is alright by me!

After some pirouette practice (some successful, some not so much!), we did a string of balances and ‘gateways’. It’s amazing how quickly a string of balances transformed from an exercise into choreography – just the simple combination of arabesque to passé to devant finishing with a pirouette had a real sense of achievement and ‘dance’ to it.

The ‘gateways’ were a lot of fun – this was where the girl went from balance to balance by virtue of the guy holding her hands and moving her arms to transition her. From an arabesque (I think the girls arms were in fourth arabesque?) we transitioned to passé with both our arms in second, then turned to attitude with her balanced on one outstretched arm, which finished with a promenade. This was where I realised how important it is to keep your shoulders square while partnering – if you twist she has no chance of staying with you!

Finally, we finished with a basic lift – girl in sous-sous, she pliés and jumps while the guy lifts from behind and does a she royale, entrechat six or the like. This was a lot of fun – the main points to remember (as the guy) is to plié along with the girl and make sure it is a sharp up and slow down.

Definitely no fish dives yet! I just couldn't resist this stunning picture of Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta...

And all of a sudden the 90 minute class was over! It had flown by and had been a lot of fun. True, it was a bit stressful and nerve-wracking but also so enlightening. One thing I found really interesting was the differences between my two partners – in different sections, they were ‘easier’ or ‘harder’ to partner (or maybe instead I was better or worse at the partnering). I think the correlation was that the more confident the girl seemed to be at a movement, the easier it was to partner.

Anyways, overall it was a great class and a really interesting insight into partnering. I can’t wait for next weekend, and am just disappointed that I won’t get the chance to do it regularly! Anyone know of any regular partnering classes in NJ?!? Oh, and feel free to share your partnering tips and experiences in the comments!

That’s it for now – but I’ll be posting my thoughts next week after the second class! In the meantime, I’m also hoping to post later this week about the link between mathematics and Ballet – so keep your eyes peeled…

Until next time, keep dancing!

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