An Open Letter to Studios Making Video Content

Guys.

Guuuuuuuuuuys.

We have to talk about something.

Crappy video for sale.

This is an epidemic in the fitness community. I mean, it’s an epidemic in many communities where people who are experts in their subject matter but not in making videos try to make videos.

But especially when echoey dance studios and instructors who are talking and moving at the same time are involved, we’re going to have people making–and SELLING–videos that are…. not good.

In no particular order, here are some truths:

  1. People have high standards for video. We’re all streaming multi-million dollar production budget content all day. We have very little patience for shittiness.
  2. We can all be blind to WHY things suck when we’re focused on other stuff. Dance teachers making videos probably be like “omg this is such a great angle for this stretch!” while ignoring overwhelming truths like dark lighting or sirens in the background of their videos.
  3. Budget concerns, skill levels with technical stuff–these are all things fitness peeps with no video experience are up against, but I’m here to tell you: you can make a great video if you focus on the things that matter and do something about them.

Here’s the thing about me: I have made a LOT of crappy videos. I took video classes for the first time ever about a year and a half ago as part of my masters degree.

(Quick photo, can’t help it)

degree.jpg

And as a writer excited to tell stories via video (because stories are MY expertise, even preceding dance), that’s what I focused on: dialogue! Action! Content! STORY.

Here’s what I didn’t focus on: lighting! sound! shit in the background! that hum my refrigerator makes while it was behind me the whole time I was shooting!

And when I finished a video, having poured hours of time, energy, worry, love, and hopes of making a masterpiece into, guess what my professor said?

“This is too dark. It’s unusable. You have to reshoot.”

(He was talking about the first scene of this video which I defended at the time and now I look at like… what was I thinking)

I thought he was being a total tyrant. I showed my videos to family and friends. “Look at this story! These scenes! That dialogue! My edits!” I urged them.

Guess what they noticed?

How dark the video was. The weird humming in the background. The camera equipment bag we forgot to remove from a scene.

I was crushed.

I reshot many scenes.

And I finally, finally learned my lesson.

Here’s the sad part though: I now have zero tolerance for crappy technical quality in videos.

Does this mean I require 4k cameras and boom mics and shit?

Hell no! But it does mean I require subjects that are well lit, sound that is cleanly captured, and sequences that are tidily edited. (ie. if I hear you say, “Okay, go!” you failed this test).

That means that I’m having a really hard time watching instructional videos for dance. They are…. not good.

Now, I get it, not everybody has amazing equipment or video skills. Fine.

But making good videos isn’t about pricey gear or fancy editing–it’s about consistent attention to detail.

So here you go dance studios and YouTubers: a free lesson in what to pay attention to.

What’s in it for you?

Happy customers. Professional, evergreen calling cards for your business. And avoiding making an ass of yourself for everyone to see in posterity on YouTube.

Get a notebook.

1.  Never forget this principle: “People will put up with bad visuals. They won’t put up with bad sound.”

Think back on movies you’ve watched recently. Any of them have extremely dark scenes where you had to listen and wait to see what was happening? Chances are, you were able to stick it out and wait for a light to come on. Horror movies in particular tend to leave us in the literal dark while we hear crystal clear sound effects to give us cues as to what’s happening. This may have not only not bothered you, it probably drew you MORE in to what was happening onscreen.

Now think back to the last time you tried to watch your favorite show but the sound was sliiiiiightly too quiet. Totally unwatchable, right?

Tell yourself this until it’s memorized: people can tolerate dark or blurry visuals. They can’t tolerate bad sound. Now shoot your videos accordingly….

2. …and mic your subjects. If you can’t mic them, shoot them in a very small, padded area (rugs and upholstered furniture) and use a “shotgun” mic attached to your camera. My professor used to record vocals in a closet under a pile of blankets. It’s that important!

lav mic
Lav Mic ^ (not that deep!!)
shotgun mic
Shotgun Mic ^ (no seriously it’s not that deep!)

Regardless of your environment or equipment, use a secondary recorder closer to the subject (like an iPhone set to “voice record” hidden behind a yoga block while your subject shows moves on a mat).

And failing the feasibility of any of these techniques or equipment, DO VOICE-OVER.

And for God’s sake, check your equipment early and often.

You will never, ever regret shooting tests with your mics before wasting 4 hours of your time doing hair and makeup, setting up lights, and sweating your way through 5 takes of your video only to realize later that your microphone makes a weird buzzing sound or its battery died. Just FYI.

PS. And on this note, you should also always check your equipment quickly right BEFORE you start the actual shoot. You don’t want to find out the hard way that you forgot to hit the on switch. Which brings me to my next point.

