Partnering Protocol: Help Students Get Past the Awkwardness and Work Together

Jock Soto teaching class at the School of American Ballet. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor

In a partnering class at the School of American Ballet, Jock Soto teaches his students a lift that requires the boys to lift their female partners by the underarms. Some boys do it correctly, but others hesitate. Seeing this, Soto appeals to their sense of humor: “I'm sure these girls are clean," he jokes. “So put your hands right in her armpits." When the giggles subside, the class tries the lift again. This time every boy has the correct hand placement.


Teaching partnering can be complicated. In a class that requires all kinds of touching, students might feel awkward and unsure about physical boundaries. But teachers can ease that tension by emphasizing respect, sensitivity and humor. The following advice will allow you to help your students get past the awkwardness and start working together to develop fruitful partnerships.

First Touches

At first, students may feel nervous or shy because they're not used to their bodies being in such close proximity. To help them get over this initial fear, teachers can begin the class with exercises that involve little or no physical contact.

Diane Arvanites, a modern dance teacher at the Walnut Hill School, starts with a series of non-touching exercises in which the students mirror each other's movements. Then they maintain very limited skin contact (touching only the palms of their hands, for example). Eventually the students lean on one another, exchanging weight. By that time, Arvanites says, “They are over the weirdness. They've realizedthat physicality is not always a personal thing."

Similarly, Soto has his students gaze into each other's eyes for 16 counts or hold hands and simply walk across the studio. William DeGregory, former director of Pennsylvania Ballet II, suggests working from the extremities inward, starting class with hand and arm promenades before the boys hold the girls by their midsections. From there, “I have the girl stand on pointe in passé," DeGregory says, “while the boy leans her forward, back, side to side, to feel her balance. It puts the focus on the process, rather than the touching."

Setting Boundaries

Partnering should never feel invasive. While students are generally shy about touching, tending to err on the side of caution, some may take advantage of close physicality in inappropriate ways. Teachers should address this issue at the start of class or at suitable times throughout the lesson to establish a respectful working environment.

For Soto, every step is an opportunity to talk logistics: “At the beginning of each combination, I make sure to tell the boys where to lift—on the waist, under the shoulder blades, on the hip." With pirouettes, Soto admits that things can be a little tricky: “The girl is usually afraid she's going to knee him in the crotch. I tell the boys that if they're close to her, that's going to happen—make sure you're not in her way." But sometimes hands do slip accidentally. Encouraging students to have a sense of humor helps them to better handle these kinds of situations.

In modern partnering, which can be more intimate and physical than ballet partner work, Arvanites discusses with her class the importance of having respect for someone else's personal boundaries.“Of course," she says, “you wouldn't allow a student to touch another student in a personal area. But eventually, even that area becomes a part of the body that's not personal. It just takes a while."

Once students have developed a level of trust with their partners, you can introduce steps that involve generally “off-limits" areas like the buttocks and groin—shoulder sits and torch lifts, for example. But these lifts should be reserved for advanced students who already understand the difference between what is necessary touching and what is not.

Pairing Up

When students select their own partners, they naturally gravitate toward friends. But this process can make class even more stressful for those who are left out. Instead, DeGregory insists that every boy dance with every girl. “That means there's always a different energy," he says. “And shy students won't feel like they have to break into a social clique."

Students vary in height and strength, however, and not all partnerships will be natural physical matches. Show your students ways to compensate for these differences. A short boy, for example, can hold a taller girl by her wrists or forearms instead of trying to take her by the hands. The girl can help, too, by bending her elbows to shorten her arms. Strength issues are trickier, since strength usually comes with experience. DeGregory suggests that when a boy is having a problem lifting a girl, you might ask him to “do a simple mid-level lift, so he can work on establishing strength." To prevent injury or embarrassment, avoid asking younger students to do full presses or other complicated lifts altogether.

What changes if the pairings are girl/girl or boy/boy? A lot, says Arvanites. “Over the years," she says, “I've found that girls are relatively comfortable dancing with each other; boys are not. It doesn't matter what their sexual orientation is. Girl/boy pairings tend to be most comfortable because that's the socially accepted norm of contact."

Yet all couples in partnering class, regardless of gender, face the same challenge: getting over fear so that they can effectively support each other. “When students can look at their bodies as professional tools, as instruments, they'll see that the physicality of partnering is not personal," Arvanites says. “It's about responsibility for the other person."

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