How to Build a Show

by | The Art of Performing

 

Hey everyone, Elliot here.

Most of my life I’ve been a performer, and whether it involves performing magic on the street, acrobatics on a renaissance faire stage, or juggling in a living room (sorry mom!) I would like to think I have learned a couple of things about how to perform.

Better yet, I’m going to try to share as much of it with all of you as I can, all the while showing how everything I say has immediate applications.

Want to know how to build a pole dance show? Good.

Let’s get started!

 

What is a Show?

This is one of the easiest things to ask and the hardest to answer.

Here is the technical definition:

That definition both answers the question and tell you nothing, so let’s get a little more specific.

If you were to ask ME what a show is, I would reply: “Three tricks.” That’s all, just three tricks. People overthink shows and it hurts all of Performance. The internet is a beautiful and terrible thing. Thanks to the internet we can watch and foster some of the best performing minds in all of human history, yet at the same time, stifle others.

I don’t care how good David Copperfield is, I want to watch your three tricks.

Let’s break it down:

Every show has a beginning, a middle, and then an end.

If you can identify one trick you want to do in each of those sections then you will be able to formulate and structure everything else. It changes the task from “What is my show going to be?” into three more bite-sized questions:

 

Your Three Tricks Structure Your Show

“What trick do I want to start with?”
This is usually something that establishes ‘cred’ with the audience.

“What trick do I want to end on?”
This is your literal show stopper. It should be the trick that leaves everyone with jaws on the floor and wanting more.

“How do I get from the beginning to the fantastic ending?”
This last question is, unfortunately, the meat and bones of building a show.

 

 

 

Let’s use my own street magic show as an example. This is a very real show that I used to support myself for half a decade, so I know it works.

I only have three tricks:

  1. A coin routine
  2. A card routine
  3. A cups and balls routine (look it up!)

Nothing more.

Now, that sounds simple, but there was a lot of thought and strategy that went into it – and that’s what you’re about to learn.

 

First, it’s important to understand that there is such a thing called “Prop Fatigue.”

Unsurprisingly, people grow weary of watching you perform tricks using the same prop over and over. It doesn’t matter if you are the greatest performer alive, there has to be something uniquely different from one section to the next.

This isn’t to say that you can’t build an entire show with card magic, it is only to say that each trick you do must offer something so unique as to be different from the trick preceding it.

Don’t worry, I go into more detail on prop fatigue later on.

 

The second thing we have to think about is the pacing of the performance. Every time you go bigger you have set the bar that much higher. You are not allowed to move back down to something less impressive.

Think about that for a moment:

 

How would you react if you see a magician perform his greatest, most amazing trick first, then move into smaller, not as impressive tricks?

Do you think you would stop and stay for smaller things, or would you just be waiting to get another awe-inspiring moment of equal grandeur as you first saw?

 

Why would your audience act differently?

It’s worth it to stop and think about this a bit further. I have an exercise for you:

 

 

 

Grab a notebook.

I’m serious, go find a napkin if needed, but this is an important exercise. What we do here we will build off of in the rest of the article.

…have it?

Great!

 

For the next five minutes, write down what you feel are your most impressive tricks. Once you have a solid number, put the notebook aside for later (I promise we will come back to it.)

The third and final thing I want to bring up before we move on: I lied about the second thing.

You can slow the pace of the performance, and most times you should.

 

Let me explain…

(Grab your spelunking gear, we’re about to jump down a rabbit hole!)

 

How a Good Show is Paced

The perfect show would start off with a bang: a series of moves that show your skill and builds an amount of authority that you will be able to perpetuate for the rest of the show.

Honestly, your beginning trick should be your second best. You still have some in reserve for the explosive finale, but you have to get there.

Let’s state this in a stronger way:

If I were to number the three different parts of the show based on how important they are it would look like this:

2 – 3 – 1

 

As you can see, the middle should be the LEAST impressive part!

Now, I don’t want to say that it should be terrible; it really shouldn’t be.

 

If a show were a meal, I would say the second trick you perform would be closer to the rice in a good risotto. The rice doesn’t really make the dish, but it has the important responsibility of being the medium through which the flavors combine.

A risotto dish without rice wouldn’t be a dish at all. I’m sure the sauce would taste fantastic, but it would leave you wanting more. You would be hungry because the dish would have no substance.

Likewise, the beginning part of your performance should set the tone of the entire show, which is why starting strong is so important.

 

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“Man, I really loved the middle of the show the best! The ending was weak, the beginning was contrived but boy was that middle section really something!”

-Nobody Ever

 

In my street magic show, I specifically chose coin magic. Not only is it close and personal, allowing me to engage with the smaller crowd, but it is visually appealing.

