A photograph suffers from not being video, we can't see more than a single moment at a time, we can't hear the music or the conversation. We can't smell or taste through a photo, so when it comes to photographing something like a dance performance, the challenge is conveying the feel of the scene into a frame.
Look for peak action. You hear that a lot when dealing with sports, and although dance may have people running around, jumping, leaping and rolling around, peak action is usually a much more visual moment, where the aesthetics of a moment come together within your composition to create an image that stands out.
At a recent dance performance, I shot close to 800 images in under 3 hours. Many shots are zeros, no composition, no moment, nothing. Some have a nice moment, some have pretty colors, some are just cool, but the ones that stand out to me are the ones that convey the feel of the performance into the image.
I'll do a run through rating things that are worth looking at again, and increase the rating as my interest in the photograph grows. Eventually, I'll narrow it down to under a dozen photos, edit the image in Lightroom, maybe bring into Photoshop for something specific and ultimately export the images for whatever use I have for these.
This was one of the first frames I took that night. It's not peak action, but it is the climax of that act. I try not to compose too tightly, this performance was slow and flowed well live and I want them to have that same sense in the photo.
When the next act comes around, and it has a lot of loud music and people are jumping around, and get close to the audience, I'll let the photo show that. While dance is usually about form, sometimes you can use the color to contrast with the other photos and include other elements (like the people in the back) to have a photo with a different feel.
And sometimes, something special comes around, and you work hard making sure that it comes out just right. For me it was managing the exposure, nailing the focus ( trickier then you may think with the 5D MkII ), and composing.
And then it's all worth it to me. I have something I'm proud of and feel good about. And it didn't just happen, the moment was there, but I made sure that it gets seen and interpreted the way I meant it to. That photo is just as much my work as that of the dancers, lighting techs, choreographers...
And that should be a goal in each and every single photo, to make sure that an image speaks for you, that you created something rather then recorded an event bluntly. It's about assessing the situation and compressing an emotion, smell, sound and overall experience into a single frame that will evoke something specific in the viewer.
Next time, I'll talk a bit about the gear behind shooting an event like this and pretty much tear down all the preconceptions that people have about needing tons of gear, a fast camera, high ISO capabilities, or even a fast lens. Remember, their was a time when the fastest lens was f2, the fastest film was ASA 400 and focus, metering and film advance was done manually.