3. Have back ups, all the time. Quick story: one time I used a lav mic (attached to my iphone) and a shotgun mic attached to my camera to shoot a series of interviews.  The battery died on the lav mic mid-interview (without my knowledge, as I was behind the camera) so the phone itself did the recording. Central air came on with a WOOSH during the interview and ruined the shotgun mic’s audio. But the iPhone recording (since it was placed much closer to the subject than the camera mounted mic was) ended up being so good, it saved the whole project.

Again, nothing beats actual mics (lav mics are your best bet for trying to get voice and nothing else), but an iPhone strategically placed is ALWAYS better than trying to rely on your camera’s teeny microphone, and infinitely better than nothing if your first mic goes out.

This goes double for an echoey studio space.

tl,dr: Mic the hell out of your subject.

PS. If you’re worried about syncing audio and video from two different sources, start out each clip with your subject clapping loudly. The keyframe spike in your editing software should help you match up what you’re seeing and hearing.

4. Get a lighting kit.

lighting kit
Do you SEE how much you could elevate your video and photo game for 40 bucks? Do you SEE????

50 bucks, 3 umbrella lights–that’s all you need, and they’ll pay for themselves in video quality time and time again. You won’t believe how much better your shoots look with a proper light. Yes, you can shoot in front of a window, but an umbrella light frees you up to work any time, to work in a location that works better for background or sound reasons, and ensure consistent quality. Just spring for it, you will NOT regret it.

PS. Bonus: the brighter your light, the more a low grade camera can capture. That means your videos look more expensive, less grainy, and bougey af.

Double Bonus: SO many sick photo shoots. ALL OF THE PHOTOSHOOTS.

5. Know when to give up on a shot.

I’m currently trying to bear with a studio’s videos (that I paid for) that for some reason continued to film through  3+ minutes of extreme fire engine noise outside, and while moving and refocusing the camera multiple times (to the point where I thought I was watching an earthquake happen). Guys…. if you have to move the camera, wait for a stopping point or just abandon the shot and start over. Same goes for noise you can’t control. Don’t bear with it. Don’t just “quickly make a change.” Pause filming and restart. Or for God’s sake edit it out. This is just part of being a professional person making things you plan to charge for. Suck it up, do it over.

6. Plan edits in advance.

It’s much easier to shoot quickly (and later to put together meaningful videos) if you storyboard what you’re going to be covering to even the most basic extent. What are the sequences you want to show? Which make the most sense to film one after the other, versus saving for the end? (Maybe all the pole stuff vs. floor work, even if you plan to edit it all together at the end).

Then while editing, clip as much of the “before” and “after” stuff as possible. Do you really need to show 30 seconds of a person sitting before starting a move, or standing up and smiling at the end of it? Be ruthless. Also try to keep your sequences short so you can cut if you need to and not lose much time in redos (see above).

RECOMMENDATION: If you’re just learning to edit/not outsourcing your edits, I highly recommend skipping the pro software (which is terrifying and super expensive, and picking up chiller version, like Adobe Premiere Elements (the baby version of Premiere Pro). Having used (okay, TRIED to use) both, Pro is terrifying. And you can definitely make a great looking and sounding video with “hobbyist” software.

[Unless you really feel compelled to own features you don’t know how to use, in which case, go for pro, it’s a free country, etc.]

But here’s what they both look like.

scary premiere
Premiere Pro… even just the darkness of it all looks scary and evil. note how the tools don’t have words on them. And what are these screens???
me gusta premiere
Premiere Elements… note the simplicity and labels for things!!

7. Use title cards and subtitles with a purpose

It’s a great idea to caption what viewers are seeing, or are about to see, along with any structural cues (like “Spinal Rotation: Part 3”).

It’s also smart to give your finished videos a title that covers exactly what each video is–especially if you’re shooting tons of them. Is this just a “flexibility” video? Or is this a “Hip-opening and hamstring focus” flexibility video?

Another nice thing to do that viewers will appreciate: list the necessary equipment for a workout in the same place for each video. I can’t tell you how obnoxious it is to be deep into a workout sequence, like, on my back with my foot over my head, and suddenly hear, “okay, now grab your strap” out of nowhere. Like, b****???? We need a strap?!!! Why didn’t you tell me this before we started?!

Have some empathy for your viewers and anticipate the information they’ll need up front. Then don’t be coy about giving it to them.

8. Use music with caution.

It’s great to add music to your videos, but make sure it doesn’t drown our your subject’s voice. You can play with audio gain in your editing software to boost vocals before adding music to help create some contrast, but also choose your tunes wisely. Does the song you like compete with the speaker’s pitch? (ie. not to get too complicated, but a deep voice might get drowned out by heavy bass, while a higher voice might get lost with trebley-music). Use your ears as your guide and combine speakers and (royalty-free) songs accordingly.

