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. 😉 )

 

 

Featured From the Archives: Story vs. Concept; A Demo Team Showdown

Tonight, I’ll be teaching my annual class on demo teams. I know I haven’t posted about the martial arts recently, and that the majority of you out there reading this are writers, rather than martial artists, but this particular post holds helpful tips for both. And since this is what I’ll be discussing over the next two days with the students of Dragon Heart Tang Soo Do, I thought it would be appropriate. However, for the writers out there, I’ll provide annotated notes, indicating the literary terms that correspond with my demo team lingo. So even if you aren’t a martial artist and you have absolutely no desire to learn about demo teams, give it a read. I think you’ll be surprised to see just how much the two worlds intersect.
 

Story vs. Concept; A Demo Team Showdown

by Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 5/10/13

 
Recently, I found myself on the wrong side of an angry, pitch-fork touting mob after I eloquently shoved my foot in my mouth. (Turns out, there’s a fine line between snarky and jackass. Especially when it falls on the wrong ears.) And as I was being schooled by a student who naively believed I was a demo team idiot, I was amazed at how often the terms “concept” and “story” were used interchangeably, as if they were the same thing. I’m not sure if this is a common misconception, but since I was due for a demo team post, I figured why not take a moment to clarify the definitions and try to make something good out of my embarrassing mistake. And what better way to do that than to pit story against concept in an epic battle of demo team terminology. Sounds fun, no?

So, here we go! Contestants to your places, aaaaaaand . . . fight!

Round One: Concept

(2014 Annotation: Writers, this is the same for you. Everything said below applies to the same definition we use in literature.)

Concept does not, in fact, equal story. If it was synonymous with any word, it would be theme. And what is theme? The point of your project. It’s the message or idea that you want to convey to your audience. Let’s check out some examples.

(These are some of the more common demo themes/concepts I’ve seen over the years.)

  • Video Games such as Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Etc. (I’m guessing there’s a secret sect of Comic-Con Cosplayer geekhood within the martial arts.)
  • Medieval Asian Warlords (Yes, the Asian part is particularly important. How else can you create something as awesome as a D-grade Kung Fu movie brought to life?)
  • The Korean and/or Association Flag (Especially prevalent in the WTSDA. Apparently, we have a lot of association pride. And unoriginality.)
  • Badass little kids taking over the world (Cute factor combined with awesomeness. Who doesn’t love that?)
  • The Matrix movie franchise (Does this really need further explanation? The Matrix was just, like, the most epic movie ever!)
  • Pretty much any popular movie franchise (Further proof of my statement on example one. Maybe we’re all nerds at heart?)
  • Women’s self-defense (The only thing better than badass kids is watching a bunch of girls pummel a bunch of dudes, right?)
  • Peace, Love and Unity, man (Otherwise known as the undefinable, “high” concepts.)
  • The Elements (Because there can never be too many interpretations of wind, fire and water.)

(I hope, by now, you’re laughing with recognition.)

But despite my mockery, these are all perfectly acceptable examples of concept. I’ve used some of them myself. (There may or may not be multiple versions of Mortal Kombat costumes lurking in Dragon Heart’s demo team archives. 😉 ) The problem comes when that’s all there is to your demo (2014 Annotation: same is true for writing). The concept should be the foundational element, the first spark of creativity. Not the entire focus. Here’s why: concepts are simple. They contain absolutely no allusions to the story they might evolve into, making them a two dimensional, cardboard cut-out experience guaranteed to bore the life out of your audience. Don’t believe me? Let me show you. A concept’s inception typically looks something like this:

Student One: “Dude, let’s do a demo about the Korean flag!”

Student Two: “Like, oh my god! That would be totally awesome!”

Ok, maybe that’s a little facetious, but it’s not that far off the mark. A concept is that first burst of enthusiastic direction, not the ultimate goal. Don’t get me wrong, concept is very much an important part of any demo. Not only does it provide the inspiration, it has influence over decisions like costuming (aka genre, if you’re a writer), set/prop design (setting), characters, and overall presentation (POV/Voice/etc.) as well. But it’s focus remains purely on technique, and will rarely impart any lasting impression or emotion on the audience. For that, you need story.

Round Two: Story

(2014 Annotation: This is more commonly known as “premise” in the written world. But same basic idea.)

