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Prop Potential: The Do's & Don'ts for the Competition Stage!

Photo: Diva Dance Competition

Props and set pieces are always a hot topic in the competitive dance world. As judges, we’ve seen it all - from the quintessential hat and cane, to the sometimes time-consuming and messy water and rose petals, IDA judges agree, set pieces and props can dramatically enhance a routine, aiding the dancers in storytelling and creating a meaningful and impressive picture. But props, when used poorly, can also detract from the piece and possibly affect the score it receives. Impact Dance Adjudicators judges Mark and Jacqueline give you the skinny on props and set pieces this week on the blog!

Judging across the country, IDA judges see a lot of creative and original ideas when it comes to props. When asked about their favorite and most memorable use of a prop, Jacqueline mentioned a routine with a large picture frame. “It was probably about 10'x 6'. It was huge. The dancers moved it around so effortlessly that it felt as if it was moving itself. It helped tell the story in such a poignant way.” A routine that Mark judged went a little more high-tech with its prop usage: “I recently critiqued an engaging “Willy Wonka” production number where a dancer playing Mike Teavee was thrust behind a set piece and simultaneously, another dancer pulled out from the set an iPad playing a small video of [the same] dancer, now shrunken. The choreography on the iPad directly matched the choreography on stage. It was hysterical, simple in the logistics, not distracting, and a fun audience pleaser.” Creativity and originality will definitely score points with these IDA judges!

When using props in a routine, Jacqueline prefers that they “ so seamlessly integrated in a routine, they should almost feel like an extension of the dancer's body.” The best way to incorporate a prop is to rehearse with it constantly. Jacqueline remarks, “I see dancers shake their hands in the air instead of grabbing their skirt and shaking it because in rehearsal they probably didn't [use] the skirts, so ‘marking’ that movement became a habit!” Props that haven’t been rehearsed with often enough can also be dangerous to the dancers. Mark cautions against using props that are “too large to manage or attached to a costume in a way that prohibits the dancers from effectively executing technique.” To that end, choreographers should always remain flexible with their vision, especially when using props.

“Judges can easily spot when a dancer is uncomfortable with any [...] prop elements that are out of their current skill set or ability! Your job is always to make the dancers look THEIR best!”

says Mark. Always make sure safety is a priority when working with props and sets as well - rolling props/sets should have brakes, and any set pieces that are climbed upon should be securely weighted down with sandbags or other heavy material.

In the professional dance world, performers have to be ready for anything that might be thrown their way. Jacqueline remembers one instance where her dancers had to think on their feet: “I once choreographed an opening number for the Rachael Ray Show and at the last minute, the director decided that the dancers should all be holding an item from the Rachael Ray line of cookware and kitchen tools. So right before the taping, in one rehearsal, each dancer was given a pot, a bowl, a turkey baster, etc...and had one shot to rehearse the choreography with their prop before taping. Of course, they handled it like the pros that they are.” A fun exercise mid-season might be to give your team random props from the studio to improvise with, challenging the dancers to be creative and work together to create something new!

As with anything else, Mark and Jacqueline have pet peeves when it comes to props and set pieces in competitive routines. Jacqueline suggests that choreographers

“give the dancers a plan as to what to do if a fan doesn't open or a cane gets dropped etc, so that when those things do happen, the dancer knows what to do to cover it up or make it less noticeable, or whenever possible, integrate that mistake into the routine.”

The beauty of live entertainment is that anything can happen, so having a game plan for every possible “uh-oh” scenario can ease any anxiety about prop malfunctions. “A personal pet peeve of mine is when a prop is used during an entrance and exit only and forgotten about throughout a routine,” says Mark. “Often a rose or a photograph, for example, can be great simple storytelling aids, but if not used and just left on stage, [they are] distracting and a disservice to a piece.” Similarly, regarding set pieces, Mark cautions teachers and choreographers, “Tread carefully, sometimes a set piece can actually lead to a decrease in scoring if it is distracting, not only to us as an audience, but more importantly, to the dancers on stage! Time management with set up is also a factor that could negatively influence scoring. If your set piece is taking [...] 10 minutes to set up on stage, and the delay-of-game payoff is not there in the end, chances are you will see a decrease in scoring.” Being a musical theatre guy at heart, Mark says, “Bring on the set pieces, but they better tell a story and accentuate the choreography and aesthetic of the overall [routine]!”

Using props and sets can be beneficial to competitive dancers, not only to set them up for future success in the professional world, but to enhance the visual aspect of the concept. Finding unique and interesting ways to use props can be a challenge, but it will pay off when done well!


*Photo provided by Diva Dance Competition

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