PS. YouTube has tons of royalty free music, didja know?

And: this is getting slightly nitpicky, but if you boost volume, do a quick tutorial on appropriate decibel levels. You don’t want viewers at home to be blasted with crackly, overblown sound. A quick YouTube video can teach you to identify a loud and clear, but not “blown out” range of audio.

9. Pay attention to feedback. 

It can be easy to say “f*** the haters!” but if it’s your target audience or more importantly, clients, who take issue with something you’ve made, listen. Especially if you’re hearing it more than once. They want to use the product you’ve made, so if they’re telling you something is getting in the way of that, listen. It can only help you make better (more sell-able) things in the future. Don’t be afraid to hear tough criticism and learn from it.

Did I cover all your pet peeves when it comes to workout or instructional videos? Have anything you’d add to this list for workout-video-makers? Do I sound like an impossible to please biotch?

Pls advs. xx

How to really, truly progress

Two steps forward, one step back.

Or in my case, two aerial inverts, oh fuck, I lost my aerial invert.

I’m sure I’m not the only one.

One of the most trying, frustrating thing about this sport we all love called pole is that success can seem so fleeting. And it takes so long to see any measure of success in the first place.

But what’s interesting (and often unique) about pole is that sometimes, it’s less about sheer brute force than it seems to be. One moment a move seems impossible. The next, you shift your hips a bit and lower your bottom hand and you’re in a move almost effortlessly.

And then the next time you try it, it’s gone again. C’est la vie de pole!

But I’ll use my vast experience (5 going on 6 years of fighting for pole moves) to share a few sneaky tricks for moving forward with you.

1. Take private lessons with your favorite teacher.

And pro tip: come with a list of goals. You’re never going to find out in a crowded classroom of two to a pole that you’re tipping back on your invert too soon, but you WILL find this out one on one with an instructor you trust. I even found out I’ve been holding my planks wrong. AND I PLANK LIKE EVERY OTHER DAY. That’s so many cumulative, incorrect planks. Privates are pricey, but do like me and drop a hint for birthday, Christmas, Hannukkah, whatever. And try to focus on the value of getting technique tweaks you can use for life over endless group sessions where you further reinforce bad habits, if you’re hung up on the money. I swear, it pays off.

Note on that “goals” list: if you don’t have a list of nemesis moves you want special help with, try to think about larger goals. For me, that was staying on the pole longer and flowing my tricks together. Yours might be more specific, like nailing leg hands on both sides, or cleaning up favorite tricks, or even developing presence for a performance.

My instructor then had me transition in and out of moves by dropping into a strong hold, instead of just hopping down off the pole. Hard as fuck but wow, so useful once I got used to it–I could invert, fan kick, cradle spin, all sorts of cool stuff from there. And staying off the ground is sort of like breaking the habit of adjusting your goggles to sneak a break while swimming laps. It’s just a good habit to get into, and it builds endurance.

Note #2: expect private lessons to be extremely physically demanding. It’s your teacher’s job to push you, and there’s nowhere to hide. Mentally prepare and eat/drink enough beforehand!! I left it ALL on the pole in my sessions, but damn, I progressed.

2. Skip your favorite teacher.

I mean, don’t stop going to them, still go a lot. But commit to taking lessons with other, different teachers at your studio once in a while. You’ll be amazed how even moves you think you know how to do will take on new nuance when a different person explains them.

Sometimes it takes a fresh approach to nail a move, and a different instructor with her own way of seeing things can be just the one to give you new perspective. Weirdly, I have had great success with brand new teachers. ??? I don’t know you guys, the road has been mighty wavy for me in pole, but I’m okay with that. #whateverworks

3. Condition.

I knooooooow, conditioning sucks. It hurts, it’s hard, and it’s usually not anywhere near as gratifying as banging out tricks. But here’s the good news: it’s cheap (like, watch-a-YouTube-tutorial-cheap), you can usually do it at home, and it will save you countless hours of failing (and potentially hurting yourself) through strength moves. Some types of cross-training can even help your existing tricks look better. Barre definitely helped me FINALLY straighten my knees in poses (hint: you think they’re straight but they’re never really straight. NEVAAAAAAR) and has saved countless trick pics.

And a twice weekly abs class + pull ups with a band at my gym FINALLY got me my aerial invert, for keeps. I’m also #blessed enough to go to a studio that offers literal aerial conditioning classes, and they’ve been a godsend for my nagging swimmer’s shoulder. Again, let me emphasize: conditioning fucking sucks. But it will increase your range of ability and certainly your longevity (ie. time without being injured) overall. Worth it.