If concept is the idea, then story (aka premise) is the way you impart said idea to the audience. It builds on the foundation concept provides to create something with a far richer experience for everyone. However, story is often misconstrued to mean flash. As in, an overly theatrical fluff-fest that’s trying to compensate for a lack of technique. That, my friends, is sadly mistaken. And probably the reason story is given so little respect in the creativity division. (2014 Annotation: “flash” in literature can take on many forms, but most commonly it’s seen as an over-indulgence in world building, or an over-wrought, heavy-handed style that gets in the way of the story.)

All those components that instantly scream flash – costuming, props, etc – are not actually controlled by story. They reside within concept’s domain. (Cheeky bugger, fooling everyone by pointing the finger at story.) The only thing story controls is choreography (aka plot, for writers). Why? Because choreography is how you tell a narrative in a demo (See? Plot). The rest is bonus to help ensure the audience understands. But you don’t actually need anything beyond choreography.

Story is defined in the literary world as conflict. Meaning, there has to be something happening. A journey from Point A to Point B. I’ve written about this topic at length in my previous post, Storytelling for Demo Teams, so rather than repeat myself, I’ll provide an example of how story elevates concept. And how it doesn’t necessarily have to be complicated to be effective. (There’s only so much you can cram into a 5 minute span, after all.)

I’m going to use one of my own demos for this exercise – The Dream Sequence – which I have featured before.

The concept for this demo actually came from the music itself. (As do all my ideas, which many of you know by now.) I wanted to show a dreamy, ethereal world that matched the tone of the music. But since that isn’t enough for a competition-grade demo in my opinion, I needed a story that would deliver that message to the audience. So I created one about a little boy who falls asleep and finds the dolls he was playing with have come to life around him. When he wakes up, the dolls disappear. Literary genius, isn’t it? But that’s my point. No one said you had to be a master storyteller; you just have to tell something.

So, to recap:

Concept = dreamy, ethereal imagination.

Story = slightly creepy dolls coming to life inside a child’s dream.

(2014 Annotation: This same equation applies in literature, and is quite handy for figuring out things like queries. 😉 )

See how neither of these statements is really that complicated or involved? And how, when combined, you end up with an idea that’s far more powerful and interesting than the concept alone? That’s the beauty of story. (If you haven’t seen the demo I’m referencing, take a moment to go watch it. I’ll wait. 😉 )

And the Winner is . . . ?

Neither.

That’s right, our epic showdown actually ends in a draw. Anti-climatic, I know. But that’s because one isn’t better than the other. They work in tandem, not competition. The ideal demo (or novel) is a balance of both, pulling from the strengths of each to create a wonderful masterpiece people remember for years. But, because the two terms are separate elements, it is possible to create award-winning demos using only one of them. You can have a traditional demo that focuses primarily on technique, with no storyline, just concept. And you can create a moving, story-driven demo featuring absolutely no costumes, props, or flash. (Technically, though, if you have a story, you have a concept, regardless of the addition of flashy elements. Concept can live without story, but story needs concept to survive.) The trick is knowing your ultimate goal and utilizing your team’s talents to their fullest. (I’ve given out a lot of helpful tips about how to do this.)

And remember, if you find yourself having to explain what your demo is about, you failed. (Harsh, but true.) Whether your aim is traditional/concept-driven, or theatrical narrative, your audience should always receive your message clearly. That is, after all, the entire point of demos (and storytelling in general), is it not?

Featured From the Archives: How to Write Martial Arts Fight Scenes

For the past few weeks, this post has surfaced almost daily in my stats, making it by far my most popular article ever. The fact that it is continually being Googled probably means that I would do well to post it again, don’t you think? Maybe the universe (and by universe, I mean all you lovely authors out there with the power to Google stuff) is trying to tell me that this information could benefit someone at the moment. Never one to ignore omens (my whole urban fantasy series is based around the concept of synchronicity, after all), I’m going to do just that.

This week’s feature is a little over a year old, but it’s as valid today as it was then, and I hope it helps those who are searching for it. Enjoy! 😉
 

How to Write Martial Arts Fight Scenes

by Kisa Whipkey

(Originally Posted on 8/9/13)

 
Fight scenes. Whether live action or written, they can be such a pain to pull off, falling all too easily into the realm of cheesy. You know the ones I mean; we’ve all seen and read them — fight scenes where the creator was more focused on what looks cool and/or badass, and less so on believability.

Recently, I sent a frustrated plea to the Twitterverse, begging authors to do their research before including the martial arts in their fights. Believe it or not, it wasn’t until after I sent that plea that the light bulb appeared and I realized I’m in a unique position to help my fellow authors. As both a martial artist and a writer, I have insight that could help authors overcome the hurdle of fight scenes. So today, I’m going to use that background to dissect a written fight scene and hopefully illustrate how to effectively incorporate martial arts techniques. About time, right?

