Rab Cummings carries the torch in his photos and dance

By TRUDI FISHER/Montana State News

Rab Cummings and his family have carved out a unique lifestyle that combines photography and contra dance calling since coming to Bozeman 13 years ago.

Rab Cummings sits across the table, drinking a glass of water, in the afternoon glow of the winter sun. He is in the Downtown Bozeman Co-op, sitting near photos he took that tell the stories of local farmers in the greater Gallatin area.

These photos, with their unique and dynamic display of ideas and unconventional lighting, are only a small slice of who Rab Cummings is.

The family he and his wife, Michelle, have created is one with strong roots and a reliance on one another. With their two boys, Rab and Michelle have decided that the most important things in life are each other and experiencing things together.

While admitting that this is not always easy, Rab Cummings says, “Our system of living would not work out without any of us. We all rely on each other to get through each week and get things done.”

Since childhood, Cummings has explored the outdoors. He grew up going on long trips with summer camps into Canada. He spent a great deal of time in the northeastern United States as a youngster and was exposed to the two things that he is really known for in Bozeman, contra dance calling and photography.

While contra dance has become more of a part-time thing for Cummings, he still has a great passion for it. “It is a great community, a culture, really. It is an easy thing to get into because each dance starts with an instruction session at 7:30 p.m. and after that, anyone can learn to dance, even children.”

Contra dance is based on traditional English, Spanish and French dancing done in skinny halls that developed into square dancing in the southern United States on tobacco plantations and carries on today as a combination of those. In Bozeman, Cummings says, the dances are a great community experience of not only dancing but, talking and having fun with other people. Contra dance is a great activity of acceptance of people at any stage in their lives, he says, and the dances lend themselves to meeting new people because partners are encouraged to dance with others.

According to Cummings, the dances are a great, safe, social experience for people of all ages and there is always live music during a dance, providing a venue for healthy touch and human contact in an age of increasing technological advancement and disconnection. The dances are held on a 100-year-old dance floor above the Eagle’s Lounge, at Rouse Avenue and Main Street in downtown Bozeman, on the first Friday and Saturday of every month.

When talking to Cummings, it’s apparent he is extremely involved in the contra dance community and cares a lot about it. He says he learned how to call dances when he moved to Bozeman 13 years ago, but he’d been attending the dances for seven years before that.

While he says there are courses and camps people can attend to learn calling, he had the opportunity to learn firsthand from the person who called the dances for the Bozeman Folklore Society previously. The torch was passed to him as he will be able to pass it along to someone else.

Rab and Michelle Cummings were not always Bozeman residents, and on their journey together have done some truly amazing things. As they finished their undergraduate degrees and before their sons, now aged 9 and 11, came along, the couple lived in Missoula working for Outward Bound, a program that takes students on two-week to 90-day trips into the wilderness .

These experiences allowed the two to get to know themselves and others, sometimes spending  180 nights per year in a tent. They took students all over the United States – to the Beartooth Mountains here in Montana, to Texas, Arizona, Minnesota and beyond.

Cummings says these experiences taught him a great deal about his life and who he is, because the program focuses on learning about “who you are” through experiencing yourself and the natural world around you.

Since then, both Rab and Michelle have remained committed to helping people and being a part of the lives of people in their community.

Between traveling, starting a family, and finding their niches, many things have happened in Rab and Michelle’s lives. While working in a traveling position, teaching children about water and its global importance, Cummings and his family were faced with some losses they say shook them to their core. This was when Rab and Michelle say they sat down and talked about how they wanted to spend their remaining years on Earth and decided that family was the most important thing.

As part of their focus on creating a close family, they’ve chosen to homeschool their boys.

“I walked into my house this afternoon to find the boys in the kitchen surrounded by a big mess and when I asked how their day was and what they were up to they said, ‘We’re making polymers!’ And that is so great!” Rab Cummings says.

Both Rab’s photography business and Michelle’s therapy practice are home-based. They say the family relies on one another to get work done and for companionship and emotional support. The four of them have a unique opportunity to share two or three meals a day and because, Rab says, they have made each other their top priority in life, they just make it work, whether it be financially or otherwise.

“It’s not like we are these really rich people,” Rab Cummings says, “But we just know you don’t have to be rich to have enriching experiences.”

And he means it. He and his boys have hiked the entirety of the Bridger Ridge together and they travel often to visit many friends they have across the country and family members in Germany. The boys are bilingual because Michelle’s mother was born in Berlin.

Rab Cummings’ journey with photography has been nearly lifelong. His mother, a scientist, had access to a darkroom and photography chemicals, so Cummings was able to experiment with his own work – pictures of his friends and dogs and things that elementary and junior high boys are interested in.

Since then, he has carried a camera with him wherever he goes. When his family chose to purposefully focus on each other and their experiences together, he consulted with his brother-in-law, a photography editor for the L.A. Times at the time, about the quality of his photography.

Cummings says his brother-in-law was tough on his portfolio, but the feedback was helpful.

“He asked me what I was trying to do, what my main mission with photography is: to be a master of my craft and have a strong point of view. In a time when the bar for entry into the field is set very low, with camera phones and Facebook,” it is important to Cummings that he truly masters his craft.

From the starting point of his professional photography career until now, Cummings has certainly made a distinct style to place his name on. His use of lighting highlights what is important in his life: the stories of the lives of others. He says he believes in average people doing extraordinary things.

Cummings has a connection with the dance community in Bozeman and has done a great deal of photography of the Montana Ballet Company and their productions. He also does weddings, high school senior pictures and engagement photos.

Cummings’ main goal is telling the story of the people he photographs. He spends time getting to know the people he is taking pictures of and develops a real relationship with them.

This is evidenced by Cummings photo exhibit in the Downtown Food Co-op with Rab.

For this project Cummings was hired to document the recipients of the “4% Friday Funding” program at the Co-op. The Co-op gives 4 percent of all their revenue on Fridays to local farmers who have applied for the grant money. The farmers, who produce food for the Co-op, use the money to realize goals and fund projects they are working on

Cummings interviewed and documented the people who own these farms, who make it work for their communities. The people in the pictures are people who have a “passion for their work. They are passionate about feeding their community with good food. How hard is it to grow lettuce in Montana, a Zone 4 growing area?” Cummings asks. “I imagine it is very difficult but these people really care and they make it work.”

Cummings anticipates his photography will take him down many paths during the rest of his life He says he is starting to see how his photography will grow and develop as he does different things and applies what he learns to potentially larger projects.

On first impression, Cummings comes across as a truly interesting man who has a great impact on his community. He really believes that people, “have to give back” and he lives it more than he could ever speak to the importance of it.

Cummings and his wife are the torch-bearers for their sons; they work to pass on qualities which they believe are important and will help make the world a better place, one person at a time. By all estimations, they live meaningful lives and contribute to their community. They have chosen to create a different, a unique, family, life and home

Cummings portfolio and blog can be visited at http://www.rabphotography.com/portfolio and information on contra dance can be found around town on fliers and at http://www.bozemanfolklore.org/ .

Edited by Susan Andrus.

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