Partnering: It’s Ballet, Asher
For the longest time, the number one correction I got in any dance context other than ballet was, “It’s not ballet, Asher!”
Now, I’ve finally come full circle.
After rehearsal, L and I have been working on partnering stuff together, since we both want to get better at it. This has led me to realize that the sheer volume of non-traditional partnering I’ve done has been tripping me up in a ballet partnering context.
A lot of modern partnering is based in weight-sharing. You can share weight concentrically or eccentrically—in short, by pouring towards or away from your partner or partners—but either option involves a kind of nonverbal negotiation of balance.
Unless you know your partner really well and you’ve developed a strong rapport, you begin slowly.
If you’re “weighting-out,” you tentatively pour yourself away from your partner, feeling for an equal and opposite pull.
If you’re “weighting-in,” you tentatively pour yourself towards your partner, feeling for an equal and opposite push.
It’s this push-pull dynamic that gives partnering based in weight-sharing its beautiful fluid quality. As partners learn to work together, they practice conversing in a language of shared gravity—moving smoothly and silently from “weighting-out” to “weighting-in” and vice-versa.
As they learn to trust each-other and to know each-other’s weight and movement styles, the negotiation process can become so fast and smooth that it becomes invisible to the audience, but it’s always there and it’s always the same.
This is not how ballet partnering typically works.
In ballet partnering—and please note that I’m referring to the traditional, gender-specific roles for clarity, here—the girl isn’t looking for the boy to answer her weight with equal weight. She’s looking for him to be a rock-solid foundation; a kind of balletic buttress.
If you’re used to weight-sharing, you answer lightening with lightening: when your partner gives you less of her weight, you give her less of yours. Likewise, you enter into a pushing dynamic gently: it’s easy to pour too much weight into someone too fast and to knock the whole structure over.
In a ballet context, if your partner feels that you’re supporting her too lightly she tends to respond by taking her weight out of your hands to protect herself. If you’re used to weight-sharing, you’ll automatically respond by lightening and softening your contact, because that’s the typical process of negotiation.
The thing is, that’s not how ballet partnering works at all.
In ballet partnering, the girl offers her weight with the expectation that it’ll be met firmly—as if you, her partner, are a living barre.
Chances are good that if she hasn’t worked with you before, she’ll be light in your hand, so to speak: it is in her best interest not to rely too heavily on you until she’s sure that you’re up to the job.
So, basically, the least useful signal you can send in that moment is exactly the one you’re most likely to automatically send if the vast majority of your experience has been in weight-sharing.
If you respond to the lightness of her touch by offering light support, because the instincts developed through weight-sharing make you feel like you’re going to knock her over otherwise, she’ll won’t feel secure, and withdraw. If her withdrawal leads you to automatically lighten even more, she’ll also withdraw further.
It won’t take long to reach a point at which you’re not a support, but an obstacle: something she’s trying not to whack with her knee or her leg when she turns, for example, but which isn’t actually helping her turn. Needless to say, if that happens, you won’t be able to accomplish much together.
Be steady and firm, and she’ll give you more weight, so she can do the cool stuff that ballet partnering allows. She’ll also be more likely to trust you when you lift her.
Once you get past the negotiation bit, of course, things work pretty much the same way: you don’t want overpower your partner. You just want to be steady and lend her just enough of your gravity and (where appropriate) your momentum or force.
- Even in lifts: you can lift another human using only your own strength, but most ballet lifts work best if you work together.
The real difference is that in weight-sharing, every movement or sequence of movements begins with and depends on a negotiation that equalizes gravity between the partners.
In ballet partnering, there is an initial negotiation, but it’s a different one. The girl silently asks, “Can I trust you to hold me up?” and the boy must answer, “Yes, I’m here,” or things aren’t going to work.
The remaining negotiation process in a ballet context is, as far as I’ve experienced, more about figuring out the physics of your specific bodies. How do you get yourself out of the way of her knee? How much liftoff does she need to help you get her into an overhead press lift? Where is her center of gravity? How does she compensate for your short li’l t-rex arms?
So, anyway, that was the breakthrough of the week for me. It’s one of those things that seems like it should be bindingly obvious—and yet I had grown so accustomed to the process of weight-sharing that I didn’t realize I was doing this unhelpful thing until this Friday.
I don’t know if any of this will be all that helpful to anyone who doesn’t share a similar set of circumstances to mine—but I hope it’ll be at least somewhat useful.