How Dancer Lee Gumbs Turned His Love of Photography From a Hobby into a Business

February 6, 2018

A contemporary, jazz, and ballet dancer, Lee Gumbs is known for his six-year touring stint with Bad Boys of Ballet (and, of course, for being a Dance Spirit Cover Model Search finalist in 2008!). But Gumbs’ photography has earned equal praise. He’s amassed an impressive portfolio of subjects, shooting famous dancers like Ashley Everett, Allison Holker, Melinda Sullivan, and Sean Lew, to name a few.

An Artist in Training

Gumbs first began studying tap and acrobatics as a 7-year-old boy in the Virgin Islands. When his family moved to Florida, his mother went to a local studio to inquire about getting him a scholarship to keep training. The owner gave him the scholarship—under the condition that he take ballet. “I wasn’t into ballet when I was little,” he recalls. “I thought it was just for girls.” But Gumbs soon found that he loved ballet and jazz. He went on to train at the Orlando Ballet School and Rolann’s School of Dance.

Sean Lew (photo by Gumbs, courtesy Gumbs)

When Gumbs was 10, an elementary school art class assignment ignited a love of photography to match his passion for dance. A picture he took of a flower was selected for a showcase, and Gumbs asked his parents for a camera the following Christmas. “Of course, because I was in fifth grade, they got me a cheap camera, and I was so disappointed because I wanted a nice one,” he laughs. At 16, he got his first professional SLR camera and started photographing his friends.

Lucy Vallely (photo by Gumbs, courtesy Gumbs)

The Professional

Gumbs honed his chops as a dance photographer while on tour with Bad Boys of Ballet. “I didn’t go to school for photography, so everything I do is self-taught,” he says. “When I was on tour I’d walk around each city we performed in and shoot my castmates.” Eventually, he began photographing models and actors, cast members from “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing with the Stars,” and dancers for Lady Gaga and Beyoncé.

Jade Chynoweth (photo by Gumbs, courtesy Gumbs)

While his style is heavily influenced by the high-fashion photography he sees in publications like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, Gumbs’ dance training informs his perspective, too. “I think being a dancer, you have to be so aware with your eyes—when you’re onstage you have to feed off the movements of the other dancers,” he says. “Dancers know what looks good and know what looks bad, and I think that really helps me in photography.” Actress and commercial-dance darling Jade Chynoweth is one of many who have benefited from his talent. “He captures the perfect angles that accentuate your body and its muscularity,” she says. “He mirrors his movements with yours to get the perfect shot.”

A Balancing Act

Aria Terango (photo by Gumbs, courtesy Gumbs)

Gumbs didn’t put down dance when he picked up the camera. While his photography business continues to thrive, his dancing continues to, too (most recently onstage at the Oscars). “Dance doesn’t have to be your be-all and end-all,” he advises. In fact, he says his dual passions have made him a better artist overall. “Dance and photography are both equally my main job,” he says. “It’s worth it to make time for all of your artistic outlets.

A version of this story appeared in the February 2018 issue of
Dance Spirit with the title “Picture Perfect.”