Boston Ballet's Misa Kuranaga and Patrick Yocum (courtesy Rachel Neville/Boston Ballet)

Meet the Photographer Behind All Those Dance Photos You're Obsessed With

We're on somewhat of a dance photography kick here at DS, so we figured we'd keep it going in a very big way: an exclusive interview with Rachel Neville, the photographer responsible for all those absolutely drool-worthy dance photos on your Instagram feed. We caught up with Neville at PurePoint Financial in NYC, where she just wrapped up her new show, "A Command Performance"..


Dance Spirit: How'd you start your photography career?

Rachel Neville: I was a dancer in Europe, and suffered a finish-your-career type of injury. I went back to Canada to live with my parents and finish high school, and photography was the senior year art class offering, so I took it. And I suddenly realized, "I like this, this could be something." So I took a year off, applied to colleges, and went from there.

DS: What's your dance background?

RN: I was classically trained in Toronto, Canada, where I'm from. I stopped dancing when I was 21.

DS: How does your dance background help you in shoots?

RN: In so, so many ways. I'm also trained to teach, and I really love teaching. Being a dancer allows you special insight when photographing, in that you know what [the dancers] are looking for, and what you should be looking for.

DS: Do you have dancers prepare in any specific way prior to a photoshoot?

RN: I'm really the director on almost all of my shoots. I tell the dancers what to do and wear. Occasionally they prepare things, but really it's just an organic process once on set. As dancers warm up, I help them understand how to pose in front of the camera, because you're trying to make something that looks beautiful in 3-D translate onto a flat screen. It often takes an hour for them to understand twisting, changing their lines, hitting things all at once. So, organically, poses and movements begin to come out of this, and I begin to see what their facility is, what their level is, and what I can and can't push.

If it's a more conceptual shoot, like with Jorge Villarini and the bird, then there's more that goes into it. He watched videos of birds and how they moved, and came into the shoot with specific ideas of how he wanted to move. I often give the dancers the story and emotion I'm envisioning, so they can start to think about it.


Jorge Villarini as "The Bird" (courtesy Rachel Neville)


DS: What are some of your favorite recent shoots?

RN: Any time there's a shoot with a narrative, and the dancers give you a performance that brings you to tears while you photograph—those are my absolute favorites. Being able to communicate with audiences and have those moments is what dance is all about, and I hope that's what I do with my shoots.

One of my favorite shoots was when I worked with Boston Ballet and William Forsythe. It was amazing to get the chance to work with him, because we quickly realized that we see things very similarly. We were finishing each other's sentences, he was on board with every idea, the dancers were incredible to work it, the entire team—I can't say enough about that shoot.


Boston Ballet's Misa Kuranaga and Patrick Yocum in William Forsythe's "Artifact" (courtesy Neville/Boston Ballet)


DS: What's the best advice you have for dancers going to their first photoshoot?

RN: Great question. I have three main pieces of advice:

  • Have absolute patience with yourself. Don't expect good shots right away. Sometimes a two or three hour photoshoot yields five to seven good shots. Take some time to learn the skills needed for taking a good photo.
  • Try to arrange for your first shoot to be with a dance photographer who truly understands dance. Even if it means you're getting less time with the photographer, it's worth it—the pictures will be worth it.
  • As your shoot progresses, don't be afraid to ask your photographer to be involved in the process. Go back to the screen once in a while, look at the photos, fine-tune your poses, and try again if the image isn't working. Be confident, because everyone can get an amazing dance photo—it's just all about the process that goes into it.

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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.

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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."

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