Brian Lanker’s ‘Shall We Dance’ – a sumptuous visual feast


Those who love dance have a scrumptious treat in store! Pulitzer-Prize-winning photographer Brian Lanker has just published Shall We Dance, a brilliant composite portrait of dance in America. Maya Angelou’s moving foreword to this remarkable work expresses perfectly what is so engaging and uplifting about Lanker’s work. In her discussion of the integral role that dance has played in human culture throughout millennia, she writes, “In this book, Brian Lanker, with his swift shutters and respectful eye, has captured the art of dance. We have been beautifully, wonderfully served by the great, award-winning photographer, who can place on film those fleeting images.”

With some photographers, their images are more about themselves than it is about their subjects; it is about their talent, their skill, or their cleverness. But Lanker’s work, as Angelou notes, is always “respectful” of his subject. His photographs are all about his subjects, and it is his brilliance that allows him to capture their essence on film, to bring their soul alive on the page. His keen empathy, prodigious imagination, and overwhelming generosity inform every shot he takes.

One of my favorite images in this book is the deeply touching photograph of a college fraternity boy dancing with a 99-year-old resident of an assisted living facility. In his introduction, Lanker notes that he watched as “these vibrant and compassionate young people closely embraced frail, aging strangers and made them feel alive and young again. I looked into the faces of these very senior citizens, some of whom may have been sharing their very last dance, and could clearly tell that they had been transported back in time to a different year, a different dance floor, and a different partner.”

Another example of his generosity of spirit, in my mind, is the spread that presents a color portrait of a former Ziegfeld Follies dancer in the foreground, looking elegant and lovely at age 102, while a ghostly black-and-white picture of her youthful beauty hovers poignantly behind her.

But there are so many diverse and dazzling images in this book, it’s hard to pick favorites: from the gorgeous confection of ballroom dancing in the Grand Prospect Hall in Brooklyn, whose rococo ornateness reminds me of a Fabergé egg, to the striking, exotic makeup and costumes of Cirque du Soleil performers, to the delicate sunset and mysterious landscape that is reflected in the vintage automobile against which Texan James M. White leans in his portrait outside of his famed honky-tonk, the Broken Spoke. Lanker captures the unexpected childlike, mischievous expression of a topless exotic dancer in Las Vegas, and the charming innocence of three-year-old dance student, Talia Peck, in her dance costume which she describes enthusiastically as “a white twirly-up skirt and a puffy tutu.” He turns his camera on the raw, pulsing dance of Spring break in Florida and a clandestine rave in Los Angeles. He documents joyous liturgical dance in a Southern church and the solemn, spiritual dance of several Native American tribes.

Along with the mouth-watering and compelling images, Lanker also includes quotes from dancers, choreographers, and cultural icons, as he delves into the “why” of dance. Why do dancers dance? Why do any of us dance? Lanker considers the research performed by W. S. Condon and L.W. Sander which has found that newborn infants move in precise and movements that are synchronized with their mother’s speech, indicating that the desire to dance is innate and inborn. Derrick “Suwaima” Davis of the Hopi and Choctaw tribes declares, “To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak.” Stella Boes, a volunteer dancer at the Carousel Lounge in Austin remarks, “Dancing is happiness, it’s togetherness, it’s exercise, and it’s art. When my time comes to leave this earth, I hope I go on a dance floor with a smile on my face.”

Too, Lanker has an uncanny knack for capturing history before it disappears, as he did with several subjects who passed away after he photographed them for his landmark book, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America, and his documentary film about World War II artists who chronicled the war on the battlefield, They Drew Fire. Dance Set Caller Richard Jett, who for forty-four years called the weekly summer dances at Kentucky’s Hoedown Island, died in 2006, but not before Lanker was able to photograph him in his home and take pictures of his venue where people gather to participate in traditional Appalachian Clogging dances.

Lanker discusses his decision to document something so clearly defined by movement with still photography, noting that video might have seemed the obvious choice for his subject. And yet, as he points out, “one thing I’ve always loved about still photography is its ability to hold a moment … to take a split second, stop it, and allow us to study, observe, learn, make judgments, and come to a greater understanding of life by focusing on an instant that can sum up and speak for the whole.”

And as Roman Ramos Alayo, Artistic Director for the Alayo Dance Company in San Francisco observes, “I think we get rich when everybody learns from everybody else.”

Anyone who peruses this delectable book, so lovingly and artistically produced, will come away the richer. Even if not a dancer or an aficionado of dance, the reader cannot fail to be moved by the luscious and heartwarming images, by the dancers’ passion, and by the awe that such a primal human activity kindles in us. Dance, Lanker states, is “the rhythm of our soul made manifest through our physical actions.”

Full disclosure: Brian is my much-adored brother-in-law, whom I have been privileged to have in my family for thirty-five years. Despite being one of the world’s foremost photographers, his generosity never falters: He took time out not long ago to give me, a complete neophyte with a point-and-shoot, some rudimentary basics on photography and to introduce me to Photoshop. It was a thrill and utter delight to visit him and my sister as he first worked on his photo essay on dance for National Geographic, and then turned that story into this amazing book.

The above photo is from Shall We Dance, of the Raices Grupo Folklorico of Sacramento performing Viva Jalisco! By using a slow shutter speed, he captures the spirited movement of the dancers and their costumes.

The above photo is from “Shall We Dance,” of the Raices Grupo Folklorico of Sacramento performing Viva Jalisco! By using a slow shutter speed, he captures the spirited movement of the dancers and their costumes.
In addition to being sold in many bookstores, “Shall We Dance” is also available online for $50 at chroniclebooks.com or $40 at barnes&noble.com ($36 for B&N members).

Celeste White is a writer and artist who lives in Redding. She is the  author of the books “Natural Asthma and Allergy Management” and “The Natural Remedies for Common Ailments Handbook.”

Celeste White

is a writer and artist who lives in Redding. She is the author of the books "Natural Asthma and Allergy Management" and "The Natural Remedies for Common Ailments Handbook."

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