Here’s an example of a move I like to do in between pull-up sets to help keep my shoulders in shape. Highly recommend! Scapula pushups are a similar exercise, and require no equipment. Google them!

4. Take a break.

This may see counterintuitive, but I can’t tell you how many tricks I suddenly nailed out of nowhere after a week off. If you’re feeling burnt out, there’s no need to bang your head against a wall. Take a week, and stay active doing other things you enjoy more than failing and hating your life at pole classes. Hike, stretch, ride your bike, swim. Then come back to it. You’ll have a clear mind, relaxed muscles, and possibly, a new approach to a trick that suddenly makes it possible for you.

5. Look after your shoulders.

Okay I know this is part of conditioning, but it deserves its own paragraph anyway. Please god, take care of your shoulders. Like stop what you’re doing right now and buy yourself some therabands, and look up shoulder exercises to do with them.

Then do those shoulder exercises before and after you do anything on the pole. You’ll thank me later.

There’s a ton of research you can read out there about how shoulders are just not really built to take on the kind of stress our hip sockets are, for lots of reasons. But if you happen to just take my word for it that that’s true, baby and condition the hell out of your shoulders, or risk not being able to do ANYTHING aerial when you fuck them up. And trust me, as someone with chronic shoulder stuff (again, likely left over from my years as a swimmer with a janky stroke), you do not want to be dealing with that. Take an extra few minutes and warm them up. Strengthen them. Stretch them. You’re welcome.

Do you guys have any weird methods or motivators for getting progress in pole? Do you have any shoulder exercises you like doing or should I make a quick video of my favorites for y’all?

XOXO

Swing climbs! Also, favorite 80s jams?

Note: I’m straight up shellshocked lately with political stuff happening. It’s seemed really trivial to post about pole dancing while so much crazy shit is going down.

I was at the Women’s March here in New York while my mom was in Washington. Our family is… unnerved. Anyway, here’s a bit of what I saw there through my ancient T2i. (pics i’m IN are by bae with his phone, and some came out better than mine which is ANNOYING).

But that said, I have still been dancing. I’ve still been stretching, and conditioning, and going to class, and working on my pull ups. I just haven’t found the will to say much about it.

This is a post I was working on before the inauguration that seemed pointless at the time.

But I think it’s important to keep going on as normally as possible. Like for health reasons. Right? I hope right, ugh.

Hope you’re all doing okay. Sending love and solidarity.

Swing climbs!

These are so fun, and I’ve been seeing them around a lot lately.

They’re not something to be done with sweaty hands, but an easy way to mix up your freestyles. The trick to not banging your shins is to tuck  your pelvis and crunch your abs as you bring your legs forward. That absorbs a lot of the swing. Be sure to roll up dramatically as you reset your hands. #workit

I also did my first elbow hold! Which was awkward, because the teacher had to come over and specifically give me the note that big-boobed people need to angle their elbows HIGHER. (It helps, btw. But very embarrassing haha).

Aside from that stuff, but I’ve been on an 80s kick lately and stumbled on this music video, which is super weird. (Bae and I were watching the Wedding Singer and were researching Boy George).

Bae was intrigued and attempted the dance. Pretty good, but I was laughing too hard to be his backing vocals.

But seriously, 80s music, as odd as it good be, birthed some serious jamz… I’ve been in a Depeche Mode mood lately, and the first time I heard “I Feel It Coming” on a car radio I completely thought I was hearing vintage Michael at first.

I Feel It Coming from Erwin James on Vimeo.

Can anybody recommend any 80s jams, faux or otherwise? I’m in the mood for a musical time machine :p

XOXO

Where do you read about dance? (BESIDES this amaze blog of course)

(tl;dr: SURVEY IS HERE: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/dancenews)

JK, this blog has been sorely, sorely neglected so I know you have other sources of info!

I’m working on a grad school project to hopefully create the most perfect Frankensite for dance the world has ever seen (just go with me), and I need your help!

I want to know your current obsessions, pet peeves, and general lifestyle stuff in 12 fun, short questions.

Please answer them and I’ll be extremely, extremely grateful.

Sharing with other pole or dance peoples would also be greatly appreciated.

Thank you so much and please feel free to drop some comments below too if you have additional thoughts. I want to learn as much as I can about what other people are using for dance news!

Survey is here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/dancenews

XOXO

PS. Here’s a random video of bae eating a pancake we burnt the shit out of to express my gratitude!!

And also a video of him attempting a headstand on a soft, uneven surface: