Houston Ballet first soloist Oliver Halkowich filming Stanton Welch's "In Good Company" for Houston Ballet's film series

Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, Courtesy Houston Ballet

Four Pros Share How to Master Dancing on Camera

Dancing on camera has always been a part of the industry: Music videos, commercials and televised dance competitions are nothing new. But this year, dance on video has taken off—and along with it, new demands on dancers.

Dance Spirit spoke with Sophie Pittman, former contestant on "So You Think You Can Dance," Fiona Claire Huber, background dancer on "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," Oliver Halkowich, first soloist with Houston Ballet, and Kaycee Rice, former contestant on "World of Dance," for behind-the-scenes input on what it's like to perform in front of a lens.

Transitioning From Crowds to Cameras

Halkowich has danced his entire career at Houston Ballet in a theater that seats 2,300 people. But when onstage for the company's film series, In Good Company, this number dwindled drastically. "There was no hum of an excited audience past the curtain," Halkowich says, "just four people in masks and a camera."

"There's a big difference between dancing to one audience member—the camera lens—and dancing to an entire audience of people," Pittman says. It affects how you move, emote and connect.

On camera, move bigger than you think. "The camera takes away about 15 to 20 percent of the energy that you give," Pittman explains. "You have to dance even more full-out."

But be conscientious of how your movement matches your role. "With background work, like 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,' I never want to be too sharp, too distracting," Huber explains. "Whereas with a music video, my movement can be sharper and more dynamic."

Shooting Take After Take

On set for "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," Huber danced a 10-hour day…to shoot a two-minute scene. While you may have multiple tries to get it right and smaller chunks of movement to dance each take, stopping and starting can wear you down.

"You have to be vocal," Pittman says. Don't be afraid to let the choreographer (or the director, if the choreographer isn't present) know that you need a minute between takes to grab some water or catch your breath. "Come prepared and know how to pace yourself," Pittman adds.

Staying Consistent

In every take, be mindful of what you're doing. "Consistency in spacing, in timing, even in how your costume lies is more important in film than in a live performance," Halkowich says. While filming for Houston Ballet's In Good Company, ballet master Amy Fote took notes on a whiteboard. "It was important to keep track of spacing and camera movement so things would line up in editing," Halkowich explains. "On the first day of filming I wore a jacket that we realized at the end of the shoot had torn. I came in the next day to refilm everything without the jacket."

Live performance is about the big picture. "There's more room for choices," Huber says. "Whereas on camera, it's about the details. Every time you do the scene, it has to be the exact same for continuity."

But don't let the lull of repetition dull your moves or affect your attitude. "Make it feel like the first time you're dancing each and every time," Rice says. If you have a bad take, shake it off. The camera catches variations in your approach that an audience member may not.

"A camera picks up authenticity at a faster rate," Halkowich says. "If you are feeling free and having fun, the camera recognizes that. If you are feeling anxious and uptight, the camera also understands that."

Halkowich is onstage dressed in a white button down and dark pants. He is in a forward lunge position with his hands on the floor, looking out

Houston Ballet first soloist Oliver Halkowich filming Stanton Welch's "In Good Company" for Houston Ballet's film series

Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, Courtesy Houston Ballet

Locking on the Lens

A lens captures a more personal view than an audience member can see alone. "There was something more intimate about dancing for a camera, as if I was dancing for a single person," Halkowich says.

Use this close relation to the camera as a way to connect—with the audience and with yourself.

When Rice looks into the lens, she imagines looking into someone's eyes. "I'm talking to them directly, and my movement is conveying what I would say to them," Rice says. Relate that imagined person to the intention behind the piece. "Say the song's about love," Pittman suggests, "then the camera has to be my boyfriend."

"Another thing is connecting with myself," Rice says. "Because when the camera is so close, I want to make sure that I am in touch with how I'm feeling and what I want to come across."

Having this awareness is a sign of star quality. "When I watch a dancer on camera and they can make me feel something through the lens," Pittman says, "I know that they are a star."

Be wary that this dancer–camera connection depends on the job. Sometimes a choreographer or director may want you to look past the camera, ignoring it's there. While filming for "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," for instance, Huber did not look directly into the camera, knowing her character was dancing as if in the middle of a 1960s party. "I think it's kind of like breaking the fourth wall," Huber says, referencing the imaginary boundary between a performer and the audience.

Pittman says it's always a good idea to ask the choreographer where to look before shooting.

Conquering the Camera

Dancing for film is a way to immortalize a performance, reach audiences beyond a theater's capacity and inspire others. But being in front of the camera can be intimidating, bringing new emotions, pressure and stressors to the prospect of performing.

"A lot of the last year working on film, I felt the most awkward I ever have about my dancing," Halkowich admits. "I would do the eight-counts and hear 'Cut,' and look at four people watching playback on a monitor and wonder, 'Did I do it right? Was I any good?'"

Rice, too, admits to the added pressure on camera, from how she moves to what she's wearing. "In this day and age of social media, too, it's scary because people judge," Rice says. But what she reminds herself and warns others: The worst thing dancers can do on camera is get in their heads.

"Be secure in yourself and who you are as an artist," Pittman urges. "You can't compare yourself to others or let what people say about your dancing impact you. Know your worth. Know your value."

