The Art Of Videotaping Dance

Translating the Poetry of Living Dance to a Poem on Videotape

By Daniel Nagrin

The camera is enmeshed in a mess of contradictions. The camera eye is round but the picture it produces is a rectangle; a shape which has no relation to what the human eye sees. If its focus is sharpened it receives less light. If the film is faster, the resultant picture is grainier. The faster the exposure time, the less light enters.

Music and dance compliment each other, one being essentially audible and the other visible. Camera and dance are competitive. Both are visible arts with profoundly different structures. Videotape, like film, flattens the dynamic of dance, the frame cripples the spatial adventures of dance and the sweating, exultant, imminence of the living dancer is lost. Further, videotape has considerably less impact than film since its picture is smaller and poorer in quality. Whatever weaknesses there are in video picture are amplified by big screen television: blurred and vitiated color. Compared with the development of audio technology, video is primitive, something like the ten inch '78 recordings. There is no question that dance seen on a television monitor is a giant step down from the real thing. And yet, for all of its obvious limitations, the technology has been embraced by the dance community and with good reason. Unlike film, it's affordable and that has made all the difference. It can perform four distinct and different functions.

  1. Archival. It is the quickest way to record everything from the Spring Concert the neighborhood school of dance to the premier of a major dance company.
  2. Coaching and teaching repertoire.
  3. A marketing tool, directed towards committees giving grants and potential sponsors.
  4. Creating a new art form by translating the poem of the living dance into a new poem to be seen in the shadows dancing on the flat screen. This fourth function contains a seed that might alter the future shape of dance. Between millions of TV sets and the millions of video cassettes, there exists a potential new stage and a new medium for dance - if the two artists, the choreographer and the videographer can come together in this work. Rock musicians formed a symbiosis with videographers that set them on a new course and a new stage - Music TV. Is Dance TV next?

Three and four overlap, but not actually. The video products designed to attract the attention of grant givers and sponsors are of necessity short and styled by a marketing energy - salesmanship, and rightly so. The fourth focus is about creating a work of art where length and any other factor has determinants which may lead the market but not follow after it. Suffice to say, the four share many problems but each have their own rules and necessities. It is critical to be clear about which of the four is on the table. This essay is focused solely on #4 - making a work of art about a work of art. There are eight factors that will inevitably influence how well a particular videotape creates the kind of excitement a choreographer is trying to provoke:

  1. The Eye of The Camera
  2. Equipment
  3. Camera Technicians and/or Directors
  4. Sound
  5. Lighting
  6. Costume Color
  7. The Dance Space
  8. Money

1. The Eye of The Camera or Loosening The Rigid Constriction of The Camera's Window

I believe this is the crux of the problem. It is the obstacle which if understood and controlled can make the camera the instrument of an art form bringing insights not possible in live stage performance, even at this primitive stage.

The "normal" camera position is eye level; level with the eye of the performer and/or with the eye of the camera operator! Great for stand-up comics, singers and actors because the face is their center of focus. The normal height for a the dance camera should be on a level equidistant from the head and the feet. Shooting at eye level, the camera is closer to the head than the feet and by the nature of perspective and the exaggerations of the lens, the head gets bigger and the legs shorter. This is one reason why videotapes of performances are so terrible. In order not to block the view of the audience, the camera is usually placed behind the audience and elevated above them to exclude their heads from the picture or high by virtue of having a raked auditorium floor or worst of all shooting from a balcony. This will guarantee that all the dancers will have a low slung look, with stumps for legs.

A low camera position lengthens the legs, amplifies all leg movements, gives a heroic cast to the dancers' bodies and makes elevation look higher. Any extended or important leaping or jumping sequence is best shot from a low position because the film screen and the video monitor both seriously diminish the impact of all aerial work. Shooting in the theatre, it is easy to get a low camera position by shooting from the audience floor, with the camera eye as low or even lower than the stage floor. A low position in the studio is difficult. It's awkward for the camera operator to move or dolly. In professional studios that have the old pedestal cameras the lowest position is over 4 feet which is ghastly for dance. The newest ones are better and can skim the ground or swing up to 12 - 13 feet in the air. All terribly expensive to rent and demanding skilled operators to go with them.

