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Arts & Life

Kansas City Photographer Mike Strong Captures The Magic Of Dance

Photographer Mike Strong has spent the past two decades capturing the movement of dancers on Kansas City stages. 

When Strong first became interested in dance, he says he couldn't find much information about metro-area dance events. So in 1997, he started his own website, KCDance.com and has published photographs of performances and rehearsals ever since. 

On a recent evening at the dance studio at the Performing Arts Center at UMKC, students are warming up and choreographers were sketching out scenes for "The Miraculous Man," a new ballet based on Béla Bartók’s one-act pantomime ballet of crime in the big city.

Strong finds a spot on the floor and puts down his camera bag.

“Right now I am just looking to see what I want and what the thing looks like,” Strong says. Going to rehearsals is an important part of Strong’s process. He says many people think getting great shots of dance is easy, but it’s not.

“Both photographers and dancers are guilty of thinking if you bring a camera to a dance, you have dance photography. Dancers need to practice. Photographers need to practice," he says. 

Strong focused on dance shortly after picking up photography, but he says taking dance lessons — especially tap-dancing lessons — opened both his eyes and his ears.

"Just before those tap dance lessons, it so happened, I’d picked up a documentary on Gene Kelly.

"And I thought, well, ok, he’s a nice dancer. But, I didn’t get anything. So, then I go to the lessons. And for six weeks or so, I’m stumbling through. But I still hadn’t realized that I knew anything. Then I picked up the Gene Kelly documentary again."

Watching it this time was a whole new experience, he says.

“It’s completely different. I am in a whole different world. It was my ‘ah ha’ moment. You know, I said, 'Holy smokes.' Because now I could see. More importantly, I could hear."

Strong went on to take beginning ballet and beginning flamenco lessons. 

“And in each one of those I would get a sort of jump, a quantum jump, so to speak, in my photography and I could see it. Instead of a leg swinging by, or a leg moving out and then back in, you know that’s a tendu coming out. You know it specifically how that movement fits into another movement in the repertoire and how they flow together."

Capturing movement on a darkened stage is no small feat. And Strong says it’s challenging to take a photograph that satisfies both dancer and photographer. 

“There’s an expression called 'good feet,'” he says with a laugh. “Somebody has 'good feet.' For a dancer, it means how well and consistently your feet perform all the way through. That’s one of the very first things a dancer will look at: bingo. It’s like a billboard flashes up in front of them and everyone else just doesn't even notice it.”

Associate professor of dance Ronald Tice is co-choreographing ‘Miraculous Man," along with associate professor DeAnna Hiett. At a rehearsal, he's directing a group of dancers as they leap across the floor. Tice says there's often just a split-second between a correct dance photograph and an incorrect one.

“I can immediately look at a photo and go, What is wrong with that foot?” he says. “Why did they pick that photo? It’s wrong. In ballet you have this endless quest for perfection which you never achieve but you are always searching for aesthetic purity and perfection.”

Striving for that ideal is Strong’s goal as well, and he says his work is like a dance of its own.

“As soon as you catch yourself trying to catch up to a dancer, you need to stop — just halt everything and listen to the music and step back into it,” Strong says. “You can never catch up to the steps you missed. So what you missed is missed, so forget it. The best thing to do in order not to miss the rest of the stuff is stop for just long enough to get your bearings again, get in right on the music and come back to it.”

UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance presents 'The Miraculous Man,' as part of the UMKC Fall Dance Concert. The work is one of five dances featuring performances by students and choreography by faculty of the UMKC Dance Division at 7:30 pm, October 29 - 31,White Recital Hall, James C. Olson Performing Arts Center, 4949 Cherry Street, Kansas City, Missouri.

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