Coin magic and pole dancing are both bubble gum for the eyes. We should capitalize on that.

 

After my coin routine, I jump to cards. They are larger, and my – hopefully larger – crowd needs to see something bigger. Additionally, the trick is a bit slower and more cerebral.

 

With cards, I’m allowed to showcase things I wouldn’t be able to otherwise. It isn’t visually impressive like coin magic is, and it’s not a great show stopper like Cups and Balls are. (Seriously… look it up!)

 

Therefore, Card magic is a solid middle show trick.

Now let’s go a bit deeper.

 

Trick-Ception: How a Good Trick is Paced

 

Since this section begins our decline into the world of increasingly technical thinking, before we continue, I first need to clarify some of my language:

 

Now we can start talking about Tricks and their internal pacing.

Each trick has a beginning, middle, and end, and should be structured using the 2 – 3 – 1 paradigm we just talked about.

To make this easier to visualize I like to think about the show as a large over-arching story. Then I think about the tricks as complete chapters, each with their own self-contained, smaller, story.

 

 

In my magic show, I want to draw the audience in, make them relax, and then give them a moment of utter astonishment at the end. I want to tell the audience a good story with its own story arc.

I think Jim Butcher, the author of the Dresden Files, explains it best (watch until 2:20.)

 

Still with me?

Good.

 

Now, let’s go through the steps of building a show one last time before we put together our actual routine.

 

This part always reminds me of the joke I told as a kid:

How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time.

 

So, we have talked about the pacing of the whole show, and how the pacing of each trick mirrors the same 2 – 3 – 1 structure of the show. This gives us an excellent method of outlining our show and creating a blueprint.

 

 

We look at the first trick and break it into three parts. We take the middle and break it into three parts, and then we look at the end and break it into three parts.

 

Sounds easy right? Well, it kind of is… but this is only the start.

Now that we have the basic framework of the show and we know how the ebb and flow of the show will go, it’s time to start figuring out what to fill the show with.

 

Before we do that, however, we have to figure out what our performing style is. We’ll come back to this exercise later.

 

What is a “Performing Style”?

 

“What’s my style of XXXXX?” is a famously popular and difficult-to-answer question. It is true that no one can answer it but you.

That said, we can lay out a basic spectrum of performance styles. There aren’t many colloquial words used to describe it, so please forgive the ones I choose.

 

 

The above graph is just a visual way of showing the different axis present in a performing style.

I have spoken to and interviewed hundreds of performers, great and well-known and… not.

Every single person falls somewhere on this graph.

Let’s break it down:

 

Interactive VS. Showing-Off

 

 

We’re starting with the most controversial axis first, but what I feel is the most important one. Let’s define the terms:

 

Interactive – Your shows focus on acting and reacting with the audience. You want to empathize and provoke reactions through – wait for it – interaction.

 

The best example of an interactive show would be that of a stand-up comedian. They are there to make you laugh, and they do so entirely through the medium of an ongoing conversation with the audience.

Interactive shows are great because you can react to the mood of the audience. It allows the performer the most freedom and makes it very easy for the audience to emotionally invest in you.

A great example:

 

Showing off – Your show focuses on the presentation of something: a skill, a play, a song.

The best examples of a show based on people showing off would be those of musical bands, dancers, and, well, this:

 

 

As a side note, most of you have already seen Michael Moschen before. He played the Goblin King’s arms in the movie Labyrinth. He was the contact juggler.

 

Performances based around showing off are great because you get to focus on the purity of the art, a good performance, and gosh darn it, people like watching who are good at something do the thing they are good at.

This is much of what we think about when we are talking about pole dancing. We are looking at the beauty, strength, and grace, rather than focusing on jokes and interaction.

That said, while on Instagram, I have seen that the people with the largest following are the people who are huge into interaction!

 

In the magic community, this is such an important and well-known principle that we actually have a term for a person who focuses on Trick and Sleight perfection: They are a “Mechanic.”

 

 

Coincidence? I think not!

 

I have a couple more examples that I feel I need to share because this is such an important point, and so easy to mistake (and because I have a lot of good examples and performers to show! ^_^ )

 

High Interaction:

 

Showing Off:

 

I know, I know. None of these involve pole dancers.

This is intentional so we can focus more on the concept rather than specific moves.

 

High Energy vs. Low Energy

 

 

This is much much easier to explain and point out the difference between performers.

High Energy:

 

 

Low Energy:

 

 

There really isn’t much to say about this: High energy is high energy, while low energy is low energy.

 

A high energy dance would involve a lot of fast, powerful movements.

A low energy dance would involve slower, possibly stronger or more graceful movements.

 

So, which is better?

 

That is like asking a professional gymnast which is more important, Strength or Flexibility? The answer is always both.

