In early August, the Atlanta School of Photography offered a half-day class in dance photography at TADA - The Atlanta Dance Academy, right around the corner from the photography school. I thought it would be a great way to learn some new photographic techniques, and I was not disappointed. Even more than that, taking the class and watching the various dancers move their bodies to the music made me reflect on my own experiences with music, dance, and figure skating.
An Early Passion for Music
My parents bought me my first turntable for Christmas when I was 9 years old, when we were living in northern Illinois. My first records were the soundtrack from Star Wars and an album from The Muppets. My sister listened to and collected pop and rock music but it was frowned upon in the family. I remember my dad breaking her Carpenters albums; but I was not so easily deterred.
As young as 5, I was obsessed with Cher’s macabre single “Dark Lady”. As I grew older, I continued to listen to music on the radio, and would tape songs I liked and listen to them over and over. When I was in the 5th grade we moved to Albany, Wisconsin, where I sang in the chorus. My chorus teacher was a big fan of Air Supply, whose romantic (and cheesy) lyrics gave expression to my successive crushes. She introduced us to other kinds of music as well.
Even better, we lived within walking distance of the public library, which had a pretty good record collection for a town of 1,000 people. I remember sneaking home with ABBA’s Waterloo and the soundtrack from Saturday Night Fever.
From the opening bass riffs of “Stayin’ Alive,” I was hooked. The pulsating rhythm, the horns that seemed to pop out of the headphones, and the Bee Gees’ soaring vocals made me want to get up and move. But if I wanted to keep my music secret, I was going to have to sit in my room with my headphones on and keep to myself.
The closest I would ever come to dancing as a kid was ice skating and roller skating. I was never really good at it but I had so much fun, especially when they would turn up the music at the roller rink and put on the disco lights. Around the time John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy came out, I skated to Watching The Wheels, as I tried to summon the courage to ask someone to skate with me.
Learning How to Move
When I was in the Air Force in Okinawa, I would go out clubbing with friends, and we would dance to Rick Astley, Dead or Alive, and Depeche Mode. Years later, when my kids started getting old enough to try ice skating, we would go a couple of times a year, until earlier this year when my daughter and I started taking group lessons.
Ice skating, like dancing, looks easy to the uninitiated. But I soon found out that even the most simple elements require hours, days and weeks of tedious and frustrating practice, even to be able to do them badly.
For me, that’s one of the things that makes skating so rewarding and fascinating. As I keep trying to learn a new turn or jump, without perceptibly improving at all, my muscles and brain are slowly remembering what works and what doesn’t, until at some point it all starts to “click.“ And just when I’ve passed a certain skill, it’s on to something else that I can’t do at all, and I feel like a complete beginner all over again.
Sometimes I get discouraged when I can’t get the hang of a new element, but then I remember that just a few weeks earlier I had felt exactly the same way about a different skill that I would eventually learn. It’s a constant cycle from beginner, to barely capable, to proficient, and back to beginner again.
I often feel the same way about being a photographer, about starting my own business, and about being a father. I begin knowing nothing; I learn a new technique or encounter a new challenge; I get comfortable with it; then I remember that there’s so much more that I don’t know.
This ability to always remember what we don’t know is called “Beginner’s Mind” in Buddhism, and it can keep us grounded in reality when we’re tempted to think we’ve learned all there is to know.
Capturing the Moment
At the dance photography class, the afternoon went by so quickly that I often felt that the best I could do was to just keep shooting photos. But from time to time I would set the camera down and watch the dancers for myself, wondering how many hours they had dedicated to their art.
The control and precision required to hold a ballet pose; the attention to detail as a hip hop dancer moves each muscle in her arms and legs on command; the fluidity of a Capoeira performer as he flips and kicks through the air; and on to jazz, tap, and salsa, I was amazed by the variety of motions the human body can make to the rhythm of music.
Looking back at the photos from the dance studio, what impresses me most of all is the dancers’ obvious love of their art, and their dedication to keep learning, working, practicing, and mastering, until it really does begin to look like their movements spontaneously and effortlessly erupt from the music itself.
The power of dance isn’t in the memorization of moves, but in the artists’ ability to express themselves and their deepest emotions through dance. I hope someday that I am able to come close to that kind of expression in my own skating.