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Read on for an extended preview of an upcoming fall dance book! In September we will publish Experiencing the Art of Pas de Deux, a rare and intimate look at ballet partner dancing written by professional dance couple Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg and Carlos Miguel Guerra. As former principal dancers of the internationally acclaimed Miami City Ballet, the husband and wife team have shared the stage in much of the company’s diverse repertoire, dancing to critical acclaim at some of the world’s most prestigious venues.
We asked Jennifer Kronenberg:
When and why did you want to become a ballet dancer?
I knew I wanted to become a ballet dancer at about six years old. I would watch PBS’s “Dance in America” programs on television and I was completely drawn in by the music and by the sheer beauty of the dance. When I began taking official lessons at age seven and a half I immediately knew in my gut that I wanted ballet to be my career. I was willing to give up every other activity I had going on to take classes more frequently—Girl Scouts, after-school workshops, sleepover parties with friends, everything. I’m not really sure how I knew, I just knew, and I was SURE. As corny as it sounds, it really was a deep emotional calling.
Carlos knew he wanted to dance a bit later in his training. He began taking classes at ten years old, but not by his own choice. His family wanted him to go to the local arts school because it was considered a “better” school academically, and he happened to qualify for the dance division rather than the music division. By around fourteen years old, he realized that he not only had talent, but that he had developed a real love for dancing. He decided then that he wanted to pursue ballet as a career.
For both of us, like most dancers, it is hard to explain in words exactly why we dance. It is like asking a fish why it swims—there comes a point when it is a part of your being and you don’t really know why anymore, you just know it is a necessary part of your existence. It truly feeds our souls.
In their forthcoming book, Kronenberg and Guerra explain how to build and maintain the connections necessary for a trusting and successful team, demystifying the physical, emotional, and artistic intricacies that allow two to dance as one. The book also contains step-by-step instructions for proper posture, lifts, promenades, turns, and even dance conditioning, along with QR code–accessible videos that provide demonstrations of new and complex movements.
Below is chapter 4 of Experiencing the Art of Pas de Deux, in which Kronenberg and Guerra talk about how important it is for dance partners to trust each other and have strong presence of mind in order to effectively work together and dance an artistically successful pas de deux. We hope you’ll enjoy reading this excerpt from the book.
Experiencing the Art of Pas de Deux
The Power of Trust
The road to fostering mutual confidence
Concentration and focused commitment between partners throughout a dance has the potential to translate into a profound and impenetrable bond, a harmonious sophistication and powerful artistic statement. Unfortunately it is not uncommon for dancers to fall mindlessly into routine partnering, focusing solely on the technical demands of the choreography instead of on tuning into the specific (and sometimes varying) needs of their partners. This is what might be considered uncommitted, or “absentee,” pas de deux work. There may be strong presence of body but not of mind when two people dancing together nonetheless dance separately, failing to genuinely connect, failing to truly trust. Given the physically taxing intricacies of today’s works, two dancers must actively engage in an ongoing conversation to make convincing emotional impact on each other and on the audience. Essentially they must work together as one: one body, one mind, one soul, one entity. It is from this ground of mutual awareness that deep rooted trust between partners can arise and flourish.
In dance, the premise of how trust works can seem like a conundrum. Life dictates that giving trust beget trusts, yet placing complete confidence in another person can be terrifically difficult without a prior guarantee of safety. Unwavering mutual confidence between dance partners rarely occurs right away. Typically the securest partnerships are those that allow the dancers to build, through work, a reciprocal, synergetic relationship steadily over time.
The word “trust” itself is often synonymous with “belief,” “faith,” “confidence,” “conviction,” “expectation,” and even “reliance.” While dancers are commonly advised that they must trust their partner, few are ever taught how to safely let go of their natural apprehensions to trust someone or what they themselves should project to successfully earn trust in return. Some will find it difficult to understand what “trust your partner” actually means. In our understanding, this overly general, even clichéd, statement suggests several important concepts. The woman must believe, without a doubt, that she can safely and securely place her life and career in her partner’s hands. Though it may seem a huge exaggeration, in many instances she will feel as if she is doing just that. She must consider her partner truly worthy of handling tremendous responsibility and wholeheartedly accept his professional pledge to make her safety his first priority as he helps her reach the height of her potential. She must feel certain that her partner will always give precedence to her immediate needs, even at the occasional expense of his own comfort and vanity.
