A Photographer Travels to Every State in the USA
By Lisa Traiger
Editor’s note: Retired dancer turned photographer Jonathan Givens set out to photograph dancers in all 50 states. He’s what he found out about the current state of the field.
Dance/USA: Tell us about yourself.
Jonathan Givens: I began as a performer. My first show was in 1986. I never actually had any formal training. Every show I was in, I would say to a dancer or the choreographer, “Teach me that! Teach me that!” I had a bunch of really great choreographers and dance captains on the myriad of shows I was in, but I never had any formal classes aside from a couple master classes I took over the years. All my dance training was from shows I was in. I never went to college. I was a working professional before I ever graduated from high school. I had some raw talent, apparently, and I was able to make a career out of it.
I performed on stage for about 20 years. I did backstage work while I was performing and then got into directing and choreographing. I choreographed some national tours. I don’t do that anymore. Some people are meant to be directors; I was not. I became a master carpenter. I worked on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” I became a master rigger and designed systems for circus shows and theater. I’ve done quite a lot technically as well.
D/USA: Why photography?
J.G.: It’s Oprah’s fault! When I was working as the carpenter for her show, we won an Emmy Award for best set in 2004. One day we were chatting and she said I need to take pictures of what I was building for my portfolio. She said that the show wasn’t going to run forever and I needed to have a record of what I was creating. Then she told me to go buy a camera. When Oprah tells you to do something, you do it. So I bought a camera and I realized pretty quickly that taking pictures of scenery was boring. They say shoot what you know, and because I know performance, that’s what I did. All I photograph is performers. I don’t do weddings or babies or scenery or any of that. I shoot dancers, acrobats, circus performers. I shoot movement.
D/USA: What inspired you to undertake this cross country adventure photographing dancers?
J.G.: The initial impetus came from Facebook. I saw a project from a grad student … a software program that created the most efficient travel route through the contiguous 48 states. I thought that would be a really cool trip. Then I thought about how could I do this and make it into something worthwhile. I came up with the idea to go to all 50 states and do something with the industry I love and also with the environment, which is also important to me. So I traveled to every state and photographed dancers in national parks, national monuments, and other nationally significant locations. I’m donating a portion of the proceeds from the book Dance Across the USA to the National Endowment for the Arts and to America’s Parks.
D/USA: What was unexpected for you in meeting dancers from all over the country?
J.G.: The surprises came on a bunch of different levels. I was surprised by the homogeneousness that still exists in dance. In ballet everyone, of course, knows what a battement is and what a plie is. But once you get out of ballet in particular, 20 different schools will call a particular move something else: a C jump, a flying squirrel … they all have crazy names for all the tricks kids these days are doing. And while everyone calls it something different, everybody is still doing the exact same move. It was fun to see how the industry is the same wherever you go. In small town Kansas the studio with 20 students is the same as the dance school in Nashville with 1,000 students when it comes to these things.
D/USA: It’s interesting to hear that training still connects dancers all over the country.
J.G.: Right. I attribute that to the YouTube generation. Dancers today have the ability to see and learn things that they may not have otherwise been exposed to. A little school in Texas can still have access to what huge contemporary dance companies, ballet companies or tap companies are doing. That results in a much more unified dance world now because of the use of technology.
D/USA: What were some of the challenges you found dancers facing?
J.G.: I don’t know that it’s any worse than it ever has been, but universally dancers still struggle with the question: How am I going to make a career out of this? Is dance a legitimate career path? When I was a young high schooler, everybody always asked me what I was going to do as a backup, if dance didn’t work out for me. I heard: “You need a real job. Being an artist isn’t enough.”
It seems like there is even more fear in the current generation of young dancers just starting out and finding their own way. They want a sure thing, whereas the people I grew up with said, “I’ll just grow up and see what happens. I’m just going to move to New York or London or wherever and have a go at it.” Talking about that to teenagers today the response is, “Oh, I could never do that. That’s crazy. How would you survive?” I feel like young people are more scared these days than they used to be.
D/USA: The one quality you need to be a successful dancer is being fearless, whether that’s in the steps you practice in the studio, in the choreography, in moving across town, across the country or across the world. You met a lot of young dancers from all over the country. What’s on the horizon, the next good thing that you can see coming out of the field?
