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Women in Dance: Ethnic Dance Photography

by Catherine Tully

My photography career started out as a writing project.

I had been involved in ballet for 30 years, and with each new season it had become more demanding on my body. My knees began to show signs of early arthritis, and I knew that I couldn’t keep going for much longer. After some careful thought and reflection, I decided to switch gears and focus primarily on teaching dance and trying to become a freelance writer.

The problem was, although I enjoyed both, neither afforded quite the artistic opportunity that dance had given me, and my creativity began screaming for some sort of outlet. I had gone from being an artist to someone I didn’t recognize, and not only was I was unhappy, but also unsure how to change my situation.

Time passed as it always does, and soon I was freelancing regularly for arts publications including Dance Teacher and Classical Singer, among others. Often, I would be asked to supply my own photos for pieces I had written, so I began photographing the dancers myself, rather than trying to hunt down something appropriate for each article.

Little did I know how much this would become part of my life.

As I continued to write and photograph I branched out, and began to experience various ethnic dance styles. This was new to me, and I started to see dance differently than when I had performed in the somewhat limited realm of the ballet world. I began to see the deeper, cultural meaning that these dancers brought to the audience through their performance–and I wanted to capture that expression and highlight it.

The use of a digital camera allowed me the freedom to manipulate the photographs in a variety of ways. I started stylizing the images in a photo editing program, attempting to somehow reflect the unique beauty I saw in each dancer’s performance. Gradually, I developed a sense of when to do what technique to illustrate the feeling I wanted to convey, always looking to the dancer in the photograph to move me in one direction or another.

One of the first dance styles I photographed was American tribal belly dance. This form is largely improvisational and eclectic and it borrows elements from different dance styles, such as Flamenco and Egyptian belly dance, and blends them together into a beautiful, unique form.

Interestingly, the dance style echoes the history of the United States in that it is both fairly new, and is also a “melting pot” of styles, but with a distinct stamp of its own.

A repeated theme in many of my photographs is that of an almost “dreamlike” expression on the dancer’s face, showing that she is lost in the movement. I know the feeling behind that expression–it is the ultimate fusion of body and music–where the choreography is so set in the dancer’s mind and body they are free to just experience the feeling of the movement. It is, in my humble opinion, the highest expression of the art. It is fleeting, and can be difficult to capture, but connects so strongly with me that I often seek it out in the images that I choose to work with.

You can see the influence of Flamenco dance here in the dramatic and strong upper body posturing, and the Egyptian belly dance shows through in many movements and as the basis for some of the costuming. The “style” of American tribal belly dance highlights the strength (Flamenco) and softness (Egyptian) of the dancer, among other things. These qualities are valued in American culture for women, as in various other places in the world.

Many American women that embrace this style do so because they find it empowering and see it as a celebration of their womanhood and also their sisterhood. Because of this, a close bond often forms between members of a class or troop. The improvisational nature of the dance form requires that they understand the “cues” given by the lead dancer and work together to make sure that the transitions in movement are smooth. It is most familiar to audiences in the United States as a form of entertainment which can be very exciting, and is usually done with the group of women performing together. More advanced dancers sometimes do solo work. The dancer in this particular photo was doing such a solo piece on stage, and was the epitome of femininity as she embodied both the flow and fire of a woman while she danced.

Certain dancers have such charisma that I find it impossible to sit still when I watch them through the camera. I actually feel as if I am part of the performance somehow, moving with them, getting excited and anticipating their next motion as if it were actually a partnership. For this reason I usually choose to shoot without a tripod–even though it is more difficult. I crave the freedom to follow the dancer however she moves. I am quite sure I look ridiculous when I am photographing a performance–twisting, bobbing and sliding around–and I don’t care, because in my heart, I am dancing with them.

Sometimes the use of colour can convey the feeling that I want to capture. The combination of light blue and a golden glow gave this photograph the otherworldly feeling that I was looking for. I search for it through manipulating the image while remembering the moment. I look for how it made me feel in colors, shading and style–my interpretation of what the dancer was communicating to the audience.

Here I deliberately chose not to emphasize the dancer’s face, to express more of a sense of motion than emotion. I believe it was the celebrated ballet choreographer George Balanchine that once said, “Ballet is woman.” I do believe that. Most often I feel the female as an individual is the essence of dance, which is why I search for the expression of the face. Occasionally though, the movement itself with the music impacts me strongly and is enough to carry the photo. This is particularly true of pieces that are set to “traditional” music, because then the woman is not just representing herselfthrough dance, but her culture as well. In this photograph I choose to de-emphasize the face and focus on that which stirred me. In this case it was the flow of the skirt which was enhanced by the sound of the music.