Similarly the gentleman must have faith that his ballerina will be steadfast and consistent in her artistic decisions: he must believe that she will have the wherewithal to remain conscientious in her abandon. He has to respect her professional pledge to maintain at all times a courteous awareness of and respect for his whereabouts, his being, and his efforts. He needs to place confidence in her judgment and acknowledge her ability to make practical and intelligent choices relative to the choreography, the circumstances, and his realistic capabilities.
Both dancers must unconditionally commit to relying on each other’s competence and to respecting each other’s weaknesses, learning to accept, without fear, the ever-present, unpredictable margin of human error. Might accidents happen? Yes, of course. In fact, they most certainly will. But as unwavering conviction is developed between the partners together, as a team, the less likely most accidents will become.
As a married couple, it goes without saying that Carlos and I possess a unique and instinctive trust in each other, far surpassing any faith we have worked to develop with other partners. We know and understand each other intimately—inside and out, backwards and forwards. Nevertheless we have certainly had our fair share of mishaps. One incident, in particular, will forever remain clear in our minds. Though we had rehearsed and performed the sensual tango-inspired pas de deux from Paul Taylor’s Piazzola Caldera several times and had become quite confident in it, there was one particular lift that always seemed to be a gamble with fate. As the lady pushes with her legs to propel herself from a seated position on the floor, the gentleman assertively pulls her up by her hands. She flies forward, aiming to land very high up on his chest. As he lets go of her hands to catch her rear with his own, her legs ideally should wrap cross-legged over his upper shoulders. If both dancers’ timing and propulsion are not precisely coordinated, the results can be dangerous—as we discovered firsthand. I felt Carlos pull me up from the floor. Fearing that we were late, I pushed forward more assertively than usual. The excess momentum made for a rough landing, and Carlos abruptly stepped backward to counterbalance the impact. Usually as steady as a pillar, his sudden, uncharacteristic wobbling caused me to panic. Instinctively I squeezed my legs as tightly as I could around his neck, oblivious to the repercussions. As his neck cracked, Carlos temporarily blacked out and toppled to the ground. He lay still on the studio floor, motionless and unresponsive, as I stood beside him, horrified. Though his blackout lasted only a few moments, I feared my actions had paralyzed him. Regret coursed through me as fiercely as a raging river. Had I only trusted his ability to absorb the abrupt impact of my landing and recover quickly, the accident could have been avoided. I should have held both my composure and my position, allowing him leeway to regain his balance. My attempt to take total control of the situation out of fear ultimately knocked us down. We were both shaken by the incident, though thankfully neither of us was seriously injured. It was, however, a swift and serious lesson on just how important unconditional, resolute trust is to a successful partnership.
Undoubtedly certain pairings will feel more immediately organic than others, naturally generating a relaxed, unforced, uncontrived chemistry. That being said, dancers should understand that any partners can learn to develop a trustful working relationship, whether they are married or unmarried, acquainted or unacquainted. Initially most dancers will find consistent rehearsal incredibly helpful. The more frequently partners work together, whether rehearsing specific choreography or experimenting with random exercises, the more casually the dancers will start to make discoveries about each other. Staying conscientiously sensitive and attuned to each other’s needs, they will quickly grow to understand one another. Demonstrating reciprocal patience, humility, and professional respect will help them foster mutual confidence and sustain a trusting partnership.
There are various strategies dancers can use to persuade their partners subconsciously to place faith in them. A gentleman, for example, should assert himself with certainty when leading his partner, projecting his own security, confidence, and stability. Sensing his self-assurance typically enables a lady to feel safe, secure, and free to let go of worry or hesitancy. In turn, ladies can help gentlemen feel confident and capable by surrendering the “reins,” though this can be extremely difficult to do voluntarily. More often than not, partnered dance, ballet in particular, celebrates chivalry. In fact, its overt gallantry is reminiscent of an era before the advent of modern feminism. Though choreographic demands in partnering are undoubtedly much higher on women in the twenty-first century, the lady must still allow her partner the control he will undoubtedly need to help her look and dance her best. In ballet, the gentleman does not typically lead in a conventional ballroom-dance fashion. Even so, he will still be predominantly in charge of “steering the ship.” This does not mean, however, that the lady is free of obligation. A tremendous amount of work will be required of her as well. Most significantly she will be responsible for holding her trunk, better known as her “center,” engaged and taut. This includes her innermost abdominal core muscles, her upper back, her lumbar spine, and her lower pelvic region. She must achieve a delicate harmony, approaching the steps with centered control (as if unsupported) while being just relaxed enough to allow her partner the opportunity to maneuver and control her equilibrium as necessary. Hard though it may be, she must absolutely refrain from trying to take charge of the partnering herself.
