Featured From the Archives: A Brief Introduction to Demo Teams

Wow, what a week! I don’t know if the planets aligned for you as horribly as they did for me, but let’s just say there’s a bottle of Fireball in my freezer that will soon be empty. ;/

I was intending a different post today, but as the sun is now creeping lower toward the horizon and I have all of maybe two brain cells left, I decided it was time for the back-up plan. Hooray for archive-diving! I have plenty of writing/publishing/editing related posts I could recirculate, but I haven’t touched on one topic in a long time. And I’ve noticed the bio pertaining to this part of my life keeps showing up in my stats feed, so perhaps there’s some curiosity out there as to what I mean when I say I’m a “martial arts demo team expert.” Perhaps some of you are even thinking, “what the heck is a demo team?” Today, you’ll get to find out.

The following post will make the most sense to fellow martial artists, but for those of you who have wondered about my various online bio claims, here’s a glimpse into my martial artist past and my particular specialty in that realm. (You’ll notice it’s again related to storytelling. And yes, some of it translates into my current job choice as an editor.) Enjoy!

Demo Teams: A Brief Introduction

by Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 7/20/12

I’ll be the first to admit that my views on the martial arts — especially demo teams — are a bit progressive. And as such, probably rankle the feathers of the traditionalists out there. For the record, let me just state that I’m not devaluing traditionalism. Quite the opposite actually. There’s something powerful about being a part of a legacy that’s steeped in the history of thousands of years, having been passed down for generations upon generations. That said, I also think that tradition without innovation can cause a style to stagnate and eventually disappear into the dust of ages. So, yes, I’m a progressive martial artist, but it’s not meant to offend.

When you reach Sam Dan (3rd Degree) in Tang Soo Do, there’s an underlying expectation that you begin to specialize in something. You’ve already semi-mastered the basics (no one’s ever perfect, after all), you can competently defend yourself and can adequately pass your knowledge on to others. Now it’s time to find your niche, to declare your martial arts identity, if you will. Some specialize in self-defense techniques, some in empty hand forms, some in specific weapons. Others choose to extensively research the history behind their art, and still others focus simply on the intricacies of instructing.

My specialty is demo teams.

What is a demo team? At their heart, demo teams, short for demonstration team, are a marketing tool. Anytime you give a performance geared toward attracting new students, you’re essentially using a demo team in its most basic form. The vernacular may vary from school to school (I’ve heard them referred to as Performance Team, Demonstration Squad, Creativity Team, etc) but the principle is always the same. And they’re very poorly utilized by the vast majority of schools out there.

Usually, they are thrown together last minute with volunteer students. They’re rarely given much rehearsal, and there’s usually even less thought behind the organization or presentation of the performance. Which gives you, not surprisingly, a highly disorganized group of students milling around looking lost, boring displays of generic techniques, and absolutely no originality. Some of you may be shaking your heads right now, thinking I’m being overly judgmental, but admit it, we’ve all seen these types of demos. Performances comprised of kids in rumpled uniforms who can barely form a straight line, displays of adequate-at-best techniques, poorly practiced routines where students end up flinging their weapons all over the place, absolutely no music except for the chaotic ki-haps of the students or maybe the counting of the instructor, and my favorite: people breaking boards any civilian could flick in half with a couple fingers, they’re so thin. There may be one or two high-ranking students that really dazzle, but overall, I think we can all agree that these types of demos are, in a word, uninspired.

Every audience is comprised of only a few things — the family of the students, who will cheer no matter how bad their person does; fellow martial artists vaguely curious how your style differs from theirs; the hecklers who think it’s amusing to shout horrible impressions of the Karate Kid at you; and potential students. That’s it. Really. So in any given audience, you maybe have 25% that can be enticed into enrolling. That’s a pretty small window in a lot of venues. How do you reach this small minority of potential customers? By entertaining them.

We live in a society flooded by the martial arts. It’s included in every action-oriented movie or TV show. It’s in nearly every video game on the market; it’s even crept it’s way into literature. So the mystique is gone, folks. It’s no longer enough to show the world what your classes look like on a daily basis. We’ve all seen it a thousand times. We’re not impressed. Doesn’t matter if we train in the martial arts or not.

Give us something original, something flashy, something that makes us pause in that parking lot or mall, or gets us in the door to your studio’s open-house. In short, give us a performance. None of this last minute, non-rehearsed, reliant-on-cute-factor, traditional uniforms stuff. What you need is a dedicated Demo Team — the elite of your student body, trained to perform, proficient in things like musicality, synchronization, advanced techniques, and storytelling/acting. These are the people who impress. They’re the ones who will entice new students to walk in the door, who will make the hecklers shut up, get the other martial artists to nod in appreciation and floor their family with their abilities. They are your secret weapon. And every studio has them. Unless you just opened your doors yesterday. In which case you have white belts. And white belts are never impressive. Sorry.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting what I’d call a master class in demo teams à la me (you can find this master class via the Index above, if you wish). I’ll go over every aspect involved in my style of “professional” grade teams, including how to create your team, the principles of musicality, staging, and storytelling, and the intricacies of performing — all in regards to martial arts demonstrations. For those of you more interested in my advice/opinions on writing, don’t worry, those posts will be mixed in too. I even have one dedicated to art, (The Genesis of a Logo Design), upcoming on the schedule, for any who were starting to doubt whether I’d actually tackle that subject. 😉

For now, I will leave you with this video of my most popular demo, “The Dream Sequence.” As with all recordings, there’s something lost in the translation that would have been better experienced in person. But it will still illustrate my particular demo team style, and what I hope to impart to you in following posts. Is it the most brilliant thing ever? I wouldn’t say so. It’s actually rather slow, and I was shocked by the acclaim it received. Is it entertaining? Hopefully. After all, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? To entertain.

(Before you ask, yes, the little boy on Wheelies is part of the routine, not some random bystander. And yes, I am in there, though I challenge you to figure out which performer is me. 😉 )




6 thoughts on “Featured From the Archives: A Brief Introduction to Demo Teams

  1. Great video! I admit that I read the original post several months back, but I didn’t see the footage! Very creative, and wonderfully choreographed! My husband and son participate in martial arts training, but there is nothing like this where they might see it set to music. It’s really beautiful!

    • Thank you! Unfortunately, this style of demo is really underutilized in the martial arts world. Very few schools choose to do it this way, which is something I’ve long advocated changing, to rather poor success. If your husband or son are ever interested in founding something like this at their studio, I have a bunch of articles about how to do it on this site, and I’m more than willing to offer consultation help. 🙂

      • Thanks Kisa! I will pass it along. I will have my husband mention it to the head of their Dojo. It’s a very beautiful way to visualize the moves.

      • That’s really amazing! Of course I love Hans Zimmer’s Pirate’s score, too! The way you have the costumes and the choreography, it could be right out of a scene from a musical or film! Do all of the competing teams treat it like a theatrical production, with costumes and “acting”?

      • Some do, some don’t. None really did it like we did though, which is why we were 5-time Regional Champions. I moved away after that Pirates routine though, so the creativity division has deteriorated without me. Now it’s back to the usual stale, boring type demos with little to no actual creativity and questionable talent in technical. A fact that makes me incredibly sad. It was always my hope that I would inspire other schools to branch out and be more ambitious with it, since it’s a marketing tool and the traditional style is super ineffective.

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