I’m a choreographer and director who has worked in the field for over a decade, moving from stage to screen, so there are lots of things I've learned along the way about filming dance. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are 10 things to keep in mind when shooting your dance scenes or music videos to maximize your day and creative possibilities.
The most important thing to remember is to be flexible on the day. Weather changes, facing directions will change once you get there, locations may not always behave like you thought, cameras can record in errant settings or malfunction, the number of stairs production sends over has ten more than you anticipated -- be ready for anything. But plan so you know how to adjust and have something to bounce off of! Here we go:
Rehearse with your dancers. I’ve had artists ask me, “Can you just show up and make something,” and I say, “Sure, but it will look like that’s what we did.” If you’re working with trained dancers, they are very diligent and will deliver for you on the day if you take the time to rehearse with them. Rehearse in a rehearsal space with sprung floors and mirrors (most dance studios have these). It’s important to have enough space and to have mirrors so dancers can work with each other and know where their bodies are moving in space. This allows for precision (if that's what you're seeking) and cleanliness within the group. It's also how most dancers have trained, and what they're used to. That way, on the day, when you take the mirrors away, they've already rehearsed moving with the other dancers and will have an awareness of how and where their bodies are existing in space.
If you’re working with street dance and b-boys/b-girls/b-folx (highly recommended!), the moves and work will be more spontaneous. Here, sometimes mirrors can bring a sense of self-consciousness you don’t necessarily want. But do rehearse in a safe studio with wood floors, at least once, or in a studio at a gym. (I’ve done some of my best work there!) Check in with the dancer and see what’s best for them. And if you want an organic feel, on the day, set up the shot you want, plan the framing, give the dancer their space parameters, and roll on it. True magic can happen.
Also rehearse with your DP and include your choreographer. Create an animatic and/or, if it’s your style, storyboard. Clue your DP into what movements happen when so they can learn it, just like the dancers. Be clear (or ask the choreographer to be clear) about cues within the dance. Not all DPs are familiar with dance, but if you teach them the dance as if it were blocking - and involve them early enough in your process - your day will go smoother and you can create really exciting work. I’ve used code words - “big drums,” “big jump” - things in the music or the movement to describe the moment that are easy to remember and not necessarily dance steps. Communication is key - the key to filmmaking or any collaboration is speaking the other person’s language while getting across what you want to say so you can tell the story the way you want to tell it, or shoot the picture you want to shoot. (Pro-tip: plan your shots so you can match on action in your edit - it creates exciting cuts and oomph - you’ll be glad you did! And cut in the middle of the move, before it ends, not at the culmination of it!)
2. Camera motion and countermovement is your friend.
“Cinema” means “movement” - it’s the Latinized form of Greek “kinemat,” combining form of kinema "movement," from kinein "to move." The energy of dance in concert with the camera can be thrilling on film, and musicals can be the most cinematic form of any genre. Encourage your choreographer to embrace depth in their spacing and their movements instead of just horizontal space. Embrace Steadicam (my personal favorite for its dynamism and speed). Jibs or cranes can of course create classic looks and moves, giving perspective; technocranes can also get inside the action for a variety of framing opportunities that can be altered quickly. Dollies and sliders are great for coverage, giving a more observational objective feel as they can’t get inside the dance, but can capture it. On a lower budget, Ronins and Gimbals can work too. Most importantly, make sure your operator knows how to use them and has prepared.
Rehearse moving the camera the opposite way from the action of your dance. Move towards as the dancers move towards, and vice versa. See which benefits your story. Lock down with intention. Move with the pace of the dance. If your location allows, shoot from a variety of angles so your footage is dimensional. Check out how lenses compress space and the dance - try different lenses in camera test and communicate with your choreographer which lenses you want to use and how you anticipate framing so they can fill the frame for you and honor the depth you want.
3. Fill the void
Dance in an open space on a stage is thrilling - and can live in its purest form in concert with a black floor and curtains - but on film we need to see more texture and depth to meet camera and maintain visual engagement. You can fill the void: get creative about how to fill your frame. Atmosphere is useful to catch light if you want to fill the space and can give the impression of a full space to fill your frame. Exciting camera movement can also go a long way in making an empty space feel very full in collaboration with camera angles, framing and motion. Choose a mise-en-scène that fills your frame beautifully (or the way you intend) and supports your story. Some of the best locations are in nature (read: often FREE before permits). Lighting can also really carry a lot of your picture and narrative: I’ve seen exciting dances lit by headlights of a car, and P!nk’s “Call Your Girlfriend” is my favorite use of warehouse lighting, coupled with the visual variety of the movement meeting the different camera angles and positions.
4. Punch In in camera
Depending on what you’re shooting, get your wide coverage first, but also dare yourself to shoot body parts: just an arm, just a leg, just feet. Some of the greatest dance films have restraint in framing in the name of a story. See the final dance from Footloose - it’s exciting when they just show their feet dancing on the chorus, because our eyes expect to see a wide of the principals dancing. They make us wait for it by only showing feet moving, and it’s thrilling when they cut back to the principals. Why? They’ve been fighting the whole movie for their feet to dance and now we see it, up close. Body parts can be expressive and cutting in creates visual variety - make it count for your story and you’ll have a winning combination. (Other good examples: “Maniac” from Flashdance and the final scene from Girls Just Want to Have Fun.)
