How do you film dance? Now that’s a great question. Given that I am a dancer and that I just spent a year (and tons of money) learning to film, you would think I’d have a decent answer.
But it’s tricky. Even if you know good dancing, it takes skill and study to film dance in an interesting way. So, my professor gave me an assignment: Watch tons of dance movies and learn how the professionals do it.
That’s how I found myself at home with Burlesque, Dirty Dancing and Dirty Dancing Havana Nights. As I sat down with a beer and turned on my television, I thought, “This is the coolest homework assignment I have ever received.”
Here is what I noted.
Length of time: Most shots of dancing are at least 20 seconds, but more often they last up to 2.5 minutes. After all, you want to record (and people want to see) the entire performance.
Cutaways and cut-ins: When you have a longer shot, say of a full performance, you want to make sure to use a lot of techniques for maintaining viewer interest. Keeping one wide shot the whole time just won’t do it. You can cut away to individuals in the performance — both their whole bodies and shots of their feet, hands or faces; cut to the band, the DJ or the audience; or cut in on the main performer. If she is doing a movement that emphasizes a certain part of her body, zoom in on that. If she is wearing the most fabulous shoes you’ve ever seen, get some shots of fancy footwork. Cutaways and cut-ins were used about every 10 – 20 seconds in 2-minute dance scenes.
Panning: A great technique to varying your shots is to use different types of pans. Pan across a group of performers, pan from someone’s feet up to their head or vice versa.
Shifting focus: If you are in an interesting setting, such as a very colorful bar with great drinks, you can use a shift in focus. For instance, put the focus on the amazing strawberry daiquiri in the foreground with the dancing in the background, then switch focus to the dancing.
Vary your angles: You can shoot up at the performers or down on them from a balcony or high chair. If possible, you can also stand among them on stage.
I used these techniques for Jenna and James’ final practices before the competition and the footage looked so much better. It was more engaging because you felt like part of the action. The closer I got, the better it turned out. And, as long as your dancers are good at what they do and aware of their space, they probably won’t run into you.
Once at the competition we were limited to one camera, so we played it safe with wider shots. If you are filming dance, use two cameras. One can take the wider shots while the other can focus on the details that make the scene more interesting. I really believe this would have made our competition scenes better, but ultimately you must work with what you have. If anything, it gave us a chance to use our resourcefulness and creativity, which are the best skills for documentarians to have.