The master shot or long shot which is responsible for not losing anything can still on occasion come in close for a medium shot or a close-up if nothing significant is happening elsewhere.

The high camera best catches the excitement of movements covering space and is especially important at those moments when the floor pattern is the most significant statement being made choreographically. Unexpectedly, pirouettes shot from high above convey the thrill of spinning better than any other angle. Ideally, this is a boom that can carry the camera up above the heads of the dancers. Without a boom, there are ladders, scaffolding and balconies.

Long shot? Medium shot? Close-up? How to choose? You do it constantly. You are making a choice every moment your eyes are open and yes, even the moment you wake. What time is it? You focus in and see only the clock. What kind of a day is it? You look out the window to look at the sky. That is a long shot. It’s as simple as that. Conceptually, the mind is always looking at a close-up or a medium shot or a long shot; even in your dreams.

Choreographically, there are times when what is happening across the entire space is what the dance is about. At other times, the most significant motion might be seen in a hand opening or in the slow turn of a head. Before ever calling in a videographer, the choreographer should pause to look again at her.his creation with fresh eyes and make a looking score. What must be seen and when? When is it wide or medium or a tight focus? When is the angle of vision head-on, from above or from low to the ground or would a look from the rear expose an unexpected insight? The choreographer should be able to convey this "score" to the videographer and be able to receive creative input from him.her. After all, she.he comes to the piece with fresh eyes and should be welcomed into the creative process.

Study the taping of sports. Whenever they can, they bring the camera in tight. We see the anxious face at the foul line, staring down the hoop, a tongue darting out to lick the lips, tighten them and the shot changes to see the shoot for the basket. We see our tennis god tug at the shoulders of his shirt, study the strings of his racquet, bounce the ball, the camera pulls back as he serves and another camera cuts in for a long shot to cover the entire court and catch the return. These close-ups are the most powerful images of which video capable. We can identify, come close to, root for or dislike the player. Whatever, we are involved.

Use them whenever you can without losing the big thrust and intention of the choreography. This is all too rarely done in videotaping dance. Not only is it difficult to identify with someone whose face is barely discernable; it is hard to even know what the dance is about when the figures are small and the faces an anonymous blur. No time is more important than the first 30 seconds after a dancer's initial appearance. Somehow, a close-up must be squeezed into that space of time, otherwise the presence, import and personality of the dancer will be cloaked, fuzzy and anonymous until there is a close-up. If the nature of the choreography makes early close-ups not practical, think of using portrait shots as an introduction or during the titles or as an opening shot which zooms out when the dance begins.

All of this is to contradict the usual horror of choreographers when a hand or a foot, or "horrors," a leg is cut out of the frame. If a dance is being shot as a record or as a learning instrument, close-ups are crazy. If the taped version is to convey the poem of the dance, a sequence containing only a hand may be the most poignant moment of all.

Cameras can move. So can dancers. Most camera operators, partly operating out of fear that the choreographer is certain to scream that he.she is not following the dancer, will always keep the dancer or dancers in the middle of the frame, thus in a very real sense, the dancers are not moving at all. They are frozen in the center of the video window like a deer caught on the cross hairs of a hunter's scope. Only if there is a complex set behind the moving figures can the impact of motion in space be experienced by the viewer. The classic climax of many movies is a chase. The speeding car is usually locked in the center of the picture frame but the scenery is rushing by, backwards. Every Fred Astaire set was complicated, emphasizing strong verticals while he was usually kept in the middle of the frame.

Conclusion: when there is no complex setting with strong verticals, allow the dancer(s) to move within the frame without needlessly moving the camera. When the dancer(s) begin to get near enough to the edge of the picture frame so that another inch and we would become aware of the edge, the camera can subtly move, panning in the direction of the figure's motion or zoom out giving room to wide-ranging movements. The beauty of a stage performance is that the audience can always keep a sense of the entire space within the proscenium and so every spatial venture is felt. The limitation of the video window is that if we see the entire space, the dancer is ineffectually small and if we come in close enough to see the dancer fully and strongly, we lose awareness of the surrounding space and so the impact of spatial action is not experienced us. Thus allowing movement within the frame becomes the equivalent of movement within the proscenium. Alternately, cutting strategically between closeups and wide ranging shots can maintain the dynamic of a vibrant personal presence moving in wide space.