J.G.: I think the level of performer that is coming out of dance schools is much improved beyond the days of yore. The onset of technology is giving more schools the ability to teach to a better level. So the real professional training programs are getting a better quality student in their pre-professional programs. At least they have a bigger and better pool to draw from.
I saw a lot of elements that were detriments to the industry. That includes the importance of “tricking”; the importance of extreme flexibility to the detriment of one’s personal well being; and the heightened sense of self worth that a lot of young dancers have instilled in them. Then, when they go out and they realize that they’re not as amazing as their teacher or director told them they were, they just give up. [Younger dancers] don’t fight for it anymore. In the age of “Dance Moms,” the idea is you have to be the best here, but when you go out into a bigger pond, you say, “Wait. I’m not so good. I give up.” Instead they should be pushing forward and challenging themselves to grow and improve.
D/USA: Can you talk about the diversity you saw, both demographically and genre-wise on your trip?
J.G.: I saw that dance is primarily a white, female industry across the country. I had people challenge us at the start of this project asking why weren’t there more black dancers. We certainly didn’t exclude anybody based on any reason. We had 3,000 people apply to the project. We selected 174 dancers to photograph and 163 made it into the book.
The diversity we saw includes our oldest dancer, who was 61, and our youngest, who was five. We had men and women. We had black dancers, Asian dancers, Pacific Islanders, and every recognized race by the U.S. census – there are six recognized — and we had representatives of all six of those groups
As far as dance disciplines go, we photographed native American tribal dancers and tap dancers and hula dancers, ballet, contemporary, modern and jazz dancers. About the only genre we didn’t have a dedicated performer in, for some reason, was Irish step
D/USA: What about the trip logistics?
J.G.: There was a lot of planning — six months before we hit the road. We had to determine locations, arrange permits, acquire special permissions to do the crazy things I had in mind, let alone arrange all of the dancers. We ran a successful crowd funding campaign, which raised more than $44,000 to cover expenses related to the trip. We had a variety of sponsors including Nissan, who paid for the gasoline, as well as dance schools, photo labs, and even Goodwill Industries. The van we used was a 2013 Nissan NV 1500. I call it the Mighty Buford. My original Buford was a Ford Explorer that I called Beautiful Ford, or Buford. When I outgrew the Explorer, I had a reincarnation, a new Buford.
I put 22,264 miles on Buford for the project.
D/USA: You met dancers in every state. What advice would you give to young dancers?
J.G.: I would tell them you need to work at it. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be hard and people are going to say “no,” a lot. That doesn’t mean that you’re bad at what you do and that doesn’t mean that you don’t have something valuable to offer the industry. You just need to keep trying. You’ll hear a hundred “no’s” to get one “yes.” And you need to expect that and be prepared for that.
Just always keep working and improving and learning and networking. My best advice is to be nice because you never know when the person sitting next to you in the audition room could be best friends with the casting director or the choreographer. And if you’re a jerk to that person, people’s memories are long and the industry is small. If you burn bridges because you are so concerned about yourself, it’s not going to be helpful. So, work hard and be nice.
Jonathan Givens began his career as an actor/dancer/singer and is a member of the Actor’s Equity Association. After injury moved him off stage, he turned to theatrical tech work and he is a member of IATSE (the professional stagehand’s union). As a photographer, he earned the degree of Master of Photography from PPA (Professional Photographers of America). His photography focuses solely on entertainment. Givens shoots dancers, acrobats, singers, and musicians. His company, EPS – Entertainment Photography Specialists, located in Sunrise, Fla., operates the world’s only dedicated performer photography studio, complete with a sprung floor for dancing, and rigging points for aerial photography and is staffed by an ETCP-certified rigger (Givens). His book Dance Across the USA took him on a 90-day journey to every U.S. state covering 22,264 miles. He shot 22,160 photographs of 163 dancers in 56 locations. A portion of the proceeds from the book will be donated to the National Endowment for the Arts, and to America’s parks.
Interviewer Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online journal, and writes frequently on dance and the performing arts for a variety of publications including Dance, Dance Teacher and Washington Jewish Week.
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