The Virtual Pas de Deux – a guide to partnering (part 1)

by Henrik on February 19, 2011

Here it is, people! As you might have heard, Miami City Ballet-dancer and blog author Rebecca King and I have teamed up, to give you an insight into the world of Pas de Deux, the art of dancing together. For a short introduction to what Pas de Deux is, see this post


What are the essentials a dancer must keep in mind for a successful pas de deux?

HL: First, and most importantly: Be observant, and pay attention to your partner. She’s more important then you are! Make sure she is on balance on her pointe when supposed to, and that you have the control in the lifts to be able to “save the day”, should something go wrong (and it will!). Messing up is normal, that’s why we practice. But if your focus is somewhere else, you are sure to get a mistake coming up, possibly resulting in injuries on your part, or even worse, on her.

the famous dancers Nina Kapsova and Carlos Acosta performed the ballet Spartacus with the Bolshoi theatre in the Palais Garnier in Paris on the Bolshoi's world tour. Acosta was the first non-russian to perform the lead role with the company, and gained fantastic critiques. RK: Having an attentive partner makes all the difference in the world. One can always tell when the man radiates an observant attitude. This ensures that you are both on the same page and allows you to feel in-sync.

HL: Maybe you’ve noticed, ballet is a tad old-fashioned?! Well, it is. The men are strong and stable, the women fragile and soft. While of course a stereotype, there’s something to it. As a partner, you should radiate trust and stability to your partner. Remember, she puts her life in your hands (literarily) when you lift her up there. If you let go, there’s just nothing she can do. She’ll fall, and she’ll fall hard. If you think about it, that’s quite a demonstration of trust in her partner from the girl behind any bigger lift.

RK: It is true! Often the woman’s life really is in the man’s hands. Being able to trust your partner makes everything go more smoothly. As someone who may be considered a bit of a “control freak” if you will, I always tend to have a hard time trusting a partner. This is why it’s important to build a healthy work relationship between the dancers. It allows the woman to relax and place more trust in her partner.
In a company, dancers tend to be partnered together based on height and ability. So naturally, you begin to work with the same partners. Here in Miami City Ballet, I am often cast with the same partners, but I could not be more delighted. We get along very well and are able to communicate in a very productive way. When something goes wrong we discuss it, finding things that each of us could do differently, then try again. This is one of the great things about being in a company for awhile; the relationships you build make working together easier and much more productive.

HL: That’s right. Although the company is full of girls, I tend to work with only a couple of them in every ballet. I’m quite tall (187 cm, or what’s that, 6’1”?!), so that means I “have to” partner the taller girls of out corps. It’s a challenge because, well, longer limbs and bodies means more to coordinate. But as you mention, the consistency of working with one partner can be a great thing – once you get to know your partner’s body and movement, things go way easier.
But this also provides another potential situation – you’d want to stay good with the people you are constantly partnering – there is nothing as devastating as bad vibes between partners.

RK: Definitely. You never know who you will end up dancing with someday, so I always try to be particularly aware of my friendships with the men in the company. Of course I want to be nice to everyone, but I really don’t want to tick off someone who could one day be holding me 7 feet in the air!

HL: I can see the logic in that! :)

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HL: That brings me to the next thing I wanted to talk about: Responsibility. There are many factors that can make an element of the pas de deux go wrong, it may not even be connected to your skills as a partner. Still, for the audience, it’s going to look like the guy’s fault. After all, that’s why he’s there, right?! Girl falls, boy were supposed to catch her. Whattup, dude?
A gentleman-partner takes the responsibility, and doesn’t let his ballerina fall off her pointe, or, God forbid, smack into the linoleum. There are several techniques to prevent this, but in a few words, you can say that a partner can save the situation by doing something else. A big, multiple pirouette might turn into a turn and a pose, an overhead lift might become a fish-dive. Not as spectacular, but sure looks better than the ballerinas teeth cracking on the floor, right?!

RK: Absolutely! I was always taught in school that “It is always the boy’s fault, no matter what!” Of course this is not always true, however, good partners always tend to take the responsibility. In my opinion, I don’t really see the point in placing blame. I find it is best to have a conversation about what went wrong and talk about what can be done to solve a problem.

HL: They teach you that in school?! Man, how mean is that? We kind of just accept that “it’s always the boy”, but that’s all a gentleman-thing! In reality, there are so many factors that can make things not work, on both dancers part. But like you say, in the end, why place blame? The point is to get it better, not to find out who was wrong..

