The Dancing Bear Routine
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away (on an island in the South China Sea), I taught English to Korean students who couldn’t care less. Many of them had already learned the swear words, and that was enough. So I studied teaching methods, language acquisition theories, different “learner-types”, visual learners vs auditory vs tactile learners, various “engaged learning protocols”, everything. I even got a related Master’s degree. Despite tens of thousands of dollars and endless hours spent educating myself on how to teach, my students could already say “fuck you”. They learned it from Hollywood. And they didn’t care about first person pronouns or subordinate clauses. Neither did I, to be frank. And I got paid the same, no matter how well or poorly I taught. But I just felt so useless when a class flopped or some kid said “good thanks and you” when I asked for his name. I eventually realized a terrible truth. To do my best teaching, I had to be funny and cheerful, smiling and unpredictable. I had to bounce, speak loud, open my eyes really wide and pretend that teaching verb-tenses was jolly. In other words, “edutainment” fueled by excessive coffee produced the best results. Each evening, I went home feeling like an ill-tempered clown twitching with a caffeine hangover.
As I was getting drunk one Friday night, losing modestly at a poker game, I explained all this to my friend. “I call it the dancing bear routine”, he said, “and most of us don’t need a Master’s degree to figure it out”.
Smoke Bombs, Creativity, and Winter Photos
We all have a ‘dancing bear routine’. When we engage with friends, family, even strangers (especially strangers!) there’s a part of us that’s anxiously performing. We’re not aware of it really because we’ve been doing since grade 1. We’ve figured out how to get along with people, how to be witty or seductive or agreeable or cool or helpful or whatever our shtick is—it’s whatever version of harmless and pleasant citizen we automatically perform. Only the stark, raving sage or truly strange among us navigate life without that well-practiced smile, the default phrases, the rote social graces and so on.
Sometimes (rarely) we have a glorious moment when the routine crashes or goes offline. In those moments we’re stumbling, vulnerable, unsure, creative, thinking and genuine. It happens when something messes us up, when you don’t know what to do next. It happens when a friend is facing a catastrophe and you don’t know how to make it better, but she’s looking right in your eyes. It happens when you’re at the supermarket and a toddler you don’t know starts playing hide-and-go-seek with you in the isles. It happens when somebody gifts you with something so generous that you’re overwhelmed.
It happens when you’re a photographer and a client says they want to try out smoke bombs.
I guess I was aware of my dancing bear routine as a photographer. It’s the accumulations of “best practices” I’ve come to rely on to get good photos. Framing people in doorways, between trees, back-lighting in low light conditions, etc. are all part of the routine, as well as a set of poses and phrases I often use to make people comfortable. My ‘bag of tricks’ had become big enough that I almost never had to be truly creative, almost never had to try something daring that might not work. For this, I’m very grateful to J & G for introducing smoke bombs into the mix here. I found myself scratching my head and realizing that things like wind direction mattered—which almost never does when you’re taking a photo. I had to rethink depth of field and composition. It broke me free of well-practiced and professional cliches, into a headspace that reminded me of my first days as a photographer. It gave me a taste of that exhilarating uncertainty in which you either sink or swim.
Best wishes to J & G on their upcoming wedding, down south where it is warm (J is a travel agent and knows where the sun and luxury is).
Here are a handful of our favourite images from the shoot.