5. Stuntpeople gonna stunt
This may be stating the obvious, but get a stunt person for stunts; get a gymnast to do gymnastics. There was a pro dancer, two gymnasts, and a stunt person in the warehouse dance in Footloose. Ten points if you can spot ’em. Gymnasts are trained in gymnastics - it’s very specific training, and stunt folx have abilities, training, education, bravery, and willingness the rest of us don’t. Dance is a specific training and level of skill, and while you may have a dancer willing and able to do a flip or two, if you want real high-flying for multiple takes, hire a gymnast. If you shoot and light it well, your audience will never (ok, rarely) know the difference.
6. If you’re in a studio, shoot into the mirror
It’s fun and opens up possibilities and space, especially if you want to tell a story, or see a character’s reaction. We also get the dancer’s POV - i.e. what they would see in dance class, and embeds us into their world. Here in Center Stage, that’s important -- we share in and viscerally feel and understand the excitement Jodie Sawyer feels being in her jazz dance class versus the pressure she feels in the ballet world. In this dance scene in Silver Linings Playbook, shooting into the mirror makes the room feel doubly large and opens up the space nicely. This moment in All That Jazz reflects the reality of doing, and Joe Gideon’s obsession with self and work - he makes minimal eye contact with his daughter throughout the scene, and only looks at her in the mirror to note how she’s helping him with the dance. And in Beau Travail, the final scene is Galoup meeting an uncertain future, dancing alone by the mirror in which he once looked at his desired woman in a populated club scene; the mirror now providing a sense of infinity.
7. Roll on your rehearsals
I know this is potentially an unpopular one among some directors, but I’ve missed some good takes not doing so. Case in point: what Fred Astaire has called “the greatest dance and music” sequence he has ever seen: the Nicholas Brothers routine in Stormy Weather was completed in one take, with no rehearsal! This was possible because of the brothers’ excellence and language they had created dancing alongside one another. The camera stayed wide, tracked the duo, and it worked - don’t miss out on these opportunities!
Dancers will give you their all and go again - especially young ones - but sometimes their first takes are their best ones. (See: The Nicholas Brothers!) And if you’re working with street dance and b-boys, b-girls or b-folx, you don’t want to miss any magic! Depending on the dancer and the set, you’ve usually got five good takes before people start getting tired. After ten, you’ve worn them out and you’re at diminishing returns. I know some great directors wear their actors down by making them do 75 takes in order to get a certain performance; don’t do that to dancers. They’ll start losing their lines, feet start to sickle, muscle fatigue will happen and injuries will begin to take place, and no one wants that. Get it done in five takes and make sure your wide/master is what you want it to be. Start with that first so you get everyone while they are fresh. Then cut in. If you’ve rehearsed (see #1) your dancers will be ready to go.
Good dancers are very conscientious, well-trained and they will deliver what they rehearse. Movers can bring you spirit, groove and a sense of energy and freedom and you’ll get great coverage if you give them simple parameters and instruction. At auditions, I like to scope out not just style but technique, or, in the case of street dancers, give adjustments, so you see how well and quickly they will and can adjust on set if necessary. This ability is crucial to making your day.
8. Set the tempo
Make sure the track to which you shoot and rehearse is the tempo to which you want your final to be. Self-explanatory, but it’s important to communicate on the front end with your team. Also, if you plan to use a .wav file in your final, shoot to the .wav, not the .mp3 you might have on hand. They don’t have the same amount of information in them and don’t sync exactly. You’re welcome; I just saved you a lot of heartache. But seriously, as much as you try, once it’s in the can, you can’t will the tempo in frame to be something else, (unless you’ve shot it at another frame rate, which means you’ve planned for it). Also, remember to bring playback and have someone to run it. For some reason, people often seem to forget that and it’s super important. (I’ve been on sets where the producers end up running it out of car speakers.)
Also: know your sound considerations on the day. Be ready to use a thump track if you’re recording live sound. Rehearse your dancers this way - as few new elements as possible on set, the better, since set is already a new environment. If you’re planning on shooting this way, go for it - truly, dancers are incredible and can handle it! According to the doc The Movies That Made Us on Netflix, Dirty Dancing was rehearsed to other songs and anticipated shooting to a click track while rights to the music were being cleared. Muscle memory is the strongest memory in the body - dancers’ bodies will remember a rhythm if it’s rehearsed enough.
9. Safety first
Check your floors - make sure they are swept; no nails, sawdust, or water. Dancing on carpet or visqueen is unsafe and can cause injuries - in the instance of turning, feet will lock and knees will keep going. No one wants this. Shoes are important - get your dancers in the right shoes for the surface. Test them prior to the day. If you are doing a build and can build sprung floors, this will allow for more takes and stamina on the day, and is much safer, but it’s not always possible. Make sure you regulate the temperature of the building. Keep your temps warm for talent - muscles cramp in the cold and you risk your dancers pulling a muscle. Give them time (and space) to warm up before the shoot.
10. Have fun!
Dance is joyous. It fills the frame and keeps the action going in your movies. The dance of camera and movement is a beautiful one in tandem when you really lock into it - so keep trying and finding your favorite angles and moves. Also, if you can, please get a monitor for your choreographer. They don’t want to be over your shoulder, and you give them a better shot at making adjustments with alacrity. Saves you time. Makes your day. (And theirs!) Let’s go!