Dance photos can do many things: show a performance, be the fly on a wall of a rehearsal, or take us somewhere else. I wanted to write this article to learn more about what goes into the making of a beautiful ballet photograph and by what process dancers and photographers collaborate to shoot portfolio headshots, poses, classes, rehearsals, and on-stage performances.
Hannah Martin is an 18-year-old student at the prestigious Elmhurst Ballet School in the U.K, whose collaborations with leading British dance photographers have earned her a 24K person following on Instagram, a platform that many dancers interviewed for this article call their “primary portfolio.” Scrolling through her feed, you see a dancer with an immaculate eye for striking visuals.
“To create a beautiful image,” she summarizes, “all of the factors have to line up together. The outfit, the angle, the lighting and most importantly from a dance perspective the pose, must come together in harmony.”
Martin’s understanding that dance photography functions as what British dance photographer Kate Frost calls “a dancer’s marketing materials” is becoming a standard skillset for emerging ballet dancers of her generation that leads to meticulous planning for shoots.
For Leonie de Ripainsel, an 18-year-old Belgian student at the Royal Ballet School of Antwerp and also a fashion model signed to top European model agencies, being photographed is a daily occurrence. From the perspective of that experience, she advises dancers to start preparations for a shoot by strategizing movement.
“First and foremost,” de Ripainsel explains, “know which poses you are going to do. See in advance which ones suit you best. You should certainly not do the most difficult movements, often the simplest poses are also very beautiful and flattering. It is important that you make yourself look good. You have to perform movements that you can do well personally, and it is important to show who you are and what you do best.”
While a dancer may think a photographer has their own creative vision to impose, the truth is dance photographers want their subjects to set a clear brief.
“Spend some time researching other dance photography for inspiration,” advises British dance photographer Suzi Bird. “And don’t be afraid to bring these photos along to your shoot. Showing your photographer a visual representation of what you’d like to achieve can be so helpful.”
Brazilian dance photographer Nicole Guarino also asks clients to arrive to a shoot with a strong sense of what they want to achieve.
“Come prepared with some ideas you want to explore,” Guarino says. “Be that set poses, movement quality, or atmosphere.”
Dance photographers offer location, studio, and theatre shoots, lasting 30 minutes to three hours, covering everything from headshots to “splash (water-based) photography,” street ballet, themed shoots, rehearsal shots, and onstage performance.
Dramatic outdoors shoots, in, say, snowy or rainy conditions, require different planning and carry different risks.
“You have to be ready to battle the elements,” reflects Aarya Shenoy, a 14-year-old student also at Elmhurst Ballet School in the U.K. “And think about how to be creative with the location. You should prepare yourself for all eventualities. For example, the photographer’s bag was stolen after my first professional outdoors shoot. We lost all the images we had taken and had to repeat the shoot at a later date”.
By comparison, in-door shoots are far easier to prepare for.
“Warm up well before you shoot,” de Ripainsel recommends. “It is vital that your muscles are properly warmed up to prevent injuries and of course to get a better result. Sleeping well and eating enough beforehand will also help your concentration. Which is very important because a shoot can take a long time.”
Wearing dual ballerina/model hats, de Ripainsel is well versed in the details of aesthetics, too, and gives this tip to other dancers who don’t have her modelling experience: “If you are going to take audition photos it is important to put on clothes/leotards that do not take too much attention away from you. And do not combine too many colors. Choose a sleek outfit with solid colors. It is important that viewers can see your body clearly and judge you on what you can do and not be distracted by what you are wearing.”
Fees for a shoot start around $65 and sail quickly towards $500 and beyond, budgets that can be out of reach for aspiring ballet dancers from lower socio-economic backgrounds or developing economies.
“I’ve hired professional photographers to create images for my social networks,” says 18-year-old Gabryella Alves, a ballet student at Fundacao das Artes in Sao Paolo, Brazil. “But mostly I shoot my own photos, researching poses, edits and also the right angles, because it is too expensive to have a session with a photographer.”
During lockdowns worldwide caused by COVID-19, many other dancers started taking their visual representation into their own hands due to regulations on social distancing. Hannah Martin discovered she could create beautiful images at home with her mother.
“My mother recently started learning more about photography,” Martin explains. “So during our lockdown seasons I have got used to being photographed at any moment of the day as she would use my training sessions for practice. Her photos helped me keep my social media updated with all the activities I was up to which I was very grateful for.”
Not every dancer has such a command of photography and it’s a common rookie mistake for young ballet dancers to arrive to a shoot without a plan.
“A dancer has to appreciate that the transition from a 3-d form to 2-d dimension does not always translate,” cautions Nicola Selby. “Therefore, communication with your photographer is essential. As an ex-dancer I know this frustration all too well. What you think looks lovely can look very ugly on camera. Some angles just do not work, depending on your skills, the location, clothing, and lighting.”
Experience feeds into subsequent photoshoots and in the ballet world, dancers know by their mid-teens what serves them best.
For example, 17-year-old Charlotte Cooper, a student at the Northern Academy of Performing Arts in Hull, U.K, already speaks with an incredible mastery of light and physicality for someone so young.
“I love to incorporate silhouette, shadows, and good light,” she says. “I believe a portrait where my face looks tense or my feet are not fully pointed doesn’t work well for a picture. I know that if these aren’t corrected they will not represent who I am as a dancer.”
And by their early twenties, dancers such as Cathy Grealish, 22, a graduate of Rambert School in London U.K, even have a fixed vision for format.
“I like to have photos taken with a black and white effect,” says Grealish, “as it strips away another layer of distraction, in this case, coloor, to then focus solely on the basic features of the photo. It also adds contrast, which accentuates the bold, powerful aspects of the movement captured.”
Thinking over all these interviews, I came away surprised at just how much goes into the ballet images we clap over daily on Instagram, the planning and the detail, the creativity, the technique, a young girl in Brazil shooting herself, a mother snapping her daughter, the outfits, the lighting, the mood, the rapport, being well nourished, getting a good night’s sleep, warming up. And every image, ambitiously reaching for success out of the visual arms race of the digital ballet landscape.
Hanging up her pointe shoes for the day, Leonie de Ripainsel sends me a concluding Whatsapp message from Antwerp with her top tip for younger dancers.
“Personally, I think a dance photo is successful,” she types, reflective, “if you can look at a photo and see the movement through the photo. It’s very important not to perform your movements and poses too static. Make natural movements and don't think about it too much.”