Even after dancing professionally for more than 30 years, 51-year-old Michael W. Higgins can still land a gig that might become a career highlight — like his most recent one, dancing in the upcoming movie “The Muppets.”
“It’s going to be a huge blockbuster,” Higgins said. “They’ve got so many stars in that movie — it’s terrific.”
Yet, while dancing with Muppets proves there are still new dancing challenges out there, the San Luis Obispo native’s successful dance career has taken a backseat to other creative work — as a professional photographer.
“Maybe 10 percent of my work is dance-related,” he said.
When The Tribune interviewed Higgins in 1994, his dancing career was in full swing. He had already appeared in movies like “The Mask,” “Back to the Future Part III” and “Forrest Gump” as well as music videos such as Madonna’s “Material Girl” and Billy Joel’s “Allentown.” Meanwhile, he was in the midst of a worldwide tour with country music star Reba McEntire.
“There’s a lot of stuff I’ve been doing, and there’s a lot of stuff to do,” he said in 1994. “It’s like life — there are so many things to do, but no time to do them.”
During that tour Higgins found time to shoot photos, which — unknown to him at the time — would mark a dramatic shift in his career.
“I’d been shooting all my life, but I didn’t really know what I was doing,” Higgins said this month. “And then I was on tour with Reba McEntire as a dancer, and she noticed me walking around with a camera, doing odd stuff. And she said, ‘I need promo shots in every city, and I was wondering if you could do that.’ ”
While Higgins had no real training in photography, he said yes.
“That summer that we were off, before the next concert season, I studied my ass off and talked to a bunch of photographers and lab technicians and got up to speed to some kind of ability,” Higgins recalled. “And then I shot (the tour) for the next couple of years.”
Likewise, Higgins’ career as a dancer began serendipitously.
A student at San Luis Obispo High School, he went to a college gathering at a bygone establishment called the Log Cabin off Broad Street. While there, Pat Jackson, who owned American Dance Studio, approached him and said, “You should take a dance class.”
Higgins, an athlete who figured it would be a cinch, found that dancing was different than sports.
“When he first started, he was not much of a dancer,” said Leslie Baumberger, a fellow dance student at American Dance who went on to teach there. “But he became a fantastic dancer.”
Having started at 15 — a relatively late age for dancers — Higgins made up for lost time by working hard.
“He was always in the studio practicing on his own,” Baumberger remembered.
While he had the work ethic, Higgins credits Jackson, who passed away in 1997, for teaching him how to dance.
“She was such an inspirational person,” he said. “So many of her dancers that are down in L.A. have had huge careers.”
In 1979, at age 20, he went down to Los Angeles himself for the first time and landed his first major audition — for the Emmy Awards ceremony. In 1983, Higgins landed his first movie role, dancing in “Staying Alive,” the sequel to “Saturday Night Fever.”
The audition for that gig, he remembered, was intimidating for a young dancer with no film experience.
“It was a huge cattle call,” Higgins said. “I was No. 1,085. I remember because it was incredible — the chance to get picked was so slim.”
After several TV and movie parts, he was selected to tour with McEntire, who became a country music superstar.
“That was when country was really big in the early ’90s,” he said. “It was huge. We had more trucks than the Rolling Stones. We had 17 trucks.”
With McEntire, he traveled the world, performing in 110 cities a year for five years. And while McEntire provided him a huge career opportunity as a dancer, she also gave him a boost as a photographer.
As soon as he was finished dancing and shooting photos for McEntire, Higgins opened a photo studio in his backyard. And he was quickly working, shooting dancers, head shots, fine art and celebrity photos.
“I was on fire with this new thing,” he said. “I was so pumped by it — and I still am pumped by it.”
Given that dancing gigs tend to go to younger performers, the timing worked out.
“He’s a smart guy,” said Baumberger, who credits Higgins with being the most successful dancer she’s known from San Luis Obispo County. “Dancing has a limited time frame, and at some point, you’re just too old.”
He still does about three movies a year. But there’s little pressure to score dance gigs.
“Every once in a while I’ll get a dance job,” he said. “Even for our age group, there are requirements for dancing businessmen and so forth.”
His photo portfolio includes shots of exotic places, athletes such as Peyton Manning and Shaquille O’Neal, and magazine spreads.
Much of his photography work — not surprisingly — entails shooting promotional materials for dance companies. His dance background helps in photographing other dancers, said Baumberger, who now co-owns CORE Dance Company of the Central Coast with two other former teachers from American Dance.
In December, Higgins shot photos Baumberger will use to promote the “CORE Rhythms” show in March.
“He captures their energy, and he can get the dancers to work in ways I don’t think they realize they can do,” Baumberger said.
Higgins frequently returns to San Luis Obispo, where his father, Bill, still lives. But most of the time, Higgins, who is divorced with no children, is at his home in Hollywood.
While that’s the base for his photography business, it’s also close to much of the industry’s dance work. In “The Muppets,” one of his dance scenes will take place on a public street not far from his home.
While photography is now his priority, Higgins admits it’s pretty cool to get a gig that allows him to meet the Muppets.
“To actually be talking to these Muppets face-to-face — they imbue this life all of their own,” Higgins said. “It’s actually a puppeteer doing it, but you feel like you’re really talking to them. They come alive.”