12 Tips for Successful Partner Dancing

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“Choose a partner.”

Those words can instill fear and panic into even the most seasoned performer. It’s a lot of pressure to dance with someone onstage. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to create a great relationship, find your charm, and practice patience. So whether you’re an actor who moves preparing for a background waltz scene or a seasoned diva in a Rob Ashford intensive, here are a few things to help you go from tentative wallflower to belle of the ball.

Prepare yourself. Setting up for success is key in this situation. We are humans before dancers, so know that even though you’ll be learning choreography, partner dancing involves physical and communicative human connection. Preparing yourself for both will make all parties more comfortable.

  1. Wash your hands and make sure your fingernails aren’t going to kill anyone. I know this sounds like 101, but you’d be surprised. Ladies, scratching your partner hurts. Those pointy little manicures are cute outside the studio, but they are also a partner’s worst nightmare.
  2. Check your breath! When in doubt, an Altoid is always a good idea. But no gum. I’ll jump out of this article and smack you if you chew gum in a rehearsal.
  3. Please, please, wear your damn deodorant! No one likes a stinky partner!
  4. Plan ahead for sweaty palms. Keep baby powder or a hanky close by so you can dry them off before making contact.

Present yourself. OK, so you’re groomed, fresh, and ready. Introducing…your partner! And a crap load of choreography! Now what? Take a breath and get it together with the steps below.

  1. Make eye contact! It’s a great way to communicate without speaking, and it will add to your irresistible sparkle.
  2. Talk to each other. You’re going to be moving together as one, so you’ll need to tell your partner (quietly during rehearsal, please) if you need support in a certain way, if something feels unsafe or funky, etc. And say thank you. Your partner literally has your back.
  3. Pick up on your partner’s energetic cues. They may not have read this article and are feeling weird about some aspect of the partnering, or shy about saying what they need. Simply asking, “Does that grip feel comfortable to you?” will give your partner permission to say yes or no and open up a conversation.
  4. Choose a smile over a snarl. Your partner is human. And even if you are frustrated or you just aren’t able to make that lift work, it takes two to tango. Approach any road bumps by asking, “How can we fix this?”

Do your part. Partnering is tricky because there are definite roles you must adhere to in order to make it work. One of you must lead, and one must follow. It’s about trust. But you must uphold your physical end of the bargain, whether you’re the leader or the follower.

  1. When holding hands in a traditional couple’s position, keep your grip firm but friendly. For the guys, it shows you know what you’re doing. For the gals, it shows you’re ready to be led. (And gals, please let the guys lead!)
  2. Frame your arms with a little tension and use that tension to steer or be steered. Press down through your shoulders, engage your lats, and lift your triceps to complete the frame.
  3. Ladies, don’t just stand there and expect to be led and lifted effortlessly. You must hold yourself strong and centered to be a good partner. If you are being lifted, you still have to jump! Use your arms and legs to give resistance. Bend your knees and go for it. Press down to go up, and trust your partner.
  4. Gents, chivalry is not dead on the dance floor! I know it’s a lot of pressure, but leading with confidence is everything. Be trustworthy and strong, and have a plan! Every moment you get to know your partner is another moment of learning how they need to be led. You’ll do great.

A final word: Eventually, something will go awry in a partnering situation. (I once kicked my partner directly in the face onstage during what was supposed to be a very sexy moment. Hi Rashad!) Don’t worry about the fumbles, just enjoy the process and focus on the fact that someone out there cast you because they felt like you are trustworthy partner material. Go you!

Like this advice? Check out more from our Backstage Experts!

The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Erika Shannon
Erika Shannon is a choreographer, teacher, and movement coach, working with dancers of all levels, singers, models, and fitness enthusiasts to help them move their bodies with confidence and connect to movement so it makes sense. Her signature online dance program, Don’t Dodge the Dance Call, has been featured in several theatrical publications, including Backstage!
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