First, let’s take a look at what you don’t want to do.

_________

Charlie grunted as his back slammed into the wall, his opponent’s hands wrapped thoroughly around his throat. He struggled, trying to kick his opponent in the groin but only managing to connect with the man’s shin. The attacker snarled, loosening his hold on Charlie’s neck. Without pausing, Charlie threw his left arm between them, turning to the side and trapping the attacker’s arm against his own chest before elbowing the man in the face.

The attacker stumbled backwards, grasping at his bleeding nose. Charlie didn’t wait. He had the upper-hand. He advanced toward his opponent, his hands raised to guard his face, his body relaxed into a sparring stance. The attacker glared up at him, straightening into a matching stance.

With a yell, Charlie threw a round-kick at the attacker’s head. His opponent ducked, sliding between Charlie’s legs on his knees and jumping to his feet with a swift kick to Charlie’s back. Charlie stumbled forward, turning to face his attacker before he was struck again and instantly ducked the knife hand strike aimed at his head. Charlie responded with a flurry of punches, varying his target from the man’s head to his torso and back again. The man blocked most, but a few landed, knocking the attacker from his feet.

Charlie stood over him for a split second before finishing him off with a well-placed axe kick to the sternum. As the attacker rolled on the ground, sputtering, Charlie ran for the safety of a nearby cafe.

_________

Now, that’s shockingly not as bad as some I’ve seen, although it’s sure not going to win me a Pulitzer either. Some of you may even think this is an all right fight scene, aside from the obvious grammatical flaws that could be fixed with a few more drafts. But this is the example of what not to do, remember? So let’s figure out why.

Did you notice that I gave you very little about why this fight is happening, or where? I didn’t even give you the attacker’s name! But I did tell you in agonizing detail the techniques they’re using and where the blows land, placing all the emphasis on the choreography, and none at all on the characters or motivation behind this moment. The result? A laundry list of steps you could re-enact, but that you feel not at all.

That’s because this approach is all telling. That’s right, the infamous telling vs. showing debate. I tell you exactly what’s happening, but I don’t show it at all. You don’t feel invested in Charlie’s situation. You don’t feel the emotions. You feel excited, sure, because it’s action, and even poorly written action is exciting. But it has no lasting impact on you, does it? This scene is about as forgettable as they come.

It’s also unrealistic. Who out there noticed the completely implausible choreography I threw in? I know the martial artists in the audience did, because it screams “cool factor,” its entire existence a nod to something awesome and badass, but that, in reality, is actually physically impossible.

If you guessed the knee slide under Charlie’s legs, you’d be correct. Bravo! You get a cookie.

This is why it’s important to understand the dynamics of a fight, not just the choreography. Those who have done a round kick know that while performing it, you balance on one leg, your body positioned so that your center of gravity is entirely over that back leg. If someone were to try and go through your legs the way I described, they would take out your supporting leg and you’d both end up in a flailing pile of limbs.

And then there’s the knee slide itself. If you read it closely, you realized the attacker is standing still. Where’d he get the momentum for a knee slide? Unless they’re fighting on a slick, hardwood floor that’s just been mopped, he would need a running start. I don’t know about you, but if I tried to drop to my knees to slide anywhere, I’d be sitting on the floor looking like an idiot asking to get kicked in the face. It’s just not believable.

So let’s try that scene again, this time, fixing all those things I called out.

_________

Charlie grunted as his back slammed into the wall, Eric’s hands wrapped around his throat. Hate emanated from his friend’s eyes, judgement and accusation burning them into a sinister shade of blue. Charlie gasped, choking as Eric’s fingers cut off his air like a tourniquet.

His mind screamed at him, desperate to know why it was being punished. His lungs burned, his mouth working like a fish on dry land, sucking in nothing but fear. The edges of his vision started to grow fuzzy, black dots appearing over Eric’s shoulder, distorting the red glow of the club’s EXIT sign like reverse chickenpox. Panic flooded his veins with adrenaline. He struggled, clawing at the fingers sealed around his throat. He tried to kick Eric in the groin but only managed to connect with his shin, the impact ricocheting painfully through his foot.

Eric snarled, loosening his hold, giving Charlie the opening he needed. He threw his left arm between them, turning to the side and trapping Eric’s arm against his own chest before elbowing his best friend in the face.

