Training

Become a Better Partner: Tips for Women

Students at Walnut Hill

From their first moments in the studio, female ballet dancers are taught to hold themselves upright and control each movement of their body with intense precision. Yet in partnering, these rules of independent practice are challenged. Sasha Janes, Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music faculty member and partnering coach, offers some tips for how female dancers can navigate this change in approach.

(For tips for male ballet dancers, click here.)


Develop Trust

Boston Ballet's Lia Cirio and Lasha Khozashvili, photo by Rosalie O'Connor

There are times when you must turn all your body weight over to your partner and allow their performance to determine your performance. Just as in solo work, there are steps that cannot be executed without complete tenacious commitment. Be prepared to fall into or away from your partner with full energy. Trust is built through rehearsal and an achievable shared goal. If a step in partnering is done with half confidence, your partner will not be able to feel your intention and there is little hope for success.

Be Empathetic

Houston Ballet's Connor Walsh and Karina Gonzalez, photo by Kate Longley

You have trained for years how to successfully move your body through space, so you understand the mechanics of the ballet body. Know where your partner's weight needs to be for a given step or transition, and be prepared to allow him to move into that space—a good partnership should make life easier, not harder.

Communicate Regularly

American Ballet Theatre's Hee Seo and Marcelo Gomes, photo by Kyle Froman

Speak to each other often. Oftentimes women fear that if we speak up or admit to being uncomfortable, we will be perceived as a "bad partner." The exact opposite is true. If a step isn't working, never be afraid to talk about it. If you let an issue go, it festers and can affect the chemistry and confidence of the partnership onstage.

Build Strength

San Francisco Ballet's Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada, photo by Erik Tomasson

Upper body and back strength is imperative. The time of the waifish ballerina is over. Women must have the ability to lift and be a counterweight. The stronger you are, the more versatile your movement and the pictures you can create with your partner become.

Match His Energy

Jock Soto teaching at SAB. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor

For every push, there should be an equal and opposite push. Perhaps your inclination when you feel a hand pushing you is to allow your body to follow that partner's direction. However, there are very clear times when a step in partnering requires the female dancer to give equal resistance to her male counterpart. Hands touching are a unique mechanism sending for messages about balance between bodies. Whether you are executing a classical ballet penché with one arm or an off-balance arabesque in a pas by Jiri Kylian, you must feel and match your partner's energy to find stability.

Have Patience

Thinkstock

You can't make the next step happen alone; it has to be a joint effort. Partnering is a conversation; always wait to see what your partner "says" to you, then respond with your natural movement. No matter how much you want to control things, wait for your partner. If the woman's body weight transfers before the man has begun his motion to partner, the fluidity is disturbed and the natural rhythm of the step is lost. There is also inevitably a visually jarring bobble that takes the audience out of the piece. No one wants that.

Be Honest About Body Placement

The Joffrey's Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Gutierrez, photo by Cheryl Mann

Sometimes, in rehearsal, you have to fall—give yourself over to the failure. Nothing is gained by faking a success in the early stages of a pas rehearsal period. This is especially true for women. If you are not on your leg, don't hold yourself. Your partner will learn faster if you are honest in your execution. In a pirouette, go for it and turn in an honest, dependable position—an accidental knee hit will only happen once, so apologize and move forward.

Be Respectful

School of Richmond Ballet

No matter what, you must address each other with the utmost respect. Whether you just met your partner, live with him or have been friends with him for years, never let your relationship outside the studio affect the way your work together professionally. You will never achieve success if you are just finding fault in each other, and choreographers will not want to work with you if outside baggage is junking up the studio space. Both of you are performing onstage—not one or the other. Be there for each other.

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Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

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