Katrina Boone left her stable teaching career to become a full-time dance photographer. What happened next has changed more lives than her own. (Featuring: DANCERS OF RVA)
“I realized I was in the wrong place.”
When Katrina Boone left the stability of her teaching job to build a full-time photography business, she thought she’d made the last major career change she would ever make. But 12 years later, as she listened to Spanki Mills speak at Conference 12, Kat realized she wanted more.
“There’s something else in you,” Spanki told her audience. “You were born to create.”
Kat was struck by Spanki’s description of people as works of art. Though she was deeply ingrained in Tampa, Florida’s senior photography scene, Kat recognized that “the fashion and the makeup and the modeling” simply weren’t for her. But neither was Spanki’s more introspective approach to photographing seniors. What Kat wanted more than anything was her dream job: to be a dance photographer.
“So I went home,” Kat explains, “and I didn’t think about seniors again.”
Becoming A Dance Photographer
It was 2014 when Kat, at the encouragement of a friend, applied to take on the role of company photographer for the Brandon Ballet in Tampa, Florida. Without any experience as a dance photographer, Kat’s only portfolio was comprised of seniors and family portraits. As she described her passion for dance, however, Kat’s interviewers recognized potential.
“There’s just something in your soul that gets it,” they told her. The job was hers.
For a full season, Kat worked beneath the Brandon Ballet’s two artistic directors. Their feedback was critical but constructive. They told Kat flat-out which of her dance images were good, and which were unusable. Rather than feeling defeated, Kat worked even harder to learn and grow as a dance photographer.
“I love stories. And I especially like people’s stories.”
One evening, as she stood backstage with a dancer, Kat heard the story that would redirect her path.
“A dancer told me that his family used to live in another country where the government sought to have them killed. He said:
‘I came here for dance. Then my parents got to come. And now they’re about to be citizens.’
I was tearing up as I listened to his story, and I thought, when people watch him dance tonight in Nutcracker, they won’t have any idea what this man has been through, or how dance saved him and his family. I knew immediately that I needed to somehow, someway, create a platform for dancers to share their stories.”
When Kat and her husband moved from Tampa to Richmond, Virginia, in 2016, Kat quickly found a Richmond dance studio and ballet company who brought her on board. She told the owner, Shannon, about the idea she’d been working on for years. Shannon immediately suggested her ballerinas as Kat’s first subjects.
“The idea had chosen me.” Kat describes. “I was ready to help dancers share their dance journey.”
Dancers of RVA Is Born
Kat developed a name for her dance project – Dancers of RVA – and outlined a plan for launch. She started a blog, where she would publish the dancers’ stories. Then, instead of her classic, in-studio dance portraits, Kat asked each dancer to choose a Richmond location that held meaning for them.
The concept was simple. The execution would take work.
Finding Harmony In Meaningful Locations
Kat calls ahead to each location to make sure she can photograph there, and obtains any necessary permits. When she arrives at a location with a dancer, it’s usually a place she’s never seen before.
“I ask the dancer to show me: where do you find your harmony in this place? Then I tell them what I see: the lines, the way the trees kind of move to the right, the way the light falls…” Kat describes.
“Next, we discuss their strengths as a dancer. Are you a jumper? Are you flexible? Do you have a signature move? And I want to know, ‘How would you express yourself in this space?’ Then I work with the dancer on how we can get their movements to be in harmony with the space.”
“Safety is always, always first!”
Photographing on-location isn’t without risks. With a dancer already in their dance shoes, Kat does a thorough survey of the space. Loose gravel, shards of glass, or wet terrain could spell disaster for a dancer, so Kat does her best to ensure their safety.
She also carries a commercial liability policy, uses attorney-drafted contracts, and obtains a signed model release prior to every shoot. Kat allows plenty of time for her dancers to stretch before any photography begins, and she reserves bold movements – like jumps – for the end of the shoot, when the dancer is warmed-up.