Eric stumbled backward, grasping at his bleeding nose. Charlie didn’t wait. He advanced toward his opponent, his hands raised to guard his face, his body relaxing into the sparring stance he’d practiced for years– knees bent, weight forward on the balls of his feet, head lowered. Eric glared up at him, straightening into a matching stance. Their eyes locked. It was just like old times, only now there was no one to referee the match, to stop it before it went too far.

All this for a girl. Charlie knew it was ridiculous, that he should walk away, but fury mixed with adrenaline, coursing through him like a pulsing heat. If Eric wanted a fight, that’s what he’d get.

With a yell, Charlie threw a kick at Eric’s head. Eric ducked, sliding easily into a leg-sweep, knocking Charlie’s support from under him. The ground smashed into his back, forcing the air from his lungs in a rushing wheeze. He rolled backwards to his feet, still fighting against the tightness in his chest. Eric closed in on him, pushing his advantage, arms and legs flying. Charlie blocked as many of the blows as he could, his arms jarring in their sockets every time he did, his ribs and face blossoming with pain every time he didn’t. He stumbled back through the shadows of the alley until he was once again cornered.  Cringing, he held his hands up in surrender. Eric backed off, eying him warily as he spit blood onto the darkened pavement.

Charlie’s knuckles were bleeding, his ribs bruised, and his lip split into an oozing gash. It was time to end this.

“All right, I give,” he said,  the words gravelly and pained as he forced his battered throat to work. “I’ll never go near your sister again.”

_________

Still not the most epic writing sample, but you see the difference, I hope? Now, we not only know who Charlie’s fighting, but why. I’ve also fixed the choreography so that it’s believable, and added emotional content and description, putting the focus on the characters instead of the martial arts. No one cares about the techniques, but they care a lot about how those techniques feel, the emotion behind the action. Understanding that is the difference between creating a scene from a clinical distance and creating a deeper POV that will resonate with readers.

So, how can you take your fight scenes from flat to amazing? Easy, just remember these three things:

  1. Show, don’t tell. The techniques themselves are not important, the emotion is. Only use a technique name if there’s a reason we need to know the exact kick, etc.
  2. Believability is king. Never throw something in just because it sounds awesome. Make sure it’s actually physically possible and makes sense with the choreography and your world.
  3. When stumped, ask an expert. If you’re at a loss, find someone familiar with the martial arts and ask. Don’t just rely on Google and Youtube. They won’t give you the insight personal experience can.

That’s really all there is to it. Not so hard after all, is it? And if you ever find yourself in need of some martial arts feedback, I’m always available. Just send me a note with your questions, and I’ll happily provide some help. 🙂

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?

Story vs. Concept; A Demo Team Showdown

Recently, I found myself on the wrong side of an angry, pitch-fork touting mob after I eloquently shoved my foot in my mouth. (Turns out, there’s a fine line between snarky and jackass. Especially when it falls on the wrong ears.) And as I was being schooled by a student who naively believed I was a demo team idiot, I was amazed at how often the terms “concept” and “story” were used interchangeably, as if they were the same thing. I’m not sure if this is a common misconception, but since I was due for a demo team post, I figured why not take a moment to clarify the definitions and try to make something good out of my embarrassing mistake. And what better way to do that than to pit story against concept in an epic battle of demo team terminology. Sounds fun, no?

So, here we go! Contestants to your places, aaaaaaand…fight!!
 

Round One: Concept

 
Concept does not, in fact, equal story. If it was synonymous with any word, it would be theme. And what is theme? The point of your project. It’s the message or idea that you want to convey to your audience. Let’s check out some examples.

(These are some of the more common demo themes/concepts I’ve seen over the years.)

  • Video Games such as Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Etc. (I’m guessing there’s a secret sect of Comic-Con Cosplayer geekhood within the martial arts.)
  • Medieval Asian Warlords (Yes, the Asian part is particularly important. How else can you create something as awesome as a D-grade Kung Fu movie brought to life?)
  • The Korean and/or Association Flag (Especially prevalent in the WTSDA. Apparently, we have a lot of association pride. And unoriginality.)
  • Badass little kids taking over the world (Cute factor combined with awesomeness. Who doesn’t love that?)
  • The Matrix movie franchise (Does this really need further explanation? The Matrix was just, like, the most epic movie ever!)
  • Pretty much any popular movie franchise (Further proof of my statement on example one. Maybe we’re all nerds at heart?)
  • Women’s self-defense (The only thing better than badass kids is watching a bunch of girls pummel a bunch of dudes, right?)
  • Peace, Love and Unity, Man (Otherwise known as the undefinable, “high” concepts.)
  • The Elements (Because there can never be too many interpretations of wind, fire and water.)

