Many contemporary choreographers today expect women to be game to do some lifting. However, the partnering training that most female dancers grow up with—if they have partnering classes at all—usually only teaches them to be supported by a man. It's no surprise that being a good lifter requires physical strength, but it may also require a change in mind-set.
Build Physical and Emotional Strength
Being a base comes with a great sense of responsibility, which you may not have experienced if you're used to being lifted. "You have to build your heart strength," says Sarah East Johnson, founder of the feminist acrobatic dance company LAVA, meaning you have to develop emotional fortitude as well as physical ability.
Contact improvisation teacher and choreographer Krista DeNio says dancers can use floor work to build an awareness of how to move their own weight in and out of the ground, and to gain confidence. Then, they can experiment with transferring weight into and out of a wall or furniture.
Johnson and DeNio both suggest handstands as a way to build the physical and mental strength needed for lifting. "Walk or kick your feet up the wall and stay there for 30 to 60 seconds. Put a watch on the floor and try to stay just a little longer than you want to," says Johnson.
Look For Examples
Johnson points out that women's confidence may be affected by the fact that they have not seen many examples of female lifters. She suggests that dancers seek out videos of companies like LAVA, Urban Bush Women and the Australia-based Vulcana Women's Circus.
Talk It Out
DeNio (left) says verbal cues are often neccessary when you're starting out. Photo by Jun Akiyama, courtesy DeNio
"Don't be afraid of using language. Particularly when we're starting out and not as familiar with physical cues, we should rely on verbal cues," says DeNio. "It also helps with establishing boundaries, like when you need to leave or change a dance, or let your partner know about an injury." Take breaks and talk about what's working or not. "There is always something each person can do to make a lift better for the other," says Johnson.
Use Everything You've Got
Dancers need to use their whole bodies—not just their arms—to lift. Photo by Whitney Browne
Lifting always involves the whole body, even if it looks like it comes from the arms. However, when there is a significant size difference between two partners—as is often the case in ballet, when a larger man lifts a smaller woman—the larger partner can rely more on simple strength. When two partners are closer in size, both dancers need to be more resourceful. "Take an integrated approach to strength. Women have a lot of strength in our pelvis, and we can think of every part of our body as a potential ledge for support—hips, shoulders, arms, legs," says DeNio. Instead of straining to lift from the shoulders and arms alone, think about how to use weight, momentum and the structure of your body to make a lift happen.