When is a student ready to start pas de deux, and how should they prepare?

Whether the ballet is Swan Lake, The Nutcracker or The Sleeping Beauty, the pas de deux which forms the centrepiece of these ballets always captivates and inspires. Generally consisting of an entrée and adagio, a variation for each dancer and a coda, the graceful effortlessness of the pas de deux is what most young dancers aspire to. Students look forward with excitement to the day when they can commence partnering work. Once they start to learn pas de deux they come to understand how much work goes into creating the illusion of effortlessness.

When is a dancer ready?
According to Tim Storey, Head of Dance at the Victorian College of Arts Secondary School, pas de deux is an absolute joy to teach and to learn, but damage and injury can occur if the students are not physiologically ready or technically proficient. He believes there is no benefit to starting early and points out that that both teachers and dancers should exercise caution. “Don’t hurry when you think you are ready – wait a while,” he says.

Pas de deux class for girls is an extension of their pointe and ballet classes. They need to be at an advanced standard of pointe work with a strong core and good control. According to Storey, pas de deux work is beneficial for girls as the practice of holding sustained positions is good for both strength and technique consolidation. Core strength is important because a boy cannot support a girl who is not lifted and pulled up.

Angus Lugsdin is the Coordinator and Senior Dance Instructor at Queensland Dance School of Excellence. He says that one of the mistakes girls make when starting pas de deux class is “thinking it’s the boy’s job to hold them up”.

He lists pre-requisites as being good ballet and pointe technique, a well developed plie and strong jump as well as a strong sense of centre and placement when holding positions.

Partnering work can be damaging for boys if their bodies are not ready, risking back and shoulder injuries. Storey advises a very cautious approach, especially as boys tend to be a couple of years behind girls in physiological development. At the VCASS, boys generally commence partnering work in the middle of Year 10 (approximately 16 years of age).

Even then and up to Year 12, he says, there can be big differences in boys’ development, so an individual approach is required. Lugsdin agrees: “It is a common mistake to have boys lifting too much too soon”.

Once boys’ bodies have matured, Storey recommends that they commence a strength and body conditioning program that concentrates on building a strong core and upper body. He also recommends an aerobic training program to ensure boys are fit for the demands of partnering work.

One of the essential aspects of partnering work is good communication. Two people cannot expect to dance together as one if they do not talk to each other about what does and doesn’t work. Partners need to communicate clearly about their moves and clarify the hand-holds as well as where they need to stand and travel. As Storey says, this communication is not always verbal, as partners communicate through touch and feel. Eye contact, body awareness and trust are other essential aspects of partnering work.

The ‘ew’ factor
In terms of personal hygiene, it makes sense for dancers to invest in a good anti-perspirant, but sooner or later you will need to embrace the notion that sweat is good. Dancers share their sweat – this is just part of the deal and the sooner they get used to it the better. Dancers also need to get used to touching another person’s body. Partners need to move past any sense of embarrassment and communicate clearly with each other about what works and doesn’t as well as checking what is comfortable.

Jewellery is a no-no. Rings, watches and necklaces can become weapons when you are working in close proximity to them. Long fingernails can also be very dangerous – so keep them short and well groomed.

In addition, hair and clothing needs to be securely fastened.

When starting out in pas de deux class, young dancers need to develop a partnering mindset. They are now part of a duo and need to learn to move together and stay together. This means being aware of each other’s position at all times and being conscious of the distance between each other. Boys must make sure that they are there for their partner when she needs him. Generally the boy is behind the girl – so it is the boys’ job to have their hand in the right position for the girl. Girls need to learn to trust the boy to be in position when required and, according to Lugsdin, “a boy must constantly anticipate where his partner needs to be”.  

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