Begin Again: Headshots and Dance Shots, Baby!

May 26, 2022

These days, headshots and dance shots are a performer’s gateway into any audition. They’re the first thing casting directors and artistic directors see of you—a first impression, if you will—making quality images a necessity. But for me, photographs documenting my dancing and my likeness go beyond being crucial audition materials. After nine years off of dance, they’re artifacts, fixed in time, representing my triumph over disease. They are materials I can pass down through generations of my family, eventually showing that Grandma Haley really was a dancer and her story is worth remembering.

So this month I’m taking you through my process of finding the right photographer, prepping for the shoot and, finally, what the experience in front of the camera is really like.

Finding the Right Photographer

As an arts journalist for Dance Media, I’ve seen a lot of brilliant dance photography over the years. So I had an idea of who I wanted to take my headshots and dance photos, but I still wanted to do research to make sure I was going down the right path. 

First, I reached out to friends in the industry to see which photographers they’ve enjoyed working with. Specifically, I contacted friends who are signed with agencies I am interested in. I did this so I could know what kinds of images seem to capture an agency’s attention, and so that I wouldn’t have to turn around and get more taken when/if they sign me. Headshots and dance shots are extremely expensive, and, as I’ve mentioned in previous Begin Again columns, I am doing my best to pursue my dreams without totally breaking the bank. (Something I am finding more and more difficult with each passing day.)

Once I got a list of photographers my friends liked, I stalked some of my favorite professionals on social media to find out who took their headshots and dance shots. At this point in my search, I had a bunch of talented photographers I was interested in working with, so I started emailing each of them to find out their pricing (most don’t list their rates online) and availability. This part of the process knocked a good chunk of the options off. From there I reviewed the work of the final three photographers I was interested in, and went with the images I was most drawn to.

Haley Hilton. Photo by Andrew Fassbender, courtesy Hilton.

The result? I booked with Rachel Neville Studios, the company I’d been pining after since 2016 when I started working for Dance Media. Beyond the gorgeous photography, once I got on the phone with Andrew Fassbender, the company’s audition photographer, I felt like I was about to work with someone who had my best interests in mind, who was looking to help me succeed in my dance career. I knew that he understands dance technique (Andrew danced with Tulsa Ballet) and a lot of photography experience (he has been shooting for over 15 years).

That said, his work is a financial investment. While I was fortunate to be able to shuffle some things around and sacrifice to make it happen, I know this price point might not be realistic for everyone. So I asked Andrew what dancers should be looking for in a photographer regardless of financial circumstances. “Audition images are an integral part of moving into the next phase of your dance journey, so don’t take them lightly,” he told me. “Find a photographer who has a dance background or has been working with dancers for a really long time, so they know what does and doesn’t look right. Lastly, find a photographer who fits your aesthetic, and goals. Stalk their Instagram and make sure you’re investing in work you like.”

Photo Shoot Preparation

Once I decided on the photographer and booked a date, it was time for me to prepare for the big day. In terms of clothing, Andrew asked me to bring (basically) everything I own. “A leotard that looks good in an arabesque might not look good in a passé,” he said. “A leo that looks good with your arms above your head may not photograph well with your arms in front of your body.” Some rules that never change? “Patterns are a no-go for audition photos,” he says. Sigh. Dang it! My favorite leo has lots of gorgeous flowers all over it! He also asked me to bring multiple pairs of pointe shoes (both dead and fresh), so he could see which ones would photograph best.

When it came to headshots, he asked me to bring clothing options that fit a happy, bright, Disney-esque aesthetic, as well as ones that are more moody and sexy. It’s important to get headshots that fit the audition you are submitting to. For example, what I would send to Radio City’s Christmas Spectacular casting directors would be totally different from what I would send to Moulin Rouge! The Musical casting directors on Broadway.

For makeup, I decided to go with an artist a friend recommended named Priscilla Freire. I liked her work on Instagram and had her come over the morning of my shoot to give me some glam. (She’s amazing! I cannot sing her praises enough!) We went for a look that enhanced my natural face. I personally like the way I do my own hair, so I decided not to hire a hairstylist for this shoot. It worked out great for me and allowed me to save some money.

Finally, Andrew recommended I get a good night’s rest the day before the shoot. He told me to stay hydrated, and to eat the way I would the day of a performance. “We are going to be kicking your butt when you work with us,” he said. “You might do a sissonne 50 to 60 times, so make sure you have the fuel you need.”

The Shoot

You guys, I had the time of my life at this photo shoot! (Go check out this month’s vlog for evidence!) Once I got to the studio, I warmed up and got better acquainted with Andrew before diving in. I showed him my outfit options and we began with a traditional bare-shoulder photo. (I wore a bandeau to get this effect.) He had me test out different expressions to see what might look best for my headshot. I started with a neutral face, and slowly increased my smile until I was at a full cheesy grin. He snapped a bunch of images and directed me to adjust my angles in tiny increments until we had a shot we were happy with. My favorite images from this portion of the shoot were moodier shots that might be ideal to submit for more serious auditions.

Next, I changed into a blue tank top we thought was a nice color on me. We went through the range of expressions again, and landed on some super-smiley happy shots. We called these images my Legally Blonde photos. I would submit one of these images for more upbeat projects.

Haley Hilton. Photo by Andrew Fassbender, courtesy Hilton.

Then we looked through my leotards and picked out a pretty gray one from Elevé, and paired it with my Freed of London pointe shoes. Andrew let me know he thinks leotards with thinner straps are ideal for my body type on camera. (Everybody is different, so what is true for me may not be true for someone else.) Then he had me stand on a mark in the middle of an all-white space and do a turned-in retiré facing side. He had me begin on pointe rather than having me piqué into position, because he wanted my standing leg to be “locked and loaded.” We did that same retiré roughly 20 times, trying out different arm placements and finding new ways for me to connect with my performance, creating an image with soul.

Once we got the shot, we transitioned into a low croisé devant leg, where he had me really push into my shoes. “It’s okay if you fall down,” he said. “As long as you don’t get hurt, what happens before and after the shot doesn’t matter, so don’t be timid.” Then I changed into a leotard and did an arabesque. Full transparency: I was pretty nervous about this shot. I have a hypermobile body, but despite the flexibility in my back, I’ve struggled to get my arabesque up at times. Andrew taught me that my challenges with my arabesque come from my bone structure (I have a short torso), but if I let the tension in my back ease up and throw my leg into place, I will get a gorgeous arabesque line. And guess what? He was totally right! He also had me turn my standing leg in and twist my torso (things I would never do in class or a performance), because he knew which positions would read best on camera. After arabesque, we did the same thing with a développé à la seconde and a fourth position. Then I took my pointe shoes off and we got one funky contemporary look for the fun of it.

Partway through the shoot, Rachel Neville walked in and shared her opinion on some of my looks and poses, making comments on things she thought looked nice or I did well. It made me feel so good! Both Rachel and Andrew asked what my career goals were and gave me advice for how to achieve them. It felt like I just added two more amazing people to my team to help me chase my dreams.

Six hours later, I had eight images I am absolutely obsessed with. I’m so excited to send photos that depict the best of my dancing to potential employers. But even more, I’m so excited to have artifacts representing something I love so much. No matter what happens, I’m a dancer forever!