How a pro dancer became a pro dance photographer
Their relationship was barely an hour old when, mistrust simmering beneath cordiality, one woman urged another to run into a busy New York City street and dance. The request itself wasn’t at issue. Melika Dez was photographing Akua Noni Parker, an Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company member, and Dez wanted Parker on a crosswalk in front of stopped traffic, where she would have to contend only with coffee-carrying pedestrians and the time limit of the Walk/Don’t Walk signal. Parker’s black-and-white striped top and leggings inspired Dez to place her on the white-striped crosswalk, but Dez didn’t like Parker’s black-and-white high-top sneakers: They didn’t look ballet enough. Parker didn’t think much of Dez’s vision: Juxtaposing her matching outfit and stage against yellow taxis seemed cliché.
“Both of us didn’t like one aspect of the other person’s idea, but we remained very polite,” Dez says. She gave in on the sneakers, and Parker moved into the middle of the crosswalk to pose with her legs in a straight vertical line. As they both reviewed the images on Dez’s Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, photographer loved the sneakers—“It brought out more New York”—and dancer loved the color contrasts. “We came together with the photos,” Dez says. Later in the session, Dez sent the dancer into the middle of a boulevard, traffic passing her on both sides, and Parker in orange leotard and black trench coat pirouetted into an iconic image in both photographer’s and dancer’s portfolios. The two have been talk-once-a-week friends since.
You could call this a pivotal point in Dez’s photography career. A professional dancer herself, Dez took a twisting journey to arrive at what seems her most natural niche in photography. The relationship she forged with Parker opened the door to more such opportunities with Alvin Ailey and other dancers. The 30-year-old Dez, who’s based in Montreal, has had many such pivotal points, starting with why she took up photography in the first place. They all led to the creation of images that are studies in Dez’s own in-the-moment artistic sense and process. Moment: She uses the word more than two dozen times in our two-hour interview.
Dez was in a pre-university cinema studies program at Cegep du Vieux Montreal, and for the final group project she served as director of photography. As the project’s director abdicated more and more responsibilities, “I ended up directing the whole thing,” Dez says. The film took the school’s top honors, won titles in competitions against other cinema schools in Quebec, and was entered in Montreal’s Festival of New Cinema.
“Everything was going great—winning prizes, getting exposure,” Dez recalls. “Then came the moment of college applications.” The project’s director got into the college program on the basis of the film; Dez, listed only as director of photography, was denied. “Frustrated, I asked what’s the most efficient and fastest way to get into the cinema program, and they told me 50 percent of students came from photography programs.” Dez returned to Cegep du Vieux for photography studies. “In my mind it was only temporary to access the cinema program in college,” Dez says.
She tells this story because her father is commercial photographer Claude Rigaud. Dez wants to make clear that photography is not her destiny but her passion, ignited in the Cegep du Vieux program that taught analog as well as digital photography. “I fell in love with the fact that I could touch my photos. I fell in love with catching a tiny sliver of time, immortalizing a specific moment when you pull the trigger and that moment lasts forever.”
The irony is that Dez is a woman of movement. She started in gymnastics at age 7, competing until she was 14, when she became a gymnastics coach. About that time she entered a professional dance program doing jazz, ballet, modern, and tap. After six years in that company she turned to street dancing and hip-hop, performing in professional troupes for about five years. She now teaches pole fitness, an acrobatics-centered version of pole dancing, “the perfect blend of gymnastics and dance,” she says. It’s also her meditative outlet. “Whenever things are not going my way, I can go to the studio and have a moment. I’m an artistic person generally, and if I’m not doing photography I need to do something artistic.”
Dance photography was not her first direction, even though she used dance colleagues as models in school. “You don’t have the budget to hire professional models,” she says, and because dancers generally train at night, they were available for Dez’s sessions. Shortly after she graduated, Dez’s father connected her with aircraft manufacturer Bombardier, which hired her to photograph every custom-made private jet coming out of the factory. The job gave her valuable experience in perspective, angles, and lines. But she had other ambitions.
“This girl wanted to do fashion,” Dez says, and she worked a few years assisting fashion photographers before setting up her own business. “I quickly understood that was not the crowd I wanted to be associated with: too much Prada and too much pride. I needed to be in touch with humans, with a capital H.”
She started doing portraits, including a black-and-white series profiling members of the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes out of their helmets and uniforms. “I thought it would be nice to strip down those athletes and get to the core of who they are.” She takes the same approach but in a different direction with ballet dancers. “I wanted to take the dancers out of the studio and perform on a different stage, in the street and normal environments,” Dez says.
The final thread of this career track first unspooled six years ago when she was performing in hip-hop competitions and broached a New York-based dance judge with her wish to “capture the essence of street dance” through photography. He invited her to New York to introduce her around, and she began photographing hip-hop battles in the city. Location and location shooting proved key four years later when, as an Instagram follower of Candy Tong, Dez learned the San Francisco-based ballerina would be visiting New York. Dez proposed a photo session there.
“She saw my portfolio and agreed,” Dez says. The images of Tong in Times Square and Central Park and on the Brooklyn Bridge and the New York Subway led to Dez photographing Parker and then other members of Alvin Ailey in New York and, upon the dancers’ invitation, in Paris, too, where she also photographed Parisian-based dancers.
Dez uses no crew or artificial lighting for these sessions. She scouts locations for geometric shapes and sun angles, but “I leave a lot to spontaneity and improvisation. You don’t know what you’ll find on the way to the next location, and that’s happened many, many times.” The image of Parker pirouetting in the middle of the street, which went viral when the dancer posted it, happened in the space of two minutes, Dez says. “I knew I wanted to shoot there, but I didn’t have time to scout my locations according to the sun’s positions like I usually do. We get there, I see the sun reflecting off the building to the side, and I knew it would highlight the side of her face. So I said, ‘Go into the middle of the street.’ She said, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘You have three feet on each side to move; don’t fall.’ And this shot happens. I captured the moment.”
Dez does not use rapid-shoot. “I’m a purist when it comes to my technique. It’s important to me and for my art that I’m able to capture the moment when the movement is at its best.” Her own dance experience is essential in this skill as she can anticipate exact moments in a choreographed sequence. “When you study different dance styles, you know how to count the music and understand when a moment is about to happen; or when a dancer goes into prep position, you know the kind of movement that’s about to come.”
Moment: It actually comes from being a woman of movement. When choreographing a dance piece, she says, she doesn’t start with the music; she starts with “a feeling based on a moment.” She brings that vital understanding to her subjects.
“One thing I tell dancers—and I say this every time I shoot—is allow yourself to have a moment. Performers, generally speaking, are raised or taught to be very self-conscious. So when you put an artist in front of a lens, they automatically become self-conscious and try to control every single movement. And that creates a lot of pressure.” She tells them, “Have a moment,” and the dancer closes his or her eyes, lets go of self-conscious, and “feels the moment,” she says. “That’s when magic happens.”
Eric Minton is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.