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Developing Curriculum

This is an excerpt from Dance Partnering Basics With HKPropel Access by Brandon S. Whited & Joshua Manculich.

There are many considerations related to developing curriculum, and their scale and scope depend on the circumstances of instruction. It would be misguided to discuss models for curriculum building related to a series of dance partnering courses, given that many dance programs, studios, and organizations do not have a robust partnering training practice. Consider how the inclusion of a dance partnering course may fit with other course offerings. How can dance partnering relate to, support, and expand on other training methods? For this introductory consideration of dance partnering pedagogy, curriculum development as described next relates to course planning or similar applications within a series of workshops.

Zooming Out: Semester or Quarter Planning

First, zoom out to broad principles for consideration when planning a dance partnering curriculum. Although instructor needs may differ based on the educational and social settings, the broad principles introduced here provide a framework that can be tailored. How might the instructor maximize the instruction within a single course or, given the opportunity, create a series of partnering classes that build on one another and allow advanced students to deepen their practice? This section offers models for a 10-week program. The next section covers an individual master class, but can of course be tailored to suit individual program needs.

The following pages present sample topical outlines to illustrate different organizational approaches to planning a series of partnering classes, with the aim to build a foundational skill set or tool kit. These outlines provide specific course plans that can be used as offered or can serve as inspiration for reinterpretation and personalization. Table 2.1 presents the author’s Integrated Partnering course, a 10-week sequence designed for the quarter system. Both the class format and pace are designed to survey multiple partnering genres—contact improvisation, ballet, and contemporary partnering—to help students understand the many intersections of the seemingly different forms. Within a longer, semester-based version, ballroom dance and social dance are also offered.

TABLE 2.1 Integrated Partnering Course: 10-Week Topical Outline

Topical Outline: Integrated Partnering

A topical outline can be broad or detailed. A broad outline focuses on the overarching genres and principles to be explored in a given week, which allows students to prepare mentally for what is to come and to have a clearer sense of what to expect. This outline then becomes a broad guide for the instructor to plan, organize, and manage their individual class plans and the overall flow of the course. A detailed outline may include the specific skills or exercises to be taught. Keeping the details broad allows for more flux in plan implementation; the instructor has more room to stay on a topic or move on quickly depending on student needs and interests.

Weeks 1 Through 3

In weeks 1 through 3, use low-risk, low-weight-bearing exercises to develop trust. Doing so allows students to test their confidence and comfort level while the stakes are lower. Even dancers who are familiar with their classmates but new to partnering may feel like they must become reacquainted. In partnering training, students are asked to go beyond social dynamics and friendly relatability to a place of trust, reliability, strength, and physical connection. Momentum and risk are exciting dynamics when prepared for and used appropriately, but encouraging sensitivity is a vital step toward confident and safe exploration of deeper progressions. Experienced partners can also benefit, because this progression allows them to adapt to and connect with their peers. For advanced students, the learning process may be quicker, but there is significant benefit to beginning with less risk and more nuance even within a single class or short workshop series.

Approaches rooted in contact improvisation (detailed in chapter 1) are introduced as the course progresses. In contact improvisation, the mutual, 50-50 nature of weight sharing is driven by its initial theoretical and physical ideals related to egalitarian interaction and nonhierarchical dynamics between partners (Novack 1990). Because of this emphasis on balance and equity, contact improvisation is a wonderful bridge toward exercises and choreographed phrases that require the dynamic of supporting and giving weight equally. Improvisation also allows for varying degrees of risk, play, and exploration, because students can decide to share less weight, slow their practice, or simplify exploration until they become more comfortable. This mitigation gives both instructors and students time to assess readiness and build trust and confidence. To illustrate the sense of release and falling that contact improvisation requires, use a yoga or exercise ball to stand in as students’ first partner.


Student using a Yoga ball as a partner to build toward risk and momentum in contact improvisation.

Surfing practice (i.e., giving weight with momentum) using a yoga ball as a partner allows students to feel full release and ride momentum before they work with others.
Surfing practice (i.e., giving weight with momentum) using a yoga ball as a partner allows students to feel full release and ride momentum before they work with others.


Preparation for contact improvisation, and follow-up to Yoga ball exploration.

Weeks 4 Through 6

Ballet partnering is explored at arm’s length in weeks 4 through 6. Distal connections (hand partnering), formality, and presentation of the supported partner are common in ballet, in which nuanced degrees of distance are maintained between partners and body-to-body contact is minimized (Serebrennikov 2000). With its emphasis on strength, timing, leverage, and plumb line awareness, there is much to learn from ballet even if this form is not central to the curriculum. Teaching ballet partnering in a nongendered way, with both individuals working equally and trading roles, offers a balanced understanding of a some-what imbalanced form (relative to its use of traditional roles). Practicing the mechanics, timing, nuanced musicality, balance clarity, and gravity defiance of ballet partnering also offers an exciting and strength-building experience for students. As in similar approaches to teaching social dance and ballroom classes in which all students learn to both lead and follow, this ballet partnering approach naturally fosters a more inclusive space for students. For excellent examples of this type of learning, see exercise 14, Promenade, and exercise 15, Traditional Lifts, in chapter 4. For further reading on ballet partnering, see the second edition of Pas de Deux: A Textbook on Partnering by Nikolai Serebrennikov (2000).

Weeks 7 Through 9

In weeks 7 through 9, the mechanics learned in the ballet-focused unit, coupled with understanding of weight, flow, and bodily connections gained from early foundational work and contact improvisation, allow for more confident entry into the complex, hybrid approaches characteristic of contemporary partnering. Students employ strength, timing, leverage, and momentum, along with nuance and sensitivity to touch and weight. Use of body architecture, alternative partnered connections beyond hand use, and comfort with moving in and out of the ground all come into play when exploring contemporary repertory, improvisational partnering, and development of partnering in students’ creative, choreographic work.

Week 10

To conclude this teaching arc, week 10 centers on collaborative student projects that use the skills and techniques learned over the quarter. Weather permitting, site-specific framing that allows time outside can be a welcome change of scenery from the studio. Studio-based projects are equally as effective in the distillation of material learned within the course and students’ application of the collaboration, cooperation, and communication skills developed. Invited showings of students’ final projects, performances, presentations on their process, and discussions are excellent ways to wrap up the partnering learning experience. Student reflection on their progress can also meaningfully wrap up their hard work over many weeks. How did I do? What did I learn? What improved, and what would I still like to work on? What fears and inhibitions did I release through this practice?

Note that this shortened topical outline does not include a dedicated study of social dance, ballroom partnering, or folk-dance forms. The skills in the trainings here develop a strong sense of frame, nonverbal communication, posture, and non-weight-bearing cooperation, all of which dovetail nicely with ballet, modern, and contemporary partnering. For the 10-week quarter system, this social dance learning unit is removed to tighten the flow and allow adequate time for more directly related techniques. With more time (e.g., over a semester or multiple quarters), partnering techniques in social and ballroom dance can be explored to further enrich the student experience.

More Excerpts From Dance Partnering Basics With HKPropel Access