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As promised, we’re also going to give you a few examples at some basic movements and how to do the technique involved. But keep in mind: dancers practice a lot, with professional supervision. Don’t try this at home!

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The “Finger Turn”

Ballet finger turn, western symphony, balanchine

© Leigh-Ann Esty

RK: A finger turn is when the woman does multiple turns, or pirouettes, with the aid of the man with his arm over her head. The woman faces towards the audience with her right arms above her head (if turning to the right). The man stands behind the woman, also facing to the front with his right hand up and his left arm extended to the side. The woman uses her left hand to push off the man’s left hand. But the real secret is the couple’s right hands. The woman places her fingers together touching the thumb, creating an “o” shape. This is the grasp she uses to turn around the man’s middle finger. But the most important thing for the woman is to not hold the man’s finger, but to keep her “o” shape, allowing for the freedom of multiple turns! This grip is well illustrated in the photo above

HL: Yes, that’s a nice one. And here’s a tip for you guys out there: If you gently press your hand down into hers, she will feel “where you at” better, allowing her to focus on the important part: turning! It also provides a little more friction to use if you need to straighten her up a little – after half a dozen turns, she’s probably going to be all over the place :)

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The “No-handed Fish Dive”

defying gravity, fish dive, fish lift, no hands fish dive

© Gene Schiavone

HL: Now, this is a lift – or actually, it’s more of a pose, because you can’t really take it anywhere – that has a nice trick to it. We call it the no-handed fish dive. It’s cool because, as you might already have guessed, the girl stays up without the boy actually using his hands, which provides a cool how-can-they-do-that-illution.

RK: The girl is ultimately responsible for holding herself up here. Because she has one of her legs in a bent position, her foot ends up being behind the man’s back. To allow the boy to be able to release his grasp on her, she must hug the man with this leg. By “locking” her leg behind him and using her hamstring strength to do so, she then just uses her back strength to keep her upper body facing the audience.

HL: For the boy, this is one of the easiest lifts out there, still it seems extravagant. Make sure you go deep enough with your stance, the flatter the angle of your thigh that she’s resting on, the easier it is to keep. That’s just plain gravity. Otherwise, just hold the position as static as you can, any shaking and twitching is what will make the girl fall forward – her back-muscles are really doing all the job here.

RK: Indeed. But don’t forget about that hamstring; the no-handed fish dive is rough on the muscles of the back of the thigh as well!

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You like that? Then you’ll be happy to hear that this is just the beginning. The conversation continues on Tendus under a palm tree on Monday, where we’ll discuss what it takes to be a successful partner, what Rebecca and I personally appreciate in a partner (It’s more appropriate than it sounds) and what challenges are involved when dancing a Pas de Deux. We’ll also give you the insight on yet another “trick”, telling you how we perform those fancy lifts. Be sure to Check it Out!

AND BEFORE YOU GO!!
Oh, you thought I was done? No, this post is just filled with surprises. The people that subscribes to my newsletter got the opportunity to ask questions regarding partnering while this post was still in-editing. And they sure did! Actually, they asked so good questions, we decided to do a separate Q&A-post following this one. And that’s good news for all you that didn’t sign up yet: here’s your chance! Do you wonder how the guys can lift the ballerinas with one hand, or how the girls manages to stay in balance all the way up there? Do you have any other questions you’d like two professional dancers to answer? Here is your chance. Post your questions in the comments and we will make sure to include them in the up-and-coming Q&A-post.

Don’t forget to check back to the part two of our introduction to partnering later this week!
Until then,

Ta-Ta
R & H

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Tiggothy February 19, 2011 at 11:44 am

Looking forward to the next installment! That info about the finger-turn will be very useful – one of my friends once ended up with her hair twisted round the button of a man’s shirt sleeve while turning at a line dance social!

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Henrik February 19, 2011 at 12:44 pm

Haha, another reason why costumes rarely has shirt-sleeve buttons :) But bad luck can hit anyone, I guess.
Glad you liked it, second part will be on monday

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Sheri February 19, 2011 at 10:04 pm

Great post! Rebecca, I was also taught that it’s primarily the boy’s fault. However, as you have said, both females and males need to take their own responsibility in order to make smooth, successful turns and lifts. It takes cooperation, especially if you’re working with a new partner.

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Henrik February 19, 2011 at 10:12 pm

Glad you enjoyed the post – make sure you catch the continuation on Monday over at Tendus under a Palm Tree!
I think the reason some people teach that it’s all on the boys is to ensure that the boy takes responsibility and does his outmost to prevent the girl from falling.. But then, that’s the least he can do, right? :)

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Alissa Schirtzinger Baird February 19, 2011 at 10:37 pm

Excellent post with good information! Can’t wait to read more :)

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Henrik February 19, 2011 at 10:54 pm

thank u Alissa, glad you enjoyed it!!

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Seven of Nine Davids February 20, 2011 at 12:13 am

Hi. Partnering always make my heart beat faster whether it is in ballet or ballroom or especially ice skating. It is very complex, intriguing and pretty and there is always something that could go wrong. Fortunately, I have never seen any accidents in the live ballet performances I have watched.

Thank you for the details on the little things that make the movement of the woman go smoother in a pas de deux. I like this concept of the blog team up.

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Henrik February 20, 2011 at 9:33 am

I, too, have never seen any serious accidents on stage. But unfortunately, I have seen them in the studio, and it’s terrible!
Otherwise, glad you enjoy it – more coming up on Tendus’ tomorrow (monday)!

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David from DaveTriesBallet February 20, 2011 at 4:41 am

Such an awesome post! Especially as I had my first partnering class today! It was a lot of fun, but so much harder than I expected… Any tips on how to avoid the guy getting his fingers trapped in the girls clothing? One of my partners today was wearing one of those thin wrap skirts over her leotards, and when she was pirouetting my fingers kept getting caught in the bow. Was this my fault? I imagine there are other cases where a costume is at risk of getting caught in the guy – how can you avoid it?
Can’t wait for part two!
David

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Henrik February 20, 2011 at 9:37 am

Simple answer: Ask her to take it off! In my opinion, when practicing, especially when it’s the first time, there should be a “clean” waistline for you to hold, so you don’t get tangled up.
I do understand the girl wants to cover herself a little though, maybe ask if she have some shorts or something tighter that won’t “come up” in the turns?!
I don’t know a specific answer for this though, you just have to try to keep your hands out of her clothes ;)
Glad you got the opportunity to partner, it’s cool, isn’t it?! Looking forward to your “report” :) H

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Rebecca King February 20, 2011 at 3:32 pm

Sheri, I am glad you learned the same thing! For a minute I thought I was going crazy (maybe misinterpreting my teacher’s lesson?!).

Seven of Nine Davids, I know what you mean. The danger is what makes it exciting to watch. Thank you for your support. Look for the next post tomorrow at http://tendusunderapalmtree.blogspot.com.

David, Yes, as Henrik said, the woman should not have anything around her waist that can hinder your performance. She should tuck her skirt bow into her tights, or hide it on the inside. This is common courtesy. Don’t feel bad asking her to remove these kinds of accessories!

Tiggothy and Alissa, Thank you both for your kind words!

I am glad you are all enjoying this. Thanks to you as well Henrik!

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Arthur Maute February 20, 2011 at 11:26 pm

Thanks for all this information. As a ballet fan I have seen all this often on stage but never have had this great chance to learn some of the secrets which normally are hidden behind the beauty of dance, and you have no chance to learn about them. And its I nice way how you both explain things from different views.
Thank you both.
Arthur

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Henrik February 21, 2011 at 8:46 am

Dear Arthur,
Glad you enjoyed the post! Make sure you catch the continuation on http://www.tendusunderapalmtree.blogspot.com today!
Also remember, you can still ask us questions if you have any, that we will address in the Question and Answers-post that will follow this one.
Sincerely
H

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Catherine February 21, 2011 at 4:10 am

This is a fab post!

I had a bad accident partnering with a 6’4 guy where I went right over his head and did a dive roll onto the floor, bruising my neck and spine. It can’t be overestimated–the importance of getting right back in the saddle again so you don’t get quirky about a fall. At least, in my humble opinion. :)

Can’t wait to read the rest!

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Henrik February 21, 2011 at 8:48 am

ouch, sounds bad! 6’4? What giants are you dancing with?
I think you are absolutely right about getting back in the saddle – if you make it a “thing”, you are going to be scared forever. So, straight back to lifting, after a little slap for your giant :)
Glad you liked the first of our posts!

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Lorry (Bead_109) February 21, 2011 at 7:47 am

Thanks for the great post! I really love being let in on the little details!

I have noticed the finger turn before and wondered if it was a big hand/small hand issue. Now it makes perfect sense! I first noticed it and thought it was cute because that’s the way my husband and I hold hands but for us it’s a big hand/small hand issue ;)

I actually got a chance to try a fish dive once but I couldn’t do it. I kept slipping down and forward. I couldn’t quite get my foot where it felt like I could tighten right? I don’t often get to try partnering in class but I sure would like to give that another shot!

Looking forward to the next installment!

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Henrik February 21, 2011 at 8:51 am

big hand/small hand, haha, that’s so cute!!!
Fish dives are hard, especially the no handed one, in terms of holding your body. If you get the chance to try again, try ask the boy to put you a little more “back” – leaving more room for your legs, and easing the balance-issue. Good luck :)
glad you like it, see you over at tendu’s later today! :)

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Dancing Branflake February 21, 2011 at 6:28 pm

Great! Very thorough and thoughtful. I love how honest you two are about the realities of partnering and dancing in general.

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Henrik February 21, 2011 at 6:32 pm

honesty is always the best way :) I’m all for the no-bullshit approach – why do you wanna go and put stars in their eyes, right? Partnering is fantastic, but hard, and it takes effort – a sugar-coated post would just be boring :) Glad you like it!

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Rebecca King February 21, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Arthur, I am so glad that you found interesting information in our post! We hope you like post two! http://tendusunderapalmtree.blogspot.com/2011/02/virtual-pas-de-deux-your-guide-to_21.html

Catherine, Ouch! That sounds like that must have been very traumatic for you! Glad you got back in the saddle again, it is the only way. Was it hard for you to trust a partner once you came back from your injury?

Lorry, Glad you enjoyed the finger turn secrets. I was having a really hard time explaining how it works! Sometimes it is hard to put those kinds of physical things into words. Now you will know next time you see it!

Dancing Branflake, Thank you for your kind words. Check out post two! Enjoy! http://tendusunderapalmtree.blogspot.com/2011/02/virtual-pas-de-deux-your-guide-to_21.html

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Caroline February 22, 2011 at 12:42 am

How does the woman get over the fear of being lifted so high in the air? I don’t know if I could ever get used to that if I were going to become a dancer.

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Henrik February 22, 2011 at 7:47 am

Hi Caroline!
We will address your question in the Question and Answers post, going up on tights and Tiaras in just a few days! :) Thank you for a good question. H

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Adult Beginner February 22, 2011 at 5:13 am

Fascinating, you guys!
Yay!
The ‘always his fault’ thing seemed horribly unfair upon first read, but found myself mulling it over later and thinking, well, of course it has to be that way, the lift-ee must know she’s always right, else how’s she going to go for it 100%?
I mean, I’m not going to leap at somebody if I think he might step aside and say, ‘yeah, see, you were doing it wrong, it wouldn’t have worked anyway’
Also made me think of, if I may bring this up, Black Swan.
That moment between acts of the final performance where Nina yells to the director, ‘He dropped me! It’s his fault!’
Which was a shocking moment, because she’s both lying and putting the bad vibes on her partner, and you realize she’s a bad person on top of being total looney-toons, but now I wonder: Was it shocking because it’s not necessary to say? Like, it’s it’s a known that it’s his fault, so only a huge jerk would go so far as to say it out loud?

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Henrik February 22, 2011 at 7:56 am

Glad you liked it!
I think you are right as to why it’s “always the guys fault” – it’s important to know for the girl that he will always do his outmost to “save” her. Also, I think it’s important for the guys, specially when just learning partnering, to comprehend that he indeed MUST be on top of the situation. She will go for it, and damn you will catch her, right?!

As for Black Swan, wow, I didn’t think about that… I guess you can say yes, it’s unnecessary for Nina to say that, given that we all “agree” that it’s the guys responsibility that the girl stays up. I didn’t think of this though, but rather that she’s indeed a bad person, lying to put blame on someone else.. The interesting part was, when I watched the movie, and she went to the floor, first thing I was thinking was that it was the guys fault: “Ouch – you don’t do that! You don’t drop your partner, regardless of how fucked-up crazy she is”. So I guess that proves, we still think that it is the guys fault, no matter what!

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Mara February 22, 2011 at 11:59 am

The other reasoning in regard to why it is ‘always the guys fault’ as far as i can see, is that ultimately if something does go wrong, the man is really the only one in a position to fix it, or save it from going from a minor error to an utter disaster.

And so just as he bears the ballerina on his shoulders, he must bear the responsibility. Besides, that’s the manly thing to do isn’t it? ;) :)

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Henrik February 22, 2011 at 12:19 pm

true that. In some situations, there’s not much the ballerina can do…

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Mara February 22, 2011 at 12:05 pm

‘As a partner, you should radiate trust and stability to your partner. Remember she puts her life in your hands (literally) when you lift her up there.’
Henrik, that was one of the lovliest things I’ve ever read.

I hope many young male dancers out there have read this post, coz I think if they can understand this, then half the battle is won.

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Henrik February 22, 2011 at 12:20 pm

wow, what a compliment!
Thank you Mara, I’m glad it made some sense :) And you know what? Get boys into a partnering class, and they will consider ballet in a week, I tell you!! :) How ’bout that for increasing boy-recruits to the world of ballet?

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Mara February 22, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Hmm, great idea! Now, how to pull it off… ;)

I confess, when I took my son to his first ballet (Nutcracker of course! ;) ) and he loved it more than I could have dreamed, I secretly hoped he would beg for lessons. But alas, whilst he continues to love the ballet, he has no desire to dance… still, maybe I can accidentally barge into a partnering class with him one day :P

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Henrik February 22, 2011 at 1:44 pm

well, it’s worth a shot?
biggest problem with this theory is, well, when they are old enough to do partnering, it’s getting late to start ballet for career, should they want that… :/

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Rebecca King February 22, 2011 at 3:18 pm

Caroline- Thanks for the great question! Looking forward to answering it.

Adult Beginner- You bring up such a wonderful point! This is exactly why working with a man who does not adapt the “it is always the boy’s fault” rule, time is always wasted placing blame. It makes for a negative and hostile environment. Also a great point on Black Swan. Glad you enjoyed our posts!

Mara- Often the boy is in the position to make an adjustment in order to solve a problem. But many times the woman may not be doing everything that the boy needs. This doesn’t mean that she is doing it wrong. When partnering, different men sometimes need different things, and it is very beneficial to voice these needs. (And yes, we need to find a way to recruit boys! I am sure they would just LOVE the atmosphere of a pas de deux class!) Thanks for the comment!

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Maria Hanley February 22, 2011 at 11:41 pm

I really loved the way named the lifts and gave tips on how to do them. I love reading about things I don’t know that much about and this is one of them! If I ever teach partnering I will know exactly who to come to :)

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Henrik February 23, 2011 at 9:05 am

:) I’m glad you enjoyed it! And of course, we’ll do our best if you ever need help with the teaching.. :)
Make sure you catch the Q&A post on the same topic, coming on thursday..
H

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Rebecca King February 23, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Maria, Thank you for your feedback! We are very interested to hear what particular elements readers liked. This can help us in the future to bring you all exactly what you want!

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JM September 22, 2012 at 8:16 pm

I am having trouble with shoulder lifts. Although I have been taking ballet for quite a while, I haven’t had much partnering. I finally got a really good part in our local ballet company but I can’t seem to place the girls on my shoulder. They are getting high enough but the sit is difficult. We still have awhile before our show. Any tips that might help? Oh by the way, I am 16.

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Henrik September 25, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Hi JM
Shoulder sits can be tricky. The girls needs to really “sit down” on your shoulder, kind of swaying a little in the back to be able to sit steady. Tell her to imagine sitting down on a chair (or a toilet seat, as my pdd teacher used to say). For you, be sure to put her pretty far back on your shoulder. I know it’s scary, but she really needs to have her weight behind your shoulder for this to work – remember, you should both be in balance, the point is not that you should hold her in balance. A good shouldersit is doable without the boy holding the girl after shes up there on your shoulder. Try to experiment a bit with lifting her first up, then further back on your shoulder. But remember to always have someone behind you to spot the lift and make sure noone gets hurt!
Good luck, and let me know how it works out!
Cheers,
H

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AA January 24, 2013 at 11:48 pm

Thank you for this article. Do you have any suggestions for keeping your shoulders down and for making it easier for the guy to lift? I always get in trouble for not keeping my shoulders back enough. I really want to make it easier for my partner to lift me! :)

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