The traditional costumes used in many ethnic dance styles add another, deeper dimension to the performance. They serve as the vehicle that transforms the dancer from the person that they are in everyday life, to who they will be on the stage–for both them and for the audience. The ritualistic preparation; putting on garments and makeup and doing hair for the stage, help shift the mindset of the dancer. The ornamentation and colour of the clothing also impact the viewer, allowing them more insight into the both style of dance and the culture that it evolved from.

As a dancer, I know that you actually stand and move differently as the sense of who you are begins to shift in preparation for your performance. This is especially true for those involved in an ethnic dance style, as the costuming is normally a part of their heritage, again expanding on the sense of self to that of one’s cultural identity. Many times the preparation involved in getting into costume is passed down from one generation to the next without much change.

The ornamentation, makeup and costuming in American tribal belly dance is an expression of the individual, once again a very American quality to highlight and communicate to the audience. For some of the dancers, one of the most important parts of the entire performance is the preparation and transformation of a group of regular women into a powerful sisterhood of dancers. It is about impacting your viewers strongly–about claiming–and making your own history.

In contrast, other older and more traditional forms, such as the dancers in the photo above, have set costumes, hair and makeup, thus teaching the dancer about the history of the culture and where they came from, as well as allowing them to take an active part in living and continuing that history. This is often a more subtle statement to the audience–a continuation of the flow, rather than an interruption.

I believe that both approaches have their value and reflect the context of the culture in which they reside.

Not many people get to experience a dancer who performs live with a real, flaming candelabra on her head. I chose to do this in black and white to draw out a more “gothic” type mood to the photograph. Part of the joy I have in doing this type of photography is experiencing types of dance that are outside the norm. My own experience was so steeped in the stoicism of ballet that I didn’t fully realize the expression that was possible through dance until I became a spectator.

Indian dance is probably one of the most unique styles I have photographed to date. This photo was taken during a Bharatanatyam performance in the Chicago area. Referred to as an Arangetram, it is the student’s debut performance after many intense years of study. This particular dancer was on stage for nearly 3 hours, and all the preparation she had done was more than apparent in her skill.

This particular evening represented the culmination of over ten years of training. Relatives and friends filled the auditorium carrying bouquets of fresh flowers. Musicians were flown in from India to play traditional instruments live for the performance. At the very end of the night when her father stood to address the audience and in a quivering voice, spoke of how proud the family was of her–I couldn’t help it–I spontaneously burst into tears with him. The enormity of the sacrifice the family had made and the fulfillment she must have experienced overwhelmed me and impacted me in a deep and meaningful way. Just this one dancer had strengthened her family’s cultural roots by lifting them up as something that was important for her.

Some students study this type of dance to pay homage to their cultural roots and better understand their history. Others learn it because they are “supposed” to and wind up finding out much about themselves in the process. Some wind up being able to reflect later in life and then see more of the bigger picture of where they fit into their culture.

Spectators in dance are always afforded the opportunity to learn rather than just observe, for dance is always rooted in the culture of its origin, and it cannot help but flavor it, even if it is a transplant or mixture of styles. Dancers may not view themselves as teachers, but every time they perform for an audience, they share with them a piece of their heritage. The people watching can be impacted strongly by this and walk away with an inner understanding that they may not even be able to verbalize, but rather have felt inside.

Indian dance is not really categorized as a form of entertainment–but is more of a historical thing, steeped in its spiritual beginnings in the temples of old. It is rooted in story as well as movement, and the re-telling of story has always been a way to pass the culture down from one generation to the next. This photograph, titled simply, “Pray” was one of the first images that I stylized when I began this endeavor. To this day, it remains my favorite. I was thrilled to have been able to capture it, because to me this photograph represents a rite of passage for both of us. She was no longer a student, and my transformation from a dancer to a photographer was also complete that evening. Now I sit on the other side, and I know that I will never perform again. At long last I am fulfilled, for I have come full circle and found new life in this expression of what is within me–within us.

Artist Statement

Catherine L. Tully is a photographer, writer and educator with over 30 years experience in dance as a student, performer, choreographer and instructor, both in the United States and in Japan. She currently serves as the UK&#039s National Dance Teachers Association Outside Europe Representative and as an adjunct faculty member at Concordia University Chicago in the Human Performance Department. Although Catherine concentrates primarily on dance, she also enjoys portraiture and other photographic expressions in her chosen art form. She was recently inspired to work with pictures she had taken of the sculpture work of Dessa Kirk in Chicago. You can see some of these photos and more of Catherine&#039s work on the website she shares with her husband, Scott: www.moonbeamdigital.com. She welcomes comments on her work and is actively seeking dance companies and performers interested in working with her on projects that will expand on the current visions of dance that are presented to the world.

Misty Ericson
Misty Ericson holds a BA in English & Comparative Literature from San Jose State University, California, and an MA History of Art from University of Leeds, UK. In addition to her work on HerCircleEzine.com, which she founded in 2005, Misty enjoys painting in her studio and restoring her home in the English countryside.
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