Suffering for your Art: Dancers Perform through the Pain

3 dancers leap in the air
Melissa Hudgins, Ranille Drummond and Katie Nichol sync up in mid-air. Plenty of repetition goes into capturing a dancing action shot like this one.

Vincent van Gogh lost an ear. Edgar Allen Poe died penniless. And Charlie Sheen has to endure being Charlie Sheen. Suffering for your art might seem like a cliché, but I saw it firsthand at a recent photo shoot for TCC’s touring dance company the Mosaic Dance Project.

The concept was simple enough. An impromptu photo set was constructed in the theater on the Northwest Campus, and members of the Mosaic Dance Project merely had to pose for some shots depicting some of their performances. But “pose” is a tremendous understatement. In order to capture the energy of the dances, these photos had to be action shots.

Capturing the Perfect Moment

After watching some of the dancers spin around until they were dizzy, or leap into the air multiple times until the perfect moment was captured by the camera shutter, I began to realize that a lot of effort goes into that fraction of a second, especially when a group of dancers has to be in the air at precisely the same time.

dancer mid-air
Click image to view video.


Photographer Randal Vanderveer said these are the principle challenges of this type of photography — filling the frame, capturing the action at its apex and making sure everyone is in sync. Imagine trying to take a picture of your relatives at a family reunion — trying to get everyone smiling in the same instant, or taking multiple shots because a different cousin blinks each time. Multiply that by about a million, and you’re somewhere in the ballpark of how difficult it is to photograph a dance troupe in action.

Bumps and Bruises

However, this troupe is comprised of real troupers, and they happily obliged each time they were asked for another vertical leap worthy of an NBA slam-dunk contest, or to fall on the floor so that the moment before impact could be captured. During a group shot, dance student Andrew Gern was accidentally hit in the jaw by a fellow student. Usually a minor inconvenience, the pain was intensified by the fact that Andrew happened to have an abscessed tooth right where the blow landed. No problem. He told me he used the pain to help him focus during shots of a solo performance that required him to emote some serious intensity.

A few minutes later, he was lifting fellow dancer Tyler Clark above his head for another series of photos. This photo was complicated by the fact that Tyler had some pulled muscles around her ribs from a previous performance, and she needed to be lifted right at her rib cage. But the show must go on. I asked Tyler how she fought through it, and she laughed and replied, “Suck it up. Rub some dirt into it.”

Dancer Mariah Jackson photographed in mid-air.
It’s not the jump; it’s the landing. Mariah Jackson makes it look easy, but many dancers suffer bumps, bruises and worse to bring us these moments.

For Love of the Art

I caught up with Katie Nichol, who was icing down her knee in between shots. She had injured it just a few days before this photo shoot, but she was determined to give her all.

For her, it’s worth it to connect with her audience. “I love performing,” she said. “That’s a lot of the reason why I do it. It’s a lot of fun. You really get the feedback from the audience that makes you want to do it even more.”

During another group shot, Brianna Johnson had to dash off and dab some blood from her knee when she re-opened a healing wound. She told me that these types of injuries are so common for dancers, they even have a name. They’re called “Marley Burns,” after the type of flooring that’s common in dance studios and performance halls.

Crunch Time

Lauren Davis has been dancing on an ankle with a stress fracture for the last two weeks. “I’m not supposed to be dancing on it,” she said. “But October is our crunch time… so there wasn’t any really any hope for me resting on it.” She said dealing with aches and pains is a normal part of a dancer’s life. “Cry for, like, maybe five minutes; then run back onstage and you’re good.”

Any good dancer makes it all look effortless, but the next time you’re taking in a beautiful dance performance, you might consider the price paid by those who love to bring it to you. Keep an eye on the TCC Events Calendar for the next time you can reap the benefits of the Mosaic Dance Project’s pain. You can also enjoy it right now by checking out the video of their photo shoot above.