I love being a photographer. I love it. I love it every day. I love those moments when I capture something special. Something beautiful. Something thought provoking. Something creative. I love the way photography invites me to see the world more dramatically. To visually explore. To take life in and not let it merely pass by. I love the people I get to meet. The stories I get to tell. The moments I get to experience and document and make a lasting record of. I am a photographer is no longer a statement about my career. It is a declaration of purpose — a self-definition. And for a lot of years I thought photographer would be one definition I would always cling to.
A few years ago I was on a photo shoot for the Daily Inter Lake of a dance in Kalispell. The way this began is this guy named Pete Milne had stopped by our office at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon. In all honesty at 4:30 p.m. when I am leaving at 5 for a three day weekend I care about very little beyond actually leaving. So, when Pete stopped in my only real concern was about how long I would have to be polite until I could kindly usher him out the door and get my stuff and go home. He came by to tell me that that evening they were going to be having a swing dance at the Sassafras ballroom. There would be people dressed up in vintage clothing and that it could be a really fun, and highly photogenic night. I think I nodded. I probably smiled. Politely got his name and number. And mentally blew him off. My weekend was about to start. Who could ask for anything more?
It took me the length of the newsroom to realize that he was right. That this would make a fun photo package and it could fill the Montana Life section, a section we love, but often find difficult to find worthy subjects for. So, I get back to my desk and call the guy… I need directions to the Sassafras (which I had never heard of) so I can be there at 8 p.m.
I thank God for that decision. Isn’t it odd how the smallest decisions, the tiniest, most insignificant choices, become the ones that steer our lives and set our courses? On that Friday I decided to go see this swing dancing stuff. And I completely fell in love.
I fell in love with the music. I fell in love with the people. I fell in love with the smiles. With the moves. With the girls in their vintage. With Pete and Joe Juneman, dressed up to the nines, and brave enough to stand in the circle in the center of the room, teaching the beginner lesson for leads and follows.
I took the photos. They did run as a Montana Life. But that wasn’t enough for me. I was hooked. Turns out that not long after this the instructors who had taught our leaders were coming to Montana for a workshop. And it just so happened to fall on one of my three day weekends. That’s where I met Ben White and Peter Flahiff for the first time. How many times have I taken their workshop now? I honestly don’t know. I took the beginner track with Ben over and over because dancing is well outside my normal comfort zone. And slowly, slowly I improved. Got better. Began to dance more. And made some wonderful friends.
One of the things I love about swing dancing is the kind of people it draws in. Swing dancing isn’t a romantic dance. It’s social dancing. You dance with anyone, and everyone. And there are smiles and sweetness and tons of hugs. And there is beauty, and grace, and style, and vitality, and passion, and charisma and charm. And slowly my circle expanded to Missoula and then Bozeman and now I am friends with people around the state and even friends within the surrounding states. And I LOVE them. I love each and every one of them. And love the workshops that bring us all back together.
I’m going to fast forward through the years of dancing to this year. This year I went dancing on New Year’s Eve. I spent the most of the evening with the crew from North End Swing. When that dance shut down I went to Bigfork with Clara and Hana and spent that first moments of the brand new year dancing to The Company Brass and experiencing a happiness beyond description. Little did I know that that New Year’s Eve dance would set the tone for the year ahead.
This has been a year of firsts for me with dancing. I went to my first dance out of the state (in Spokane). As it happened I was going to be in Spokane at the same time Lindy Exchange was happening. I wasn’t going to go, but I saw some of the dancers over lunch and they talked me into it. And I am so glad they did. Then a few weeks later I went to my first dance in Tacoma followed the next night by a dancing at Eastside Stomp! Ben and Peter’s venue in Seattle. Wow. Now I’m looking forward to the day when I am brave enough to go dancing out of the country. And since I’ve just made friends up in the Calgary scene, that day may not be too far off. And who knows, maybe some day I will be lucky enough (and brave enough) to attend the international swing dancing camp in Herräng, Sweden.
This past weekend Peter and Ben were in town again. This time with some of our favorite teachers we’ve known in the past like the lovely Miss Taylor Stender and a crop of wonderful new instructors and dancers from as far away as California and Calgary. In my opinion, the workshop could be renamed: Montana Swing Dancers Reunion. Half the fun of the weekends is just getting to see one another, and share smiles and laughs and hugs with the people we know and love and are connected to because of dancing.
The best part of this past workshop for me came in two pieces. One, I got to put Ben and Peter and Galen and Ethan and Gavin and Jonathan and Keaton and Gwenn in the paper. We did another Montana Life feature on these instructors who keep coming back.
Swing dancing entered my life via photography. In many ways my camera is a safe zone for me. When I am behind the lens I know who I am, I know what I am doing, and I am confident in my ability to do what needs to be done and to do it well. And…best of all, it is a safe zone that travels with me. Having that personal safety zone allowed me the time and space I needed to really grow comfortable with dancing. I could photograph a few songs, and if a slower song came on, and if I was feeling brave, then I could put the camera down and go dance. I’ve gotten to the point now that sometimes I don’t even bring my camera when I am dancing. Sometimes, I only want to dance.
And other times, I know I won’t be content unless I capture the event on film. That’s what this most recent Big Sky Workshop provided. Peter and Ben, and Taylor and Matt, and Irina and so many others. Friends from Montana. Friends I thought were not going to be able to come, like Tyler. Friends from Washington. Plus all my lovely friends from right here in Kalispell. And everyone dress up and looking gorgeous. Back in the Sassafras. I didn’t get to dance too much on Saturday because I was too busy running around with my camera. I wish I could have had a few more dances, but there will always be more time for that. For this night, I was happy to have my camera in my hands. I still have video clips I need to edit, but for now I wanted to share the photos.
And I wanted to share the way these people and this music have blessed my life so much. I wish I could show that in the photos. I love it. I LOVE all of it. Swing dancing is something I hope to be doing for the rest of my life. Dancing and photographing. Photographer. Dancer. There are many words that define me and define my life, but those are two definitions I am particularly delighted to lay claim to. They are labels that I choose. And labels I am proud of.