Needless to say, everything gets more difficult as the number of dancers being videotaped increases. Getting them all in makes the dancers too small to have personalities or impact. Shooting only some gives only some of the choreography. It is here that the choreographer and the videographer must begin to choose. When does the eye make a close-up and when does it take in the entire stage? When is the thrust of the choreography being carried by the group and when is it in the interplay of two of the dancers or even the swift turn of a head?

Little can be expected of videographers who see the dance for the first time the day of the shooting. They should come to see the dances ahead of time, exactly like the costume and light designers and without cameras. Then there should be a meeting of minds to see what he.she sees, what the choreographer wants to be seen and what is the purpose of the tape to be made.

2. Equipment

Following is a list of set-ups starting with the ideal and of course, the most expensive, and finishing off with the least expensive and the least satisfactory.

Set-Up #1: Three cameras. The camera positions described here can and should be varied to suit the needs of particular works. One camera in the center; the camera eye preferably at the dancer's waist level, with the responsibility to do the master shot which includes all of the dancers and much of the stage space. The second camera stationed to, say the left of the house or dance space and low; as close to floor level as possible, a little closer to the stage or dance space, with the responsibility of doing mid-shots, shooting one, two or three dancers including arms and legs and wherever strategic, close-ups. The third camera should be positioned at the other side of the house, far enough back to include the entire space and at least three feet above the height of the tallest dancer. Its responsibility should be full stage shots and medium shots. Shooting in a theatre, all cameras should be far back enough to do their assigned tasks, with the center camera which is responsible for the master shot being furthest back to image the entire stage width. In a studio, particularly a dance studio, it may be necessary to equip one camera with a wide angle lens. Even then to do a master shot of the entire space, it may be necessary to position this camera from a corner of the space. This is a an unhappy solution since any dancer at the far end of the studio is shrunk in size and distorted.

This set-up calls for a post-production process that requires viewing time to select the best shots. The choreographer can save money by doing this either alone or with the editor away from an editing studio. The final step demands the use of videotape editing equipment and a skilled editor.

Set-Up #2: "Professional" In the rare and exciting chance that there is the opportunity for a dance to be videotaped in a professional studio, there is a treacherous probability that must, if possible, be avoided. In this case all of the cameras are connected with one recorder and what is recorded is controlled by a director who has a switcher, a device that records only one camera at a time; thus the editing is done in "real time," that is, while the shooting goes on. To do it well, the director should be able to talk over an intercom to the camera operators, telling them when to zoom in or out or whom to focus upon. I think the use of the switcher is not to be desired because precise and aesthetically valid editing of dance is almost impossible to do well on the wing. It is done all the time when a symphony orchestra is being taped, but there the director has a musical score as a guide and he.she can pinpoint exactly the moment when the oboe solo begins. Even if a director were present at many rehearsals the razor edge timing demanded of good dance editing will prove too illusive for a definitive final result. Some money is saved by eliminating the post production process of editing. Just titles would be needed.

Set-Up #3: 2 cameras. They should be placed on different sides of the house one low, about kneecap level and the other high, about 2 feet above head level and both a bit closer to the center than the 2nd and 3rd cameras described in SET-UP #1. A system or score should be worked out as to who, at each point is responsible for the wide or what the trade calls THE MASTER SHOT and who is responsible for the medium or close-up. For safety, at all times one or the other camera must have the responsibility to cover the master shot.

Set-Up #4: one camera. A one camera shoot is hopelessly dull, depressing and gives a weak impression of the dance. The only way to circumvent this fate, is to shoot the dance once as a master shot and then several more times in close-up, mid-shot, from different angles, heights, and then do the post-production work of editing the different versions to make one flowing coherent whole. This can only work if the dancers work in every shot to the same recorded score. Live music would inevitably deliver variations in tempo which would make editing a nightmare. A single, non-stop, one-camera shot of an entire dance can never be much more than a tape for the record unless you have a genius camera operator who becomes part of the performance process; moving in, out and around the dancers with a hand held camera to make a visual poem of the work. Marry him.her before someone else does.

