So You Think You Want a Demo Team

After listening to me extoll the merits of demo teams in previous weeks, you’ve decided you’d like to create one of your own. Great! Fantastic. Nothing to it, right? Wrong. See that aptly worded title up there? Yes, it’s a pun on the name of my favorite show– So You Think You Can Dance– but it’s also alluding to the fact that a demo team is a lot more work than most people expect. It takes a significant investment of time, dedication on the part of everyone involved, and no small amount of talent. And not every school wants to go through the hassle of maintaining one. So before you decide whether or not you’re ready to form a team, let me walk you through the process.

There are three main ingredients you’ll need:

  1. A Captain
  2. Talented Students
  3. A Contract & Detailed Rehearsal/Performance Schedule

You’ll notice that creativity isn’t listed. That’s because at this stage, a demo team is more administrative than creative. Creativity comes after you’ve formed your curriculum, found your student-elite, and roped everyone into developing your vision. It’s good to have an idea or two in mind, but you have a lot to decide on before you ever reach that first practice.

The Captain:

This is the corner-stone ingredient. A demo team shouldn’t be a democracy. Let me rephrase that– a successful demo team is NOT a democracy. When you allow too many people to have creative input, you end up with a disjointed demo suffering from the too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen problem. Without a single leader, it will fall apart. Trust me. I tried the democratic approach a couple times to disastrous effect.

The captain is the person who holds the whole thing together– they’re the creative mastermind, as it were. They’re in charge of choreography, music selection, brainstorming demo concepts, costuming & props, all of it! So make sure you choose them wisely. They should be talented at musicality, storytelling, and theatrical principles as well as above average in the technique department. And above all, they should be dedicated to the team’s success. Whether it’s yourself, or a high-ranking student you trust with the hefty responsibility, you’ll need that sole person at the helm of the ship. Otherwise, expect to never graduate from amateur-hour style demos, where no one knows what they’re supposed to do, the music has absolutely nothing to do with the action, and the whole thing feels like a bad martial arts film.

Talented Students:

Obviously, a demo team is nothing without the students performing on it. There are many different approaches to choosing them, and I highly encourage you to discover your own strategy.

I held auditions once a year. The culmination of our performance season was the Regional Tournament at the end of May, so it always made sense to hold auditions in June. That gave the veterans a month off, as the regularly scheduled practices were taken up with potential recruits trying out. It may seem intense to require an audition. But remember when I said they should be the elite of your student body? Well, how else to make something seem elite than to make it an exclusive privilege you have to earn? If just anyone could join, then it wouldn’t be much different than the blah, uninspired teams I mentioned in earlier posts.

Besides, I had strict guidelines for what I would accept in terms of age, rank, physical ability, etc. Cruel, maybe, but effective.

I don’t work well with young children, so I set the age cap at 13. Occasionally I would accept an exceptionally strong individual below that age, but not often. And they were never given any special treatment. If they wanted to be on the team, they had to rise to the level of the adults, not the other way around. I’ve found, through experience, that ideally you want your team to be predominantly adults. A team of children sounds like it would dripping in cute-factor, right? But it’s actually a nightmare to pull off. A team of this caliber requires more focus than most kids have, as well as massive amounts of endurance and ability. So I always advise against stacking the deck with those in the single-digit age range. Listen to my advice, and you’ll thank me later. Ignore it, and well, let’s just say I’ll get to shout, “Told you so!” at the end of the most painful year of your life, when you’ve got about three strands of hair left and no desire to ever touch a demo team ever again.

I  also don’t find white through green belts, (students with under a year’s worth of training), especially impressive, so I preferred to take people ranked brown and up. That way they had at least a little experience and range of technique to work with. And I had a contract every student had to sign detailing exactly what was expected of them. By signing the contract, they agreed to commit to the entire “season,” as I called it– basically, a year.

Sound brutal? It was. But it also worked.

The Contract & Other Paperwork:

This is everyone’s least favorite section. (Unless you’re like me and have a sick love of paperwork.) But it is crucial to establish clear expectations and ensure that everyone is on the same page. It doesn’t have to be fancy; I created mine with a simple Word .doc. It just needs to communicate your requirements for being on the team, what’s expected of the members, and what the repercussions are for breaking the rules.

Why all the seriousness?  Because although people are enthusiastic when they first try out, they often flake out on you halfway through. Or fail to make the performances. Or spend the whole practice goofing off. All of which is detrimental to your demo’s success. If someone misses the practices, they miss the choreography, compromising the ability to create seamless synchronization. If they bail on a performance, their teammates are left compensating for the hole and your storyline suffers. And if they goof off the whole time, they’ll disrupt the cohesive sense of team, damaging everyone’s focus.

The contract prevents that. Think of it as a way to weed out those who are serious from those who aren’t. Anyone unwilling to agree to the terms is not someone you want on the team. It’s a strategy specifically designed to instill fear. Commitment is scary for a lot of people. So play into that; scare the crap out of them. List as specifically as possible every detail you expect from them and what happens if they don’t live up to those expectations. Go over it point by point with the potential candidates to make sure they understand everything before signing. (Most people will sign without even reading if given the opportunity!) And most of all, take a page from college professors and be serious about it. It’s a lot scarier that way, even if you have no intention of upholding any of the rules. Professionalism breeds professionalism, and you’re creating the equivalent of a professional dance troupe or theater company. What happens when a member of those communities misbehaves? They get fired. The same should be true for your demo team. And yes, that threat works.

Along with the contract, you should supply a list of all the practices and performances scheduled for the season. Word and Excel offer handy calendar templates you can download for free. Obviously things can change over the course of a year, but having the expected list ready at the time of recruitment will also help you weed out any potential weak links. You’d be surprised how many times just seeing the schedule deterred someone from signing up, keeping me from the ever-irritating task of rearranging the entire performance when they suddenly drop out halfway through the season. A situation that’s stressful for everyone involved and should be avoided like the plague if you can.

Have I scared you off yet? No? Good.

All of this, from designating a captain, to recruiting only the elite of your school, to the commitment imparted by a contract is meant to serve one purpose– scare anyone out of ever wanting to form a team so I can be the top dog forever!

Just kidding.

It’s about creating a professional grade, performance-worthy team that will leave fellow martial artists and non-martial artists alike in awe. Not quite as simple as you first thought, is it? But once you get through all this you get to the fun part– the creativity. With the nitty-gritty out of the way, we can move on to the more enjoyable elements that make every performance a masterpiece. I must warn you that the secrets to the creativity side are just as intense, if not more so, than what we’ve covered today. But they are extremely rewarding when you see them all come together in the final result.

Coming up next in the Demo Team Series: All About Staging, tips and tricks for getting your viewers to see what you want them to see without stopping the action.

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