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Prop do's--and don'ts: don't let a great concept trip up a great performance.

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As her dancers prepared to compete at a Starbound competition several years ago, Kim Starsiak wasn't sweating much about the props. The piece used chairs, and the dancers from her All Stars Dance Center in Westfield, Massachusetts, were well rehearsed and confident. They hadn't, however, expected the stage to have rubber matting. "The kids went to slide the chair and it just did this shuffle dance instead," she remembers. "The little girl doing the splits on the chair was panic stricken. You could see she was trying to be calm, but it was ripping the heck out of her leg."

Whether it's a rubber floor, a fear of renegade basketballs, juggling gone awry, or a masterfully crafted structure that won't fit through the elevator door, props can put even the most seasoned competition professional into a panic. At the end of the day, points will be tabulated. Sparsely used, poorly choreographed, or unmanageable props can hurt your score, even if your dancers didn't make a misstep. We asked some competition pros for their advice on what makes a prop great--or a nightmare.

Do treat your prop like another dancer in the piece. Your props should be a vital piece of the performance that your dancers actually use; they should not be mistaken for a piece of scenery. A prop that isn't incorporated into the choreography will either distract the judges or leave them wondering why it was there in the first place. "I've seen it a million times," says Starsiak. "They go out and set up this prop and it takes several minutes, and it's this big, huge thing and they only use it in the very beginning."

Don't use props to hide your dancers Ultimately your goal in a competition is to showcase your dancers' talent, not demonstrate their ability to climb scaffolding or pose on a platform. "I see the benefit of using props, but I also see the distraction of it," says Lisa Holtz Odell, director of Starstruck Academy of Dance in Centennial, Colorado. "The piece shouldn't be about the props, it should be about the dancing. It makes me crazy when there are some dancers that never leave the prop. Obviously the choreographer doesn't trust their work enough to get the dancer off it."

David Westerfield, CEO of Westerfield Management, which runs both Showbiz and PrimeTime dance competitions, has seen prop malfunctions affect a performer's successes too many times. "Sometimes props overshadow what the performance is all about," he says. "Our judges are there to judge dance. If the dancers do an excellent job dancing with that prop, then kudos, but that's the risk you take."

Do keep it simple. Not every prop has to inspire shock and awe. A straightforward one can make good dancing even more memorable. With strong choreography, ordinary objects can augment your dancers. A few years ago Starsiak used a chiffon scarf that ran the length of the stage when they did a piece to "Bridge Over Troubled Water." "It was three shades of blue, and as the kids were dancing, it rippled like water," she remembers. "Very simple, very inexpensive, but you totally got the point."

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Starsiak also loves being able to put a fresh coat of paint on something to create something new. The round cylinder boxes that have served as circus boxes have also been turned upside down and painted to be top hats for Viva Las Vegas. "We use and reuse," she says. "We had trash cans for a tap number where we used the lids, and a couple years ago we used the same cans for a number where they climbed out of them."

Don't use large props that can't be built up or taken down quickly. All the studio directors agree that this is the biggest challenge they've faced when using props in competition. "It was a huge eye-opener for me when we first started using props for big production numbers, because there's more involved than just what happens on the stage," says Janet Nordgren-Taddie, from Castro Valley Performing Arts in Castro Valley, California. "It's getting the props to the stage and on the stage. It can be a huge ordeal."

For Starsiak, her biggest prop nightmare occurred one year at Showstoppers when her dancers were preparing to go on for a piece that used a large wooden birdcage. "It was already put together when we realized it wasn't going to fit through the wings," she remembers. "I was panic stricken." Because Starsiak smartly had the birdcage constructed to break down into two halves quickly, the dancers were able to reconstruct it once onstage without too much delay.

Props have become so outsized that Westerfield has had to impose a six-foot height limit and a two-minute setup limit. "We had to restrict height because we literally had a prop that was so high that a girl's hairpiece got caught in our lighting," he says. "Plus the props can be wobbly, and obviously we don't want to put anyone in danger."

Odell, who has judged for several competitions, including Starpower and Odyssey, cautions that taking too long to set up a prop can affect your scores. "There is nothing more frustrating than having to stop the momentum of the judging to wait for someone to set up a prop for 15 minutes," she says. "I was judging once and we had three acts to go, so I'm thinking we're going to be out of here in 10 minutes. An hour and 20 minutes later we were done because of the time it took to set up and break down props."

So while props often can add color and movement, and sometimes even can elevate a piece from pedestrian to showstopping, make sure the dancing comes first and the bells and whistles second. "I want there to be a wow factor," says Starsiak. "I want somebody to sit in the audience and be entertained and if a prop helps to do that, so much the better."

Kathleen McGuire is a dance writer in Pittsburgh, PA.
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Author:McGuire, Kathleen
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2010
Words:1012
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