Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Music, Dancing, and Photography

(This was originally going to be "Photographing Dance Competitions 2")

(Images are all links to bigger versions)

Try to apply what you know from your own dancing. That is:

  • Musicality basics - breaks, finishing the phrase
  • General vocabulary
  • Air Step basics - tension and prep
If these topics are unfamiliar to you, try taking some dance lessons focusing on the above topics. (Though I know many people reading this are way better dancers than I am and know that stuff better than I do.)

It's really easy to get caught up watching the action and just reacting to when something cool happens. But often I find that knowing the music and/or the dance helps me anticipate and prepare for a shot. Now and then, it also helps to just take a deep breath. But don't forget to exhale.

Musicality basics

Without going into too much detail:
  • Swing music can be divided into 8-counts (not going to get into crazy Swedes doing Lindy to "Take 5")
  • Most swing music can be divided into phrases of 4 8s (6 8s if it's bluesy)
  • A lot of music has a A, A, B, A structure, where each "A" or "B" is a phrase of 4 8s.
  • Within a given song, breaks will usually happen on the same count.
Often times, dancers will punctuate the breaks and the ends of a phrases, like with a big, open pose or a dip. Understanding the music and the dance will help you predict when a shot will happen. Frame the shot and let the dancers walk into it.

If you don't know where the breaks are, study more swing music. In Lindy contests, I've heard these songs a lot: Jumpin at the Woodside, Jeep Jockey Jump, Big John's Special, Opus One, Corner Pocket, For Dancers Only, Rhythm, Shorty George, Flying Home, Gang Busters, Shout n Feel It, and sometimes Bugle Call Rag. But if you get to know music in general, you'll get better at recognizing when the breaks are coming on any song.

Also, just listen to the music - if it's more uptempo, the dancers are probably going to have bigger motions and you may want to shoot with a wider angle to get the whole body down to the feet. If it's slower, then it might be better for shots from the hips/waist and above, and maybe even closeups.

General Vocabulary

By "vocabulary" I don't mean knowing what moves are called. What I mean is: know the basics/core moves of the dance so you have some idea of what to expect to shoot, and how to time it. After shooting a lot of Lindy Hop, I found it difficult to shoot Westie. I don't know the Westie vocabulary so a lot of lifts would take me by surprise.

But here's a few moves you'll probably see at a Lindy competition:

Swing Outs

In a Lindy Hop swing out, the "1" is practically designed to be a picture pose. I like having a side view of this, with them opened up toward me. Sometimes in a performance, they will be lined up with the follower between you and the leader. This isn't the best composition, but you can still make the best of it - on the 1,2, the followers will often look out toward the audience/judges. Also, very often, if you see a stylish swingout, very often they will do another one.

Here's a few swing outs from the US Open 2010: (shot on the "1.")

Stephen & Nikki Mikey & Mary
A Lindy line -great shot if
I was on the other side
Ben rocking swivels
And maybe just a couple more...
Inspiration Weekend
Camp Hollywood

Switches and the Quick Stop

Yeah, who else would I use to
show a Quick Stop? (Jean Veloz)

Another couple signature swing moves to look out for are the Switches and Quick Stop. The lines are actually pretty similar to the swing-out. I like it when both dancers are opened up to me, though this pose is really about the follower, so it's more important to get her from the front. I think this comes on the 6 or the 7, but luckily she holds it for a couple counts.

Turns and spins

I actually find it difficult to capture turns and spins. I think it's that they're more about the motion than the pose at any moment in time. Sometimes, there will be a nice dance line with the arms, but I really struggle to capture whatever catches and loops and complexity that went into making the turn cool as a still shot. Usually, if someone's doing a turn, I'll use rapid-fire mode, squeeze off 3 or 4 shots, and use the ones which have the face visible. I like catching the hair and/or skirt flying out add to a sense of motion. (Though just my observation: some women don't like see their hair flying out as much as I do.)

If the follower spots, there's a better chance of getting a shot of her face-to-face with the leader, which is nice. Though it's not really something you can practically plan for while shooting.


In Charleston, I like trying to get a shot of kicking forward, which happens on the 3 and the 5. For side-by-side, I like the 3, with the outer feet kicking forward. In tandem/back Charleston, either the 3 or the 5 works for me. Then it just comes down to which way they're facing to decide which shot I like better.

Hacksaws, Sailor kicks

Hacksaws - not much to say except I see them come up now and then, and I like catching the extended kick out. The timing is: kick-and-kick-and-pause-pause-kick-and-kick-and-pause-pause...

Sailor kicks aren't as common, but make an occasional appearance. I like the shots where one person is facing me, as opposed to a side view where I might get to see both faces. I just like the shapes better.

By the way... I'm just saying these are some of the poses I've kind of gravitated toward. I'm not saying these are the "right" ones. But what I am saying is: if you know the steps, it can help you prepare and line up a shot.

Lifts and Air Steps

A special part of the vocabulary is air steps. In Lindy Hop, you can often see them coming if you recognize some preps. I might not know exactly what move they're going to do, but can often predict they're about to do something.
  • Frog jump / Down, up, down - If you see a little hop and a drop down, on the next count, someone's probably going up. You may see this from closed position or back/tandem/shadow Charleston.
  • If one person lies down on their back on the floor, there's a pretty good chance the other is about to flip over them.
  • Distance with tension - If you see a couple do a couple swingouts and notice the follower is a little farther from the leader than usual, and they've built up a lot of tension, maybe even dropping down a little, there's a pretty good chance that the follower is going up in a few counts.
  • Pancake - has a pretty obvious prep - handstand facing away, grab legs, power sit-up (though I think the Skidoos had a surprising variation to that one year.). I think the best shot is when the flyer is at the peak, but the timing has to be just right and I usually get the moment just before or just after. (Even better if the base and follow are not touching.) Also, I've noticed the handstand generally isn't pretty.
Also, if you see a couple enter multiple contests and they break out a cool new air step in one, they often break it out in other contests.

The following are examples of air steps that I believe had one of these preps, and is something one could prepare for shooting.

That all being said...

The really exciting stuff is what I don't expect, and the dancers just take me by surprise (and they often do). So even if you do know the music and the dance, stay alert! A wise man once said, "BAM. they never see this one comin`."
Sweep the leg!

So far, with this round of posts, I've been writing about camera basics and a bit of what I like and what I think about while shooting. But I think I've at least casually mentioned that I do a bit of post processing (in Lightroom), and I think that's the case with every example photo I've put into these entries. I think with the next entry, I'm going to start transitioning to discussing what I try to do in Lightroom.

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