Problem Solved: Picture Perfect

If you’ve faced the challenge of finding a good photographer—and have one or two bad experiences under your belt—you’re not alone. Struggling to communicate with someone who doesn’t understand the unique demands of working with dancers or small children, or worse yet, just doesn’t know what he’s doing, can be frustrating.

For a successful experience, start your search far in advance (to avoid scheduling conflicts with other dance recitals, weddings and special events) and ask around for referrals. If there aren’t other dance studios in your area, check for photography professionals online or in the phone book. If a photo-grapher has a website, read his or her bio and take a look at the style and quality of work posted.
If you’re sufficiently impressed with what you see, call the photographer or meet with him or her in person and ask the following questions:

1. “How long have you been a photographer and what type of experience do you have with dancers (or children)?”

The ideal candidate regularly photographs dancers. If this isn’t an option, see if you can find someone who specializes in children’s portraits. Chances are he or she will be better at taking pictures of your dancers than, say, someone who works primarily with adults or shoots mostly landscapes.
“Our photographer is specifically a dance photographer, and his professionalism really contributes to the fluidity of our day,” says Cheryl Cusick, artistic director of Narragansett Performing Arts Dance Centre in Narragansett, Rhode Island. “He and his staff of dancers are able to pose our students and relate to them on a different level than other photographers.”

2. “Can you provide me with a few references?”

Whatever you do, don’t skip this step! Especially if you’re not working from a referral, references provided by the photographer are crucial. Be sure to check several before making a commitment. (Even if they aren’t listed on a photographer’s website, don’t be afraid to ask.)

3. “Can I see samples?”

Like references, samples are essential—and don’t settle for e-mail or web photos. You’ll want to review the actual product your students’ families will be purchasing. “Not every photographer is good at posing or working with children,” explains Joe Wallace, a Chicago-area photographer who has experience shooting dancers. “This ability really shows through in samples.”

4. “Will you be the person taking the photos that day?”

Make sure that the person you are talking with and seeing samples from is the actual photographer who will be doing your studio’s photos. Some establishments set up an appointment, then send out a photographer with less experience to do the job, so beware of the bait and switch.

5. “Can you send me pricing and photo package information?”

Although you’ll want to have little to do with the actual money/product exchange, you will want an idea of the cost and what your students and their parents will get for their money. Have a conversation with the parents to determine an appropriate price range before approaching a photographer about his or her rates. An experienced professional will likely have a standard price sheet that he works from and revises periodically. “It helps to have that type of information readily available for busy studio owners,” Wallace notes. “That way they can share it with parents, too.”

6. “Do you have insurance?”

This is an important question that many studio owners don’t ask. If a photographer is insured, it’s a sign of their professionalism and can help ease your mind regarding liability issues—especially if the photography is taking place somewhere other than your studio. While you don’t necessarily have to rule out every photographer without insurance, some venues require a photo-grapher to have it, so check with yours ahead of time.

7. “What type of equipment do you use?”

For portrait work, make sure he or she has indoor lighting and a backdrop—and a backup camera, adds Wallace. “If the photographer has an issue with their main camera, the backup can be used to complete the session on time,” he says. Also, most good photographers work with assistants, who can help wrangle large numbers of children in and out of photos.

8. “Can I have a proposal in writing?”

Once you find a solid candidate, ask that he or she put a proposal together in writing so you can review the details more closely. This will also serve as a contract, protecting you and your students. “Don’t be tentative about asking a photographer to lay out the details on paper,” says Wallace. “A photographer who doesn’t want to take the time to address your concerns before you work together is probably not a good choice to begin with.”

9. “Will you deal directly with the students and parents? If not, what will my involvement be?”

You don’t want to wind up playing middleman, setting up, collecting money, giving out photos and making sure everyone is happy—it’s too time-consuming. Instead, make sure that the person you hire takes care of the majority of the delivery details. The less involved you are the better, so work out with the photographer ahead of time what both of your roles will be.

Cusick focuses her energies on scheduling and distributes a timetable about one month prior to picture day. “We give everyone a list of suggested makeup and a short explanation of how to apply it, along with their schedule,” she says. “Our picture day information is also available online for parents’ convenience.”

Thanks to this division of labor, Cusick’s picture day has gone off without a hitch for the past 15 years. “It runs in a very timely manner, and always ends exactly when we plan,” she says. “It impresses parents, especially of new students, that we are able to function in such an organized manner. They feel confident that we really know what we’re doing, and that makes us feel great.”

10. “What is your policy if a client is unsatisfied?”

Knowing how to advise students and their families on what to do if they are unhappy with the photographs they’ve purchased is a smart move. Policies vary widely from photographer to photographer: Some may guarantee their photographs by retake, substitution or refund, while others may have a no-refund policy. Check ahead of time.

Hiring the right photographer for your studio’s recital photos is an important task, and knowing what questions to ask can help you choose one who’s right for you. Once you’ve done that, you’ll have more time and energy to concentrate on what really matters: making sure your students shine onstage. DT

Catherine L. Tully is a writer, photographer and educator with more than 35 years of experience in the dance field.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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