It's a poster you've seen countless times: on the walls of dance studios, in the films Sixteen Candles and Center Stage; on television shows like "Sex and the City," "Saturday Night Live" and "Fame"; in ubiquitous commercials; and in nearly every gift shop in Times Square.
Leg Warmers, shot by renowned photographer Harvey Edwards in 1978, graphically depicts the "gotta dance" grit and grind it takes to succeed as a dancer. Emblematic of the underpaid passion of performing artists, the photo, a close-up of a dancer's legs in fifth position plié, has sold over 2.5 million copies, mostly in poster form, in 86 countries. Now, Edwards is putting the only existing Leg Warmers C-print (a photographic print made from a color negative), framed in white gold and walnut, up for sale at an auction at Bonhams gallery in New York City on April 9. The original negatives were destroyed in a fire.
Edwards, a first cousin of former Boston Ballet artistic director Bruce Marks, began photographing dancers when he accompanied a young woman to her ballet class in a studio in Los Angeles. He recalls the moment he captured Leg Warmers: "When I saw the image, I immediately focused in on the legs. Because of the torn legwarmers and the electrical tape wrapped around the ballet shoes, it represented someone who was going to devote their life, through the sweat, tears, blood, etc., to what it takes to become a dancer."
What most people don't know is that the image is not of a ballerina. The tattered legwarmers were covering the legs of a man, Bruce Wurl, a dancer who had performed with the Los Angeles Chamber Ballet and in Europe. He tragically died of complications from AIDS in 1987.
The image is universally striking in how it depicts the possibilities of dance. Fifth position plié represents the foundational link in ballet, so the dancer could be preparing for a pirouette, a jump or a relevé, or the ending of a movement phrase. You see the potential in the moment with the promise of what comes next.
Edwards produced numerous dance photos in the following decades, many of which aren't typical action shots, that preserve the anonymity of the subjects. In 1989, he published his book The Art of Dance, with photos of dancers in class and rehearsal. "I wanted people to buy my work because it conveys an emotion," says Edwards, who began his artistic career mixing paints for the artist Roy Lichtenstein. "But it doesn't convey the celebrity of that person. That was important to me. A lot of the images, if there is a face in it, you don't recognize who it is."
Leg Warmers also has a legacy of litigation. In 1985, Wurl and Jonette Swider filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles alleging that Edwards had failed on a pledge to pay royalties to them for modeling for Leg Warmers and other photos, although Edwards says they signed a release form and that he paid them a modeling fee. Edwards himself has won 57 copyright lawsuits alleging the use of the image without permission, including one in 2014 against Misty Copeland, her manager Gilda Squire and Harpo, Inc.
During the April auction, the highest bidder will also have the opportunity to buy the copyright to Leg Warmers. So why sell it now? "I'm getting old," says Edwards. A portion of the proceeds will go to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
Edwards remembers a day in the early 1980s when his mother nagged him to stop with the art already and get a nine-to-five job for the security of himself and his newly pregnant wife. "That day, $20,000 worth of orders came in for Leg Warmers," he says. "That was the beginning. It was picked up in Chicago, New York and London. That particular image will continue to be seen. It speaks to people even today. They get emotional."