But even with excellent preparedness and optimum professionalism, some challenges can’t be avoided.
“I’ve had to cancel a couple of shoots due to rain, which made me sad,” Kat admits. “But I have shot in 20 degree weather! I’m always checking to make sure everyone is comfortable, but dancers are tough.”
Respecting the Talent
Kat offers her dancers all the respect she hopes to earn as a dance photographer.
“I see photographers who post photographs where the dancers are out of form. But Dancers of RVA has taught me that it’s not just about me and about my art; it’s about honoring each dancer and their craft and how they see themselves.”
By prioritizing the dancers, Kat’s “little idea” has become a sought-after experience for Richmond dancers.
“We photographers only showcase our best work; and as a dance photographer, I have to photograph my dancers at their best, too.”
Finding the Best In Every Artist
The final step in Kat’s project is sharing a private ShootProof gallery with the dancer. She asks them to select their favorite 15 to 18 photographs for their blog post, and asks for their top five for their social media feature.
“I have no say in what they pick. I can’t choose a photograph just for the great lighting, or because the wind tossed their hair at the right time and their tutu looks perfect. Because if their toe is turned out or their finger isn’t turned in, my photograph will tell the wrong story: that they’re not a strong dancer. In each blog post, I want to help these dancers are share their best journey, their best work, their best form.”
Turning A Passion Into A Career
The Dancers of RVA project has been lucrative in ways Kat never envisioned. Six months into the project, a local magazine published a feature on Kat and her work, including one of her dance photographs on the cover.
She also enjoys incredible referrals from her dancers, who are often dance teachers themselves. Once they’ve been photographed by Kat, she’s top-of-mind when they need a photographer for their studio, company, or recital.
“I’ve made relationships with them, I’ve gone places with them, I’ve told their stories…” Kat reminisces.
“So I follow up with all my dancers. I send little gifts, and I know all of their birthdays – and that’s not just for the business’ sake; it’s because that’s who I am. If I photograph you, you’ll probably end up on my Christmas card list.”
2018 brought Kat four different dance studios who contracted her for recitals and portraits. For 2019, she’s looking to add two new studios. The income from the dance studios empowers her to pursue Dancers of RVA with no up-front fees for the dancers. This doesn’t mean, however, that Kat doesn’t make money from the personal project.
“The digital files are my gift to the dancers who participate in Dancers of RVA,” Kat admits. “In turn, a lot of them purchase prints from their ShootProof galleries. Parents, in particular, will buy canvases; and I’ll hear from moms saying, ‘I want to buy 1000 prints!’ It’s very profitable for me.
Because Everything Comes Full Circle…
Search Richmond dance photographer on Google and you’ll see Gianna Grace Photography – Kat’s brand – within the top organic results. Ironically, this has guided a new wave of seniors to Kat’s website.
“Now, young dancers are booking me for their senior portraits, because they want a dance element in their photos,” Kat acknowledges. “But they’re my kind of seniors.”
Kat’s excitement is inspiring.
“These days, my senior photography is on my terms. I can be real with my senior clients, whereas before I felt like a big, fat phony. So, YES: I’m a dance photographer. But seniors are becoming part of that.”
Redefining Success & Fulfillment
Kat’s journey as a dance photographer has been a winding one, leading her through three career focuses and two very different cities. She’s experienced plenty of challenges along the way, but somehow she remained focused on her dream.
“The biggest thing that helped strengthen me,” shares Kat, “was redefining what success looks like to me. Turns out, it isn’t really about what the outside world thinks of me, but what my own clients and my own community think about what I’m doing. For me, to Focus On What Matters Most means to make sure my clients believe in me: because they know I am grateful for them, that I’m thankful they chose me, and that I will never take them for granted.”
Kat’s client-centered approach has helped mold her into an incredible artist, a trusted professional, and a valuable community member. While others may be scrambling for another Like on Instagram or another Follow on Facebook, Kat is hard at work creating, connecting, and finding fulfillment in the day-to-day.