The Last Day of Dance | Photo Essay

Witness the magic of a dance class through a 35mm film lens. A film photography exploration into the world of jazz dance and its emotive energy.

Photo Essay: The Last Day of Dance by Geve | Shot on 35mm film on a film camera.

I walk into the room as they are getting ready. Their feet barely stay on the ground; their voices echo how raised their spirits were. The room electrifies as they chat and laugh with each other. The music swells, and they face the mirror on the wall. The last time I was here was their first day in Jazz Dance. I remember them carefully watching their movements in the reflection while following Sara’s, their instructor, lead. Today isn’t so different, but things aren’t the same as it was. For now, they wait; for now, they dance to their own music.

I stand at the back corner of the room. That’s one of my stations, and I will be bouncing from corner to corner, on my knees or on my feet, cameras ready. Sometimes I sit on the floor in front of them with my back against the mirror, their gazes passing above my head. I am a fly on the wall, armed with two 35mm film cameras — a Canonet loaded with Ilford HP5, locked with a 40mm lens, and a Pentax K1000 loaded with Kodak 400 TMax, looking through a 50mm lens. I, too, carefully observe; I barely stay stationary. I am ready to move, follow, and capture the motions they are about to create.

Sara enters the room, and it begins. She plugs her phone into the speakers but talks to the class before she hits play. They talk about routines I know nothing about, but today they are also learning something new. This isn’t precisely their last day of class, but it is their last day dancing; next week, they will sit on chairs watching themselves on a TV screen. I catch them on film before all the dancing ceases.

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Sara hits play, and the beat rocks the room. It’s an earthquake that urges everybody to move. The door is closed, but the sound still manages to escape, and passersby in the hallway outside peek through the glass of the door window. It’s a song they recognize — a pop song before it switches to another. They could be dancing with them from out there, celebrating and synchronizing. Still, inside that dance room, they dance for themselves. They dance because this will take them into the future. They dance because they must.

On the other hand, I am cursed with two left feet, but in a room locked in blaring pop music and burning dancer spirits, the urge to move becomes contagious. I fight it and focus on what I see through the lens. The search begins. I prepared for this day, for the next couple of hours, looking for movement, for expression–but there I was, captivated instead by the shapes their bodies took.

Suddenly, I feel like an intruder. There they are, dancing, moving, expressing, and giving all they got while I stand there and document. I observe, and before me lay their vulnerabilities, limitations, strengths, and weaknesses. Their eyes spell some kind of mistrust as if I see precisely what they did not want to be seen: their mistakes, the cracks in their guard, and their imperfections. They would be half-right — I was there indeed to capture the imperfections, but these were symptoms of greatness; they came with the beauty and grace of what they do.

As much as I want to be a fly on the wall, I still catch their eyes looking at me, observing the observer. I wonder if my presence pushes them to be better composed and performing than if I wasn’t. Still, I like to think that the room was already full of determination, whether I was there or not. These aren’t just students or dancers but dreamers in New York City. A fire within them burns brightly, and not a single pair of observing eyes can possibly stop them from doing what they came here for.

I could capture every second in that two-and-a-half-hour class, but I am also aware of my limitations. I confirmed when Sara asked if I was photographing everything on film. I preemptively decided to shoot with only two rolls of 35mm film, each already loaded into their cameras. I hated reloading as they danced because that meant taking my eyes away from them, from all the action. However, I also know that these limitations set me free and pushed me to find what I wanted to catch. In the dance room, the decisive moment is a grave necessity. I frame as I shoot, and I compose as I advance. I adjust my aperture and shutter speed depending on the shifting light that covers each subject. At the same time, I learn when to say no to what’s in front of me, no to a composition, no to a moment. I have to make everything count. Ultimately, I hope for the best and trust my instincts.

This spontaneity gives me certainty in what I do and see.

The atmosphere is jovial and lighthearted; I did not find myself in a scene of a morbid, psychologically terrorizing film about perfection in dancing. Nonetheless, there is tension in the intentionality of their movements. Sara tells them how to move their feet across the room, twist their backs, shape their hands should have while midair, or how much attitude is applied to a movement or pose. They seek what any artist does with their craft: to get it right. They observe themselves, their instructor, and their peers. They make mistakes and then adjustments — and then they keep going.

My favorite moments are between songs that reveal who they are outside of dance. At the end of the day, they are not just peers or rivals: they are friends. They exist outside the rhythm and beat of the pop song that dominates the room. I photograph both sides of a coin: the intensity of dancers steadfast with their craft and the softness of performers who love dancing and dancing with friends.

I found something more than what I sought out. The last instinct kicked in, and before the class ended, I loaded a roll of Portra 400 into my Hasselblad 500c. My 35mm cameras were each down to their last exposure. I had to decide at the moment–this one would be unlike all the other photos; this last roll of film would be for them to have a chance to present themselves outside the music, outside the tension. The cameras have been looking at them, and now they finally get to look back.

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The photos reflected a truth: we are all people doing our best, pushing through our mistakes and imperfections to create something grand and beautiful that we hope will prevail and inspire. We are people before we are artists, performers, or photographers, pushing through every day to improve at what we do. The last day of dance to me reflected the epitome of ambition and the posterity of passion.

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