How to Do Basic Lifts for Pas de Deux

Performing a successful lift is half the battle in pas de deux. Lifts are both scary and difficult to do, as women fear being dropped and men doing the dropping. But since they’re a part of almost every ballet, it is important to get familiar with some of the most commonly used lifts, no matter how challenging it may seem at the beginning. Practice is also the best way to get over your fears, whether you are a male or female dancer.

So before your next rehearsal for Sleeping Beauty’s Wedding, read up on seven of the most frequently performed lifts. Even the most difficult, beautiful, jaw dropping lifts can be done with ease, as long as you and your partner are prepared—and trust each other, of course!

The Fish Dive

What It Looks Like

The fish dive is perhaps the simplest and easiest lift in all of ballet. It’s proximity to the ground lets both dancers feel more comfortable trying it out, while its positioning creates a beautiful and seemingly complex line. It’s also versatile, allowing the dancers to enter it from a variety of positions, including jumps.

The highlight of this lift’s aesthetic is the downward diagonal contrasted by the upward arch of the female’s back.


Here is the simplest way to get into a fish dive:

  1. The woman should start in arabesque en pointe, right in front of her partner.
  2. He can then take one arm and wrap it around her waist, just below the rib cage. The other arm wraps over and around the thigh of her working leg, just above the knee.
  3. From there, the guy just tilts her downward, bending one knee for support.
  4. The ballerina will then bend her standing leg into a parallel passé. She must hold her core tightly and use her back strength to pull herself slightly upright, creating the ideal line.

In order to exit the lift, the male simply lifts his partner upright as she extends both legs. She is then placed carefully back onto pointe, taking the arabesque position she started from.

Hot Tip: Back It Up

For ballerinas, the most important part of a fish dive is maintaining a strong and supple back. If you’re having trouble, try this exercise: Lie on your stomach with a partner holding down your calves. With your arms to the side, raise yourself up as high as you can, hold it, then lower with control. Repeat 16-times daily to gain strength in your back. Feel daring? Raise your arms to a high fifth during the exercise for a bigger challenge.

Getting Past the Hard Part

For women, the hard part of a fish dive is sustaining the pose as it requires a good deal of upper back strength just to lift up. But if you remember to keep your core tight and your gaze lifted, the rest will come naturally.

Men do have the option to do a hands-free fish dive—but don’t worry about that quite yet. Start by keeping both feet flat on the floor and arms in full use. Once you and your partner feel secure, you can point the front foot in a lunge position. If that becomes easy, then have the ballerina hook one leg behind you, and then you can let go.

Never do this without first discussing it with your partner to make sure you’re both comfortable with the advanced move.

The Shoulder Sit

What It Looks Like

The shoulder sit is one of the grandest and most regal lifts in ballet. Its name is blissfully self explanatory, as the ballerina is lifted to a sitting position astride her partner’s shoulder. This lift is used commonly in grand pas de deux of noble couples, from Paquita and Lucien to the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.


Most often, shoulder sits are performed with the ballerina ending up on her partner’s right shoulder, for both ease of movement and balanced aesthetic. However, it can be altered if the male prefers his left side.

The best and most common preparation for a shoulder sit is when the ballerina does a simple relevé to sous sus with her partner’s hands on her waist, then a nice deep plié, and one smooth lift onto the shoulder. She must make sure to keep a tight core and not to lean forward, as this will tip her off balance and make her more difficult to control on the way up.

The male should focus on centering his partner during the preparation to make the lifting easier.

A shoulder sit can be exited in many ways, but the easiest way is for the male to simply lower his partner off his shoulder and back to the starting position, directly in front of him.

As both dancers feel more comfortable, the lift can be altered to make the transitions more difficult. For example, the male could remove one hand from his partner at the lift’s peak; the lift can go straight into a fish dive; or—in the most difficult version—the ballerina can go straight into the lift by jumping onto her partner’s shoulder, no hands involved. These alterations are very advanced, however, and should not be attempted without the advice and supervision of an instructor.

Mental Edge

Shoulder sits never feel comfortable, as sitting on a guy’s shoulder is nothing like sitting on a more stable surface. But instead of comparing the lift to sitting on a wobbly chair, think of it as what it is: A princess riding on a lifted caravan!

Getting Past the Hard Part

For ballerinas, shoulder sits can be terrifying due to the lack of solid support beneath you. The key is to—really—stick your butt out as your partner places you on his shoulder. This ensures that you’re really sitting solidly, while the extended pelvis makes it easier for him to place you. Tucking your pelvis under will cause you to lurch off center and make it almost impossible for you to maintain a stable position.

Men performing shoulder sits have to have a good sense of direction and stay aware of the ballerina’s alignment at all times. Upon entry, it’s best to duck under your partner’s bottom as she reaches the height of the lift so that you can place her right where you need her to be. To exit the lift, slide her down against you. She may feel like her weight is tipped back, but this is fine—if she falls backward, she’ll simply lean against you, whereas if she fell forward, you would have to race to catch her.

The Grande Jeté

What It Looks Like

A favorite of vibrant virtuoso pas de deux, the supported grande jeté is an explosive lift that bursts with energy. It shares strengths between ballerina and partner equally, encapsulating the triumphant nature of the music. Since this lift is so explosive and powerful, it tends to be worked into pas de deux that feature strong, powerful women, such as in The Firebird and Diana and Acteon. The image of the ballerina swinging into the splits above her partner creates a dynamic, strong air for the lead!


The supported grand jeté is one of the easiest lifts to get in and out of, as the male is simply raises his partner up and down without any changes in hand positioning. Additionally, his hands remain on her waist the entire time. This allows the ballerina to feel stable and supported and gives her partner something to hold onto throughout the lift.

Getting Past the Hard Part

Ballerinas frequently struggle with the difference between a supported and unsupported grande jeté: While unpartnered leaps travel significantly, their pas de deux counterparts are, in this case, very stationary in terms of distance. The ballerina must focus on going straight up and straight down, creating a parabola-like arc rather than a long and smooth trajectory.

It’s the male’s job to control the distance, so it is important that the ballerina not travel—this will make it difficult for him to control the landing, as well as increase the risk of being dropped.

For cavaliers, the hard part is feeling where she’s going to go and when. Instead of trying to find and channel her direction, go with the momentum to lift her up and down. Don’t worry about traveling, and if she’s starting to go forward, don’t be afraid to control the jump and bring it down early. Shortening a lift is far better than letting her go in the hopes of achieving a higher jump.

Always keep it under control; you can improve the height later.

If both partners feel really comfortable and have qualified supervision, the cavalier can loosen his grip on the ballerina at the peak of the jump. This release creates an explosive peak, but the male should make sure that the grip never comes more than an inch or so away from the ballerina’s waist—otherwise she can slip out and fall.

Keep Communication Open

No matter what lift you’re working on, you must keep the lines of communication open between you and your partner. If something isn’t working, talk about it and slow down instead of pushing straight ahead. This will allow you to make smart decisions and move forward as partners, which in turn, will make for a safer, more trusting environment. Remember, communication is the most important part of pas de deux!

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