3. Camera Technicians and/or Directors

Though there are many skilled musicians, a good dance accompanist is a rarity. Though there are many skilled video artists and technicians, very few know dance nor the obstacles standing in the way of realizing its beauty and power on the video screen. If you find a knowledgeable and sensitive technician, "mazeltof." In any event, you, yourself must acquire a minimal understanding of the technology; have a clear idea of what impact you want for your dance and be able to express that to your video collaborator. Only deal with one who listens and you be sure to listen in turn. There is the potential for mutual enrichment.

Not a few current leading composers, lighting and costume designers took their first professional steps working for dancers. Who else would hire those young, raw, fresh out of school, untested people except the dancers, whose budgets usually preclude working with established artists and technicians? What better place for them to start developing their craft and artistry than with the most difficult art for which to write music, to costume, to light and now to videotape? The challenge here is not only to find young video technicians but talented ones who can listen as well as inform.

4. Sound

In filming dances, Hollywood takes great care to include sounds created by dancers with their feet, costumes and/or props. The technical term for this is "foot and dress" noises. In fact, one of the reasons Astaire's dances had so much impact is that he learned to "mickey mouse" from the cartoons; meaning that every strong physical action was mirrored by an equivalent sound from the orchestra. If he did a sharp "daaa baaa di dopdop," rest assured that at the exact same time, the orchestra went "daaa baaa di dopdop." In addition, his taps underlined every motion.

Almost all dance shot for broadcast TV lacks these "foot and dress" noises and consequently loses presence, imminence and vitality. It looks "unreal" in the worst sense of the word. Why? Even in the best TV studios, when taping dance, there is no microphone in the studio. A high quality audio recording is sent directly into the VCR in sync with the picture being taped and another audio line goes to speakers blasting away in the studio for the dancers to hear, but to repeat, there is no microphone in the studio. Good quality music on tape but no "foot and dress" noises.

This is one of the many reasons most dances videotaped for broadcast remain so pallid. Without noises, the dances lack reality and credibility. No one in the industry has solved the problem technically and it is not geared to the extravagant budgets of Hollywood musicals. There, the dancers are filmed to pre-recorded music blasting away in a studio with no microphone. The "foot and dress" noises are recorded later and then dubbed in precise sync with the music and the action; an expensive process but necessary process. The reason? If they tried to record the "foot and dress" noises while filming, there would have to be a microphone in the studio but the dancers must also hear the music to which they are dancing. If they could hear the music so could that microphone. It would be recording music played over loud speakers in the studio, thus picking up room acoustics, echo, and delay from speaker to mike to recorder; all making the final music track muddied.

Believing "foot and dress" noises are necessary, at a video workshop in Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, I hit upon a solution: the taped recording of the music had a line going into one sound track of the tape recorder and another one to a single speaker in the studio. This speaker was set against the wall behind the camera and behind a hand held shotgun microphone. This kind of mike has a very narrow field of sensitivity and can hear very little from behind it. The technician holding the mike, aimed it at my feet and these sounds went over a line one sound track. The speaker volume was set barely loud enough for me to hear. This quiet music played behind the shotgun mike was heard by me but not by the shotgun mike. The sound technician in the control booth had a mixer to balance the music and my "foot and dress" noises. This sounds like a lot of trouble and I suppose it is. I firmly believe it adds vitality, presence and reality to a flat medium that suffers from a lack of these very qualities.

Of course, most low-budget shoots don't have this problem. They record the music as it blasts in the dance space along with the noises made by the dancers' feet, props and costumes and get poor quality sound along with a sense of reality. Now that most video cameras have two sound tracks this is no longer a necessary given.

The next point is highly debatable and could be pursued as an experiment. In the sophisticated standards of dance today, "mickey mousing" or making dance phrases that duplicate the rhythmic contours of the music is considered naive and undynamic. For work on the stage, I subscribe to this thinking but in the transposition to the screen should this dictum be reconsidered? Would it be wise to take a hint from Fred Astaire and seek out a few strategic spots in the choreography and modify them for videotaping by moving in consonance with the music rather than counterpointing the rhythmic thrusts of the music? Just as sound engineers endlessly experiment and tinker to recreate every facet of the experience of live music, so should we eliminate anything in videotaping that diminishes the impact of the living presence of the dancer and find everything that can amplify it on the screen.