(I hope by now you’re laughing with recognition.)

Despite my mockery, these are all perfectly acceptable examples of concept. I’ve used some of them myself. (There may or may not be multiple versions of Mortal Kombat costumes lurking in Dragon Heart’s demo team archives. 😉 ) The problem comes when that’s all there is to your demo. The concept should be the foundational element, the first spark of creativity. Not the entire focus. Here’s why; concepts are simple. They contain absolutely no allusions to the story they might evolve into, making them a two dimensional, cardboard cut-out experience guaranteed to bore the life out of your audience. Don’t believe me? Let me show you. A concept’s inception typically looks something like this:

Student One: “Dude, let’s do a demo about the Korean flag!”

Student Two: “Like, oh my god! That would be totally awesome!”

Ok, maybe that’s a little facetious, but it’s not that far off the mark. A concept is that first burst of enthusiastic direction, not the ultimate goal. Don’t get me wrong, concept is very much an important part of any demo. Not only does it provide the inspiration, it has influence over decisions like costuming, set/prop design, characters, and overall presentation as well. But it’s focus remains purely on technique, and will rarely impart any lasting impression or emotion on the audience. For that, you need story.
 

Round Two: Story

 
If concept is the idea, then story is the way you impart said idea to the audience. It builds on the foundation concept provides to create something with a far richer experience for everyone. However, story is often misconstrued to mean flash. As in, an overly theatrical fluff-fest that’s trying to compensate for a lack of technique. That, my friends, is sadly mistaken. And probably the reason story is given so little respect in the creativity division.

All those components that instantly scream flash– costuming, props, etc– are not actually controlled by story. They reside within concept’s domain. (Cheeky bugger, fooling everyone by pointing the finger at story.) The only thing story controls is choreography. Why? Because choreography is how you tell a narrative in a demo. The rest is bonus to help ensure the audience understands. But you don’t actually need anything beyond choreography.

Story is defined in the literary world as conflict. Meaning, there has to be something happening. A journey from Point A to Point B. I’ve gone on about this topic at length in my previous post, Storytelling for Demo Teams, so rather than repeat myself, I’ll provide an example of how story elevates concept. And how it doesn’t necessarily have to be complicated to be effective. (There’s only so much you can cram into a 5 minute span, after all.)

I’m going to use one of my own demos for this exercise– The Dream Sequence— which I have featured before.

The concept for this demo actually came from the music itself. (As do all my ideas, which many of you know by now.) I wanted to show a dreamy, ethereal world that matched the tone of the music. But since that isn’t enough for a competition-grade demo in my opinion, I needed a story that would deliver that message to the audience. So I created one about a little boy who falls asleep and finds the dolls he was playing with have come to life around him. When he wakes up, the dolls disappear. Literary genius, isn’t it? But that’s my point. No one said you had to be a master storyteller; you just have to tell something.

So, to recap:

Concept = dreamy, ethereal imagination.

Story = slightly creepy dolls coming to life inside a child’s dream.

See how neither of these statements is really that complicated or involved? And how, when combined, you end up with an idea that’s far more powerful and interesting than the concept alone? That’s the beauty of story. (If you haven’t seen the demo I’m referencing, take a moment to go watch it. I’ll wait. 😉 )
 

And the Winner is…?

 
Neither.

That’s right, our epic showdown actually ends in a draw. Anti-climatic, I know. But that’s because one isn’t better than the other. They work in tandem, not competition. The ideal demo is a balance of both, pulling from the strengths of each to create a wonderful masterpiece people remember for years. But, because the two terms are separate elements, it is possible to create award winning demos using only one of them. You can have a traditional demo that focuses primarily on technique, with no storyline, just concept. And you can create a moving, story-driven demo featuring absolutely no costumes, props or flash. (Technically, though, if you have a story, you have a concept, regardless of the addition of flashy elements. Concept can live without story, but story needs concept to survive.) The trick is knowing your ultimate goal and utilizing your team’s talents to their fullest. (I’ve given out a lot of helpful tips about how to do this.)

And remember, if you find yourself having to explain what your demo is about, you failed. (Harsh, but true.) Whether your aim is traditional/concept-driven, or theatrical narrative, your audience should always receive your message clearly. That is, after all, the entire point of demos, is it not?