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?


Dance & Martial Arts; Not So Distant Cousins


It’s officially my favorite time of year– Dance Season! For those of you unaware, I’m an avid fan of So You Think You Can Dance. I literally never miss it. I’ve been to the live tours. I record it and save it for way longer than I should (until my DVR threatens to implode and I have to erase it). I watch Youtube videos of my favorite routines over and over (borrowing more than once from their acrobatic repertoire for my own choreography). And it is my favorite part of the summer, hands down. Can anyone say dorky Fangirl?

This week marked the first episode of Season 9’s actual competition. We’re past all the auditions, the talking, the dramatic tears, the blah blah blah. (I should probably note that I’m not really a fan of Reality TV, contrary to how it may sound.) Now we get down to the meat– the performances filled with spectacular tricks, beautiful choreography, strange concepts and engrossing musicality. This is the part I love. And this season brings an added level of excitement in the person of one Cole Horibe. This guy is my hero. Why? Because he’s proving on national television what I’ve been saying for years– that dance and martial arts are sister styles. Don’t believe me? Check out his LA audition below and see for yourself.

Pretty cool, wasn’t it? His blend of martial arts techniques fused with dance isn’t all that unusual though. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. He’s just the first to appear on a TV show and bring it to everyone’s attention. The idea of pairing martial arts routines with music is one that’s long been a staple of the martial arts world, in the form of Demo Teams. (I promise, I’ll give the full definition of these soon). But Cole brings it to the level that I myself prefer, and that few other martial arts studios currently employ. Namely, he utilizes musicality to its full potential, putting the art in martial arts, and bridging the gap between these similar styles of physicality to create a meaningful performance that entertains.

I’m not saying that martial arts and dance were developed similarly– they weren’t. The martial arts were intended to be just that– martial. They were developed as a disciplined regimen of lethal fighting techniques used to defend country, life and honor. Dance, on the other hand, is about self-expression. It’s always been an art form shaped by the era it was born in, the emotional context of the times and stylistic innovation meant to entertain both the dancers and the audience. And nothing illustrates that divide more than comparing the ideals of Ballroom dance with those of martial arts.

But while there are definite differences between these two motion-oriented sports, they are superficial in nature. Ok, some are ideological, but if you strip all that away and just look at the movement itself, you’ll see they’re actually very similar. At the heart of martial arts you have discipline, intense training, focus, hefty muscle memory, rhythm, flexibility, power, controlled movement, balance and a fine-tuned sense of body awareness. (Trust me, you never realize how much you can be aware of every ligament, tendon, muscle and skin surface until you train in something that utilizes all of it in minute detail). Breaking dance down to the same level, you have… guess what? Discipline, intense training, focus, hefty muscle memory, rhythm, flexibility, power, controlled movement, balance and a fine-tuned sense of body awareness. If you look closely, you’ll even notice visual similarities between several dance moves and their martial art counterparts because they rely on the same muscle groups and level of control to execute properly. The only thing dance tends to have over martial arts is the inclusion of creativity. But that doesn’t always have to be the case.

Cole Horibe’s routine is a prime example. No one can look at that and say it doesn’t illustrate creativity. Breaking outside of the expected curriculum is extremely hard for a lot of martial artists, though, and the idea that the traditional forms or techniques can be morphed to fit music is a foreign concept that has the traditionalists screaming “Corruption!” Tradition is fine. In fact, the traditional aspects of Tang Soo Do are what I enjoyed the most. But eventually, performing the same forms, techniques, self-defense moves, etc. can start to feel stale. Adding some theatrical elements, especially for demonstration purposes, gives your training something fresh, and challenges you in a way that repetition doesn’t. It would be like asking a writer to only write non-fiction, never experimenting with the use of language to create a new experience for their readers. Or telling an artist they can only paint the way Van Gogh, Picasso, or Monet did, but never find their own style. And what if musicians suddenly stopped creating new songs, new fusions of styles and sounds? The world would seem rather boring and static, right? So why do the martial arts have to be stuck so firmly in tradition that only the dedicated few with a high tolerance for boredom stick with it past a few years?

My argument for why musicality and creativity are so important to the growth of martial arts is a debate for another day. I’ll just leave you to consider this– how better to impress an audience of non-martial artists and martial artists alike, than to present them with something that blends concepts of entertainment– like music, costumes, story– with technical prowess? Apparently Nigel Lythgoe and the staff at So You Think You Can Dance felt it was an idea worth merit because they put Mr. Horibe through to the Top 20. I, for one, firmly believe that dance and martial arts complement each other, and that together they can create something beautifully inspired. So I intend to show my support for their decision, and vote for Cole every week in the hopes that the longer he stays on the program, the more martial artists he can inspire to think outside of tradition.

Coming Next Week: Demo Teams: A Brief Introduction– where I finally explain what exactly a demo team is and their purpose. Told you I’d explain it soon. 😉