5. Lighting

To create this "poem of the dance," never shoot during a public performance. The video camera is dumb when it comes to light. Little light or radical contrasts produce terrible results. Some of the best dance lighting moments on stage use little light and/or sharp contrasts. Witness the failures of most videotapes of public performances. Most videographers feel safest with lots of light evenly distributed. For us, light is the palpable geography through which we travel. If the light configuration is uneventful, moving from here to there (which is what we do for a living) becomes uneventful.

Do everything possible to have a plentiful supply of light available; enough, so that it is never necessary to shoot with the lens wide open. A wide open lens has less clarity and sharpness than one that is closed down. Go for contrast when you want it but be certain that the dark areas are filled in with enough light for visibility, unless there is a justification for black areas.

Theatrical lighting equipment is best but there are less expensive solutions. A dozen to eighteen 250 watt reflector floods and spots housed in those cheap clip-on fixtures, strategically located, might do the job in smaller spaces. Also 250 watt and 500 watt photo floods in those aluminum reflectors on light weight stands will also serve. Just be sure to get professional advice on how much of a load your electrical source can handle.

6. Costume Color

Any costume that has the same color as the background will in effect make the dancer disappear. Black on black is the road to invisibility. Black curtains, black wings and black vinyl floors swallow black costuming and particularly black shoes. A shoe dye to lighten the tone will help. Stark white may defeat defining the dancer's body. Red, magenta and fuchsia can be difficult to light. They tend to flare up and bleed. Broadway shows always have a costume parade before the dress rehearsal. For videotaping, the best idea would be a "monitor parade" of the costumes in the setting where the shoot will occur leaving enough time to make any changes needed to retain the definition of the dancers' bodies.

7. The Dance Space

The obvious is to avoid dancing on concrete. The best video equipment is found in broadcast studios which almost always have concrete floors. If you must work on such a dangerous surface, go over the choreography carefully to see whether you can modify falls and aerial work so that you and/or your dancers don't live to remember that day with bitterness. Use knee pads and padding where ever possible and if the costuming does not permit it, at least use them for rehearsals. Many of the best equipped studios have inadequate space for dancers. Avoid them if you can and try to have equipment brought to a proper dance space.

8. Money

Try to get Public Access Television people interested. Make a deal. Let them air your stuff for nothing if they will do the job for you. Some are more professional than others. Make contact with local producers of commercial TV. Let them know that anything they contribute from equipment to technicians to post-production facilities would be tax deductible. Their contribution could be listed prominently among the screen credits. Organize a dancer's cooperative to buy or rent equipment and to train and engage the services of video technicians and artists. Weekend rentals are cheaper. Organize a day or a weekend when several of you can rent the same space, crew and equipment at a significant saving. Get to know the community of videographers and particularly the new, talented and creative ones. They may be looking for you.


What has been noted here is a bare indication of the complexity and richness that is possible in capturing dance on tape. Heretofore, the dance has been an illiterate art, with no history, except for a few centuries of paintings, obscure notations and memories. Tape is economically feasible but few of us have been able to bear looking at ourselves in that medium. Usually we and our work have looked awful seen that way. What's the good of a history if it degrades the quality of the art?

When we videotape dance, we are incorporating the limitations and the strengths of that medium into our choreography. We dare not simply point the camera at our work. If however, we design the interaction of camera and dance, exploiting the new parameters and special insights of the video medium, we will be making a creative use of its capabilities and come up with what amounts to a new artistic statement.

A Proposal

I believe that throughout the world of academe there are a few remarkable and beautiful works of the dance art being produced every year for a pitifully small audience. The proposal: let every college or university with a dance program select out of each year's work at least one piece of choreography to receive the full treatment: cameras capable of producing broadcast quality video, a skilled and sensitive videographer and lighting designer, a crew and a high ceiling space suitable for taping, a skilled and sensitive editor and post production facilities. If the girl scouts can raise the money, we can. There is the university itself, there are unexplored pockets of departmental budgets, there are video producers in the area who would consider a tax-deductible venture, there are business sponsors who may be waiting to be asked and there is the need to do this. Once there develops a library of broadcast quality tapes of some of the best dances there a market will open up and not necessarily limited to public TV. Onward to DTV!

Adapted from "How to Dance Forever," a book by Daniel Nagrin, William Morrow, 1988, pp. 341-353:

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