Relinquishing control of the dance can be an unnerving concept for some dancers, particularly when two dancers learn and work at different paces. A lady’s natural urge to make adjustments and self-partner will almost always surface in the early stages of a partnership. As the gentleman takes time to find his way, gradually discovering how best to partner her, the lady may find she has to negotiate some uncomfortable situations: falling off pointe and off balance, struggling to smoothly connect step sequences, and lagging behind the music to name a few. It is imperative that both dancers remain patient, keeping in mind this truth: the male dancer will often have a great deal more to decipher within each passage than his female counterpart. For each and every step, the gentleman must decide where his hands should be placed (with consideration for his partner’s proportions), where his body should be positioned in relation to hers, and what precisely his feet should be doing. He will be obliged to learn his partner’s choreography in addition to his own and will need to maintain a constant focus on her, remaining aware of her inclinations and instantly calculating where she could be at any given moment. He must discover, navigate, and work around her personal intricacies, accommodating himself to meet her individual needs, her physical specificities, her center of gravity, and even her personality. All things considered, it would behoove dancers, both male and female, to be as mindful, sensitive, tolerant, and cooperative with each other as possible.
As with most everything, there are definite exceptions to the general rule of male dominance in partnering. Take for example much of Twyla Tharp’s choreography. A woman who has audaciously broken through the gender restraints and stereotypes herself, her work naturally reflects the ideas of independence and autonomy. Much of her choreography requires the female dancer to demonstrate a strength equal to, if not surpassing, that of her male counterpart. In the Tharp works we have danced, the woman is often responsible for supporting her male partner’s weight against her own and for mustering the strength to use his weight as an opposite and equal force by which to propel her own movements. At times, she may even be required to reverse roles entirely, partnering the man herself. In the final section of Nine Sinatra Songs, for example, one of the women is required to take the reins and promenade her partner. Though it may not sound particularly challenging, even the simplest of role reversals can end up being surprisingly difficult. There is rarely any complacency in Tharp’s choreography. On the contrary, in her pas de deux, one almost always encounters a push to meet a pull: two opposite forces working equally both with and against each other. This parity between the dancers helps to create the grounded, almost weighted, feeling associated with much of Tharp’s work. In such untraditional dance situations, it may be difficult for one or both dancers to confidently trust the woman’s seemingly weaker physique to support the man’s center of gravity and weight. Regardless, they should try to place their trust in the actual physics of partnering: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. As two dancers shift with equal and opposing force, offsetting each other’s weight in just the right way, they will find they are able to counterbalance one another regardless of their differences in muscle mass and weight. Often this can be managed without great physical exertion and with very little physical risk to the dancers.
As Carlos and I have discovered personally, trust in one another and trust in ourselves is essential to a technically and artistically successful pas de deux. If either dancer allows personal insecurity to morph into fear, inconsistent performance can be the unhappy result. Any bonds of trust the partners have worked to build will prove virtually irrelevant. Diffidence impedes timing; reluctance impedes unity. The end result is a shaky performance and a missed opportunity for achieving artistic excellence. Key to trusting a partner—and one of partnering’s biggest challenges—is learning to maintain unwavering faith in oneself. If dancers do not learn to believe in their own capabilities and to have confidence in both their muscle memory and their ability to perform under pressure, then they are likely to find it very difficult to trust a partner.
While “narcissistic” may seem an unduly harsh term to describe dancers, we are definitely a self-involved breed. It may be because we scrutinize ourselves in the mirror for hours a day or because we are constantly judged on appearances. Being understandably consumed with striving to look and dance their best, dancers must summon tremendous strength of will to give themselves over to another person, to share control over circumstances. If two dancers can manage to discover a state of calm in doing so, however, they will enjoy an intensified security and an unparalleled freedom—both, paradoxically, as the result of surrendering to one another. In striving to achieve unyielding confidence, as a couple, the dancers must dance for and with each other, completely. This means not worrying about the mirror, the audience, or the ballet masters. It requires tuning out other people in the room and ignoring their thoughts and opinions for the duration of the dance. It calls for the dancers’ acknowledgment and acceptance of their respective insecurities and their willingness to guide each other along the path to overcoming them. It demands escape from the chains of insecurity and awakening to a deeper consciousness that leads to beauty, the beauty of a fluent and captivating physical conversation. Complete commitment must be the equal pledge of each dancer, for better or worse. It is only from this figurative marriage, both to the pas de deux and to each other, that genuine and unconditional trust between two partners will grow, blossom, and thrive.