So I learned an important lesson this weekend…

It wasn’t about equipment or technique.

It wasn’t about editing in Lightroom. Not about Photoshop.

It WAS about working with people. Specifically, people who dance for a living. These are folks who are not only great artists, but they are also great athletes who happen to be in prime physical condition. For those of you who work with dancers only occasionally, or are getting ready to shoot dancers for the first time – a bit of advice I learned the hard way…

Keep ’em moving.

I really like shooting dancers for a number of reasons. Perhaps my favorite thing about dancers is that they are great at posing. Everything a dancer does on the stage is planned from their fingers to their toes, and that includes the expression on their face. This means that I get to turn more of my creative energy and focus on things like composition, lighting details, etc.. So I was excited to be able to spend a little extra time with the dancers from Connetic Dance at the end of their dress rehearsal for Coney Island: Love Under the Boardwalk. This is a premier work in coordination with a running exhibit at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.  I worked the rehearsal from the house, but there was also a photography call at the end of rehearsal so I could actually stage some closer shots of the dancers for promotional use.

two dancers playing with a beachball

Now, I have spent most of my life on and around the stage, so I feel quite at home there. I know where the good shots are, and I know how to get them without annoying the performers, crew, or audience if there is one. I’m also very keen about safety on stage, for myself and those around me. You almost need eyes in the back of your head, especially if are not familiar with the show that you’re shooting. Yet it was a different kind of safety that I didn’t think about that caused some problems with this particular shoot.

Everything started off well. It had been a long day for the company and the stage crew, so I decided that it would be most efficient to work with the scenery that was in place at the end of the show. I worked for about 20 minutes posing various dancers while everyone else stood round watching, assisting, and having fun with the process. Then they changed over the scenery for the second act which involved some aerial work on large rings suspended from a pipe batten above the stage.

 I forgot about the physical aspect of what dancers do.

Dancers spend a LOT of time getting ready to perform. Their safety and health depends on being at peak physical condition. This typically involves a great deal of individual stretching, and depending on the type of dance involved, the company may do some specific routines together. When it was time to shoot the more physically demanding shots from the second act, that 20-30 minutes of standing around meant that those dancers had cooled off and were no longer physically ready for the stress of the poses they had to execute. But it was the end of a long day. Everyone was ready to go home and get some sleep. So we pressed on not really thinking about it very much.

What I should have done is warn everyone that it would probably take a while to shoot the first act so that they could make plans to stay limber and active during the down time. But performers are just as human as the rest of us. They wanted to support their friends. They didn’t think of it as relaxing, but that’s exactly what was happening.

male dancer holding a female dancer above his head

Because of this, shooting the second act was difficult and since the dancers had cooled off, their work became stressful. Let me tell you, stress is not something that you want to see in dance photography, so we had to re-do poses several times which simply magnified the risk of injury. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt, but there certainly were sore hands, wrists, and backs with just a bit more than a half a day to recover before the opening curtain.

So learn from my mistake (I know I will), and keep those dancers moving so they are ready to perform safely during a photo shoot!