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From canes and hats to elaborate set pieces and, yes, rose petals, props have become a staple on the competitive dance stage. But how do judges feel about props and what are they looking for when it comes to effective prop integration? This week, Courtney and Lesley sat down with IDA judges Erin Demers and Robb Gibbs to get the scoop on all things props.
As Lesley explains, judges usually consider props to be anything besides the dancers’ bodies, costumes and shoes on stage. While judges agree that props are definitely not necessary to win, learning to dance with certain types of props is extremely useful to dancers, especially if they plan to pursue a professional career. If, for example, dancers are interested in pursuing musical theater, they will almost definitely have to dance with a hat or cane at some point. Robb notes that beyond learning to master the props, dancers can also learn how to deal with prop snafus on stage. If a dancer loses a hat in a professional production, it’s all about who can grab the hat first and get it out of the way. Unfortunately, competitive dance training tends to emphasize ignoring a rogue hat or earring which ends up distracting the judges (and probably the audience!) as we tend to worry about dancer safety instead of the beautiful dancing that’s happening.
On the topic of major distractions, the judges discussed their pet peeves when it comes to props. First and foremost, it’s critical that the dancers actually use the prop, especially if there was a lengthy setup. Again referencing the professional world, competitive dancers should note that professional dancers almost always set up their own props. There are no prop dads, no dance teachers, and no students from other class levels setting up throughout the show. Because of this mode of working on professional stages, judges are sometimes irritated by people outside of the dance setting up the props. It’s especially perplexing when an outsider sets up the prop, rearranges it for a solid minute, and then the dancers come on stage and readjust the placement. Erin suggests having the dancers bring their own props on stage, noting that if the competition has a convention attached, it’s often impossible to coordinate anyone outside of the cast to transport the prop anyway.
Another pet peeve across the board is lengthy setups. If power tools are required for construction, perhaps the prop isn’t necessary for competition. Once the prop is set up, though, it’s imperative that dancers, prop parents, and teachers respect the space. Props should not be dragged across the stage as this can cause damage to the marley floor. Not only is this unfair to the competition who might only own only one marley floor, but it’s also incredibly disrespectful to all dancers in attendance at the competition who might not have a clean, safe, flat floor to dance on due to destruction caused by a prop.
Similarly, dancers need to clean up after themselves following their performances. We’ve all seen the rose petals on stage and while the judges agree that in the moment of tossing the petals, the visual is beautiful, the petals then create a hazard on the floor and a major mess that needs to be cleaned up. The judges advise that you have a solid cleanup plan for the end of the dance to avoid wasting time or posing risk to the dancers who take the stage next.
Returning to the major distractions of small props, sometimes larger furniture pieces can also pose issues. For instance, if dancers are moving a bench around the stage and don’t place it perfectly, the judges become fixated on the precariously perched bench and the safety of the dancer on it. The remedy? Rehearse in the studio with the props and don’t mark the transitions or allow people outside of the cast to handle the moving during rehearsal!
Other pet peeves include prop dads taking a moment to perform after their setup, and the use of signs to spell out a word or concept. If you think you need the sign, maybe consider how the movement vocabulary can do the job instead. Lastly, be sensitive about the appropriateness of props. It’s important that we don’t appropriate other people’s lived experiences in ways that could be offensive. You never know what someone in the audience--or behind the judges’ table--is experiencing in their personal life.
Despite the pet peeves, judges definitely don’t hate props! Props just need to be used well and the dance needs to be clean. So who should or shouldn’t use a prop? First, as a choreographer, notice if you’re using the prop to mask a lack of technique. If you are, you might want to ditch the prop. Unfortunately, this strategy often backfires because the prop is actually adding a layer of challenge to the dance. Beyond maybe not having stellar technique, a beginner dancer with a prop probably isn’t capable of attending to the necessary details of their prop usage, especially in a group. Save the props for your advanced dancers and consider how you can enhance their education by incorporating different types of props.
Tune in to the full episode to hear more tips and tricks for effective prop usage and other stories from behind the table!