How to Effectively Use Props in a Demo

It’s that time of year again– Dance season!

Those of you who have followed me for a while are already familiar with my obsession over Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance. It’s my favorite part of the summer and if it ever gets cancelled, I will cry like a four year old whose lost their favorite blankie. No joke. I really mean that. *serious face*

To me, it’s the epitome of everything I wish martial arts demo teams would emulate– athleticism (which, come on, has always been part of the martial arts), grace (again, always been there), theatricality (yep, now we’re getting somewhere new), storytelling (totally foreign territory for martial artists), and performance (what? What’s that?). So it’s not surprising that this week’s post was inspired by a routine from the current season of So You Think You Can Dance. We’re only one week past the auditions and already they’re providing examples of things every demo should incorporate. Which is why July was always ushered in with a resounding chorus of groans from my team– they all knew that when Dance was on, they’d have to watch out for difficult new tricks making sudden appearances in the choreography. 😉

But anyway, on to today’s topic– the effective use of props in a demo. (There’s even a visual example courtesy of SYTYCD.)

Props are one of those notorious trouble spots for demo team choreographers. Most teams will either avoid them like the plague or go to the complete opposite extreme and overload their demo with them. (A prop is anything beyond the human bodies on your team. It can be costume, weapons, set design, anything but your team itself.) I understand; it’s confusing stuff.

My first demo featured a massive dragon similar to the ones you see during the Chinese new year, except medieval style. It required 8-10 people to man the thing (the head alone took someone with a significant amount of muscle to operate) and basically upstaged everything else on the floor. Now, granted, I was 15 and just starting out, but still. I fell prey to one of the fatal errors I see teams make– I allowed the prop to be bigger than everything else, and the story/choreography suffered for it. I wasted valuable manpower, hiding those 8-10 people under a massive black tarp for the entire demo; I had people standing around doing nothing, staring at the dragon like it was an altar to the demo team gods; and I placed the storytelling emphasis on a prop, allowing it to carry the entire performance. Needless to say, we didn’t win. But it provided a valuable lesson on the purpose and utilization of props. A lesson I’m about to give you.

Props should never ever be the focus of your demo.

If you find yourself spending more storytelling time on the props and less on the choreography, you’ve crossed to the dark side of demo team hell and you may as well kiss that shiny trophy goodbye. Yes, props are visually fascinating for an audience (we’re all over-grown mockingbirds, distracted by shinies), but they’re completely ineffective storytelling devices. They’re static, inanimate objects that only take on importance when someone uses them. So to expect a lifeless lump of material to carry your entire demo is demo team suicide.

An effective prop is one that is completely integrated with the rest of the demo. It’s the supporting role to your starring actors, reinforcing your message and enhancing the story. Which brings us to our example. The following video is an inspiring piece by choreographer Christopher Scott. This dude’s my hero. Seriously. Not only is his choreography brilliant, but he’s a master storyteller, seamlessly using musicality, props and staging in an enviable display of how to make the most out of a large group of talented people. I’ve long been a fan of his League of Extraordinary Dancers, so his appearance on SYTYCD was a match made in heaven. But enough of my gushing; watch the video. You’ll see for yourself how awesome he is. 😉

Pretty cool, wasn’t it? There are so many things this video could serve as an example of, from staging, to musicality, to even storytelling. But today’s focus is props. So I want you to watch the video again and this time really pay attention to the way the sand is integrated into the dance, how it almost becomes a dancer in it’s own right. Christopher Scott not only choreographed the guys, he choreographed the sand as well! This conscious attention to the way the sand moved placed emphasis on the exact moments he wanted to highlight (staging), created a visual echo of the musical nuances (musicality), and reinforced his message of how humanity/man is tied to the earth (storytelling). That’s how you use a prop effectively.

(Travis Wall is another choreographer who brilliantly uses props. Case in point, the blindfolded dance from this past week’s show.)

Now, I’m not recommending using something as messy as sand. Most of us will never perform in venues where we have a clean-up crew following behind us, erasing all evidence of our performance in seconds. But you can still take the principles Mr. Scott used and apply them to your own demos, your own props. The important thing to remember is that every prop needs to have a reason to exist, and that reason has to somehow support the larger whole of the demo. So before including any prop, ask yourself these simple questions:

1) What does this prop enhance? Staging, Musicality or Storytelling? (If you can’t answer yes to any of those three things, you don’t need it. )

2) Does including this prop take away focus from something else in the demo? (Think my massive dragon that basically ate the rest of the performance. Choreography and Story should always be your main focus. If the prop distracts from that, it needs to go.)

3) Can I effectively convey my message without the prop? (This is the best test for whether a prop is holding you back. If it’s a crutch, your demo will fall apart the second you take it away. Ideally, you should be able to perform your demo without any costumes or props and still convey the same story to the audience. Yes, it will be a little less impressive, relying heavily on your team’s acting ability and the audience’s imagination, but they’ll still get it. Adding the props should only serve to make that message more powerful, not be a requirement for comprehending your tale.)

By taking the time to really think about how and why you’re including a given prop, you’ll subconsciously transform it into it’s own character, like Christopher Scott did with the sand. This shift in thinking will then allow you to fully integrate it into the rest of your demo in a seamless way, taking it from a distraction to a dynamic and important part of your story. And that’s the difference between having a prop simply for cool factor, and effectively using it. Any questions?

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