This includes embracing your mistakes rather than fixating on them—an oftentimes easy thing to do when caught on camera. "Imperfections are what make us all human and interesting and different from one another," Halkowich says. "In movies, the flawed character is always more interesting to watch than the perfect one. The camera eats that up. Striving for perfection is a necessary part of a dancer's life, but remember, the audience wants to watch a human being."

Latest Posts

Photo by Lindsay Thomas

Ashton Edwards Is Breaking Down Gender Barriers in Ballet

When Ashton Edwards was 3 years old, the Edwards family went to see a holiday production of The Nutcracker in their hometown, Flint, MI.

For the young child, it was love at first sight.

"I saw a beautiful, black Clara," Ashton says, "and I wanted to be just like her."

Ashton has dedicated 14 years of ballet training in pursuit of that childhood dream. But all the technical prowess in the world can't help Ashton surmount the biggest hurdle—this aspiring dancer was assigned male at birth, and for the vast majority of boys and men, performing in pointe shoes hasn't been a career option. But Ashton Edwards, who uses the pronouns "he" and "they," says it's high time to break down ballet's gender barrier, and their teachers and mentors believe this passionate dancer is just the person to lead the charge.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Photo Courtesy of Apple TV+

All the Hollywood and Broadway Musical Moments to Look for in “Schmigadoon!”

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of about two dozen dancers got the rare opportunity to work on an upcoming Apple TV+ series—one devoted entirely to celebrating, and spoofing, classic 1940s and '50s musicals from the Great White Way and Hollywood. "Schmigadoon!", which premiered on AppleTV+ July 16, stars Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key, who get stuck inside a musical and must find true love in order to leave. The show features a star-studded Broadway cast, including Aaron Tveit, Ariana DeBose, Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming, Jane Krakowski and Dove Cameron, and is chock-full of dancing courtesy of series choreographer, Christopher Gattelli.

"The adrenaline was pretty exciting, being able to create during the pandemic," says Gattelli. "I felt like we were representing all performers at that point. There were so many who wanted to be working during the pandemic, so I really tried to embrace this opportunity for all of them."

Gattelli says it was a dream come true to pay tribute to the dance geniuses that preceded him, like Michael Kidd, Agnes de Mille, Onna White and Jerome Robbins, in his choreography. Each number shows off a "little dusting" of their work.

Dance Spirit spoke with Gattelli about all the triumphs and tribulations of choreographing in a pandemic, and got an inside look at specific homages to look out for.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

Shouldering the Load: What kind of dance bag should dancers use?

Walk into any dance convention, audition or class, and you'll see a vast variety of dance bags lining the walls. But can the style of bag you use (and how you wear it) have an impact on your dancing?

Don't worry—you won't have to shoulder the load alone. Dance Spirit spoke with two physical therapists who specialize in working with dancers to find out what dance bag is best.

What should dancers look for in a dance bag?

Dr. Meghan Gearhart, physical therapist and owner of Head2Toe Physical Therapy in Charlotte, NC, recommends dancers opt for a backpack-style dance bag rather than a duffel or cross-body bag.

"A bag that pulls the weight all to one side creates a side bend and rotation in the trunk," Gearhart says. "That is going to lead to muscle imbalances that will affect dancers while they're dancing, as well as just in regular everyday life." Muscle imbalances can mean limited mobility on one side of your body, as the muscles on one side are overly contracted and the other side is overly extended to compensate.

Gearhart suggests dancers pick a backpack made from a lightweight yet durable and breathable material, such as cotton, linen, nylon or polyester. Straps should be wide enough to not dig into your shoulder muscles, so avoid drawstring styles with rope straps. Adjustable and padded straps are best, so you can wear the straps at a length where the bag rests at the middle of your back.

Dr. Bridget Kelly Sinha, physical therapist and founder of Balanced Physical Therapy and Dance Wellness in Matthews, NC, emphasizes the importance of finding an even weight distribution when choosing a dance bag.

"If a dancer has a lot to bring, like when heading to the theater for a full day of rehearsals and performances, then I recommend a rolling suitcase to offset the load," Sinha says.

How should dancers wear their bags?

Even if you've selected the perfect dance bag, it's important to be mindful of how you wear it.

Gearhart advocates wearing both straps when carrying your backpack. She also suggests placing heavier items towards the back of the bag, where they will sit closer to your body. A bag with straps that are too loose (or a bag that is too heavy) can create an increased arch in the lower back or cause a dancer to compensate for the weight by leaning forward. Ideally, Gearhart recommends a dancer's dance bag weighing no more than 10 to 15 percent of their body weight.

"I usually tell dancers to use their common sense. If you don't have tap today, you don't need to bring the tap shoes," she says. "If your water bottle makes the bag too heavy, just carry it." If your studio offers lockers, take advantage of that storage space to lessen the number of clothes, shoes, and dance accessories that live in your dance bag.

And if you think your bad dance-bag habits have given you alignment issues, seek out a dance physical therapist to prevent further injuries.

"As a dancer, your body is working so hard all day," Sinha says. "It does not need excess strain from your bag."

Editors' Picks

Enter the Cover Model Search