See, this is the issue when it comes to over-thinking what your personal style is: it really doesn’t matter.

 

Both David Copperfield and Penn & Teller are terrific magic acts, but the magic is only the medium. They can each do the same exact trick in two different ways and you would come away with two very different impressions.

In truth, you really must own it, whatever it is.

 

How do We Find YOUR Performance Style?

 

This is one of my favorite things to talk about!

“What’s my style?” is question repeated the world over by every person who wants to perform anything whether they be magicians, jugglers, actors, or dentists.

 

Okay, maybe not dentists, but the point stands.

It is also, unfortunately, disappointingly easy to answer: You already know your performance style. You have it hard-wired in you. We just covered a basic spectrum to give you the words to fuel it.

 

Don’t believe me? Great!

Remember that 5-minute notebook exercise where we wrote down a list of your best moves? This is where we go back to it.

 

On a new page, write down the moves you do the most, enjoy the most, and have the most fun learning, one per line.

I believe in your ability to pull out a good solid ten and possibly even twenty. There are no right or wrong answers, but we do need some answers.

 

Now I want you to organize and categorize the moves:

 

l
  • Flexibility Emphasis – Showcases the quality of bending easily without breaking or straining.
  • Strength Emphasis – Showcases the quality or state of being strong.
  • Pose – A particular way of standing or sitting, usually adopted to be photographed or for dramatic effect.
  • Flow – The action of moving along or transitioning from each move in a steady, continuous stream.
  • Graceful – Simple elegance and the refinement of movement.
  • Explosive – Moving from the eccentric to the concentric phase of a movement rapidly while using proper biomechanics. An example of this is Handspring.
  • Floorwork – Movements performed on the floor.
  • Polework – Movements performed on pole, subdivided into:
    • Inverted
    • Upright
    • Low Flow
    • High Flow
  • Rhythmic – Moving relative to the rhythm of the story or music.
  • Not Rhythmic – Moving outside of the rhythm of the story or music, typically to add dramatic effect and variety.
  • Technically Complex – Demonstrating special skill or practical knowledge, typically of an advanced level.

 

I could keep thinking up categories, but in this case, it really doesn’t matter what I think, but what YOU think.

Almost every move you wrote down will fall into multiple categories. That is expected and desired.

 

I’ll give you a couple of moments to finish labeling these out.

 

Draw a box like this:

 

 

Put your labels in the top row. Now, add up the number of times each of these categories shows up in your list of favorite moves.

 

 

What categories show up the most? The least?

Place it somewhere on the performance spectrum and congratulations, you have found your performance style!

 

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“If you only focus on your strengths, then at best you will be average.”

– one of my performing mentors

 

There are things that you can do that no one else can. To ignore that is to do yourself a disservice!

 

Prop Fatigue

 

 “Don’t worry, I go into more detail on prop fatigue later on.”

Remember when I said this back at the beginning of the article? Ha, yeah. Good times, good times.

 

Prop fatigue happens when you do tricks with the same props as before. The next trick may be even MORE impressive than the last, but our brains have acclimatized to what we are seeing, and our attention begins to drift.

In my juggling show you will see the following pattern built specifically to avoid prop fatigue:

2. Juggling Clubs
3. Juggling Balls
1. Juggling Flaming Torches or Knives

 

So how does this correlate with pole dancing and how can you avoid prop fatigue when the only prop you have is yourself?

Well… would you believe me if I said that you actually do have props that you get to play with?

 

Pole dancing is an extremely dynamic sport with many different props that you can take advantage of. Some seem obvious:

  • The pole (surprise!)
  • The floor (also surprise!!)

 

Here are some less obvious ones:

  • Energy
  • Everything else is a derivative of energy

The one I really want to emphasize was the one I mentioned last: Energy.

 

Dance in general – and pole in particular – has the unique ability to use energy to change what your audience is watching.

Your audience’s attention is going to wander if your show has only one speed.

 

 

Think of it this way: If you only go High Energy, not only is your body going to need a break, but your audience will too.

 

So how can you use this to your advantage? Great question!

In the previous example of my juggling show, I mentioned performing with clubs – balls – torches. That is 3 different props.

…but they are also three different styles of energy!

 

Following the 2 – 3 – 1 way of thinking my energy shifts along with how I want my audience to react.

Juggling clubs are flashy and exciting, balls are technical and more cerebral, flaming torches of doom are just plain awesome.

 

Why not use the same mentality for your show?

Fast flowy twirls in the beginning, slower strength and flexibility holds in the middle, and then finish with your best flashy and technical tricks.

 

That sounds like a pretty great show to me. Now, it might not match your own individual performance style or character, of course, which is why we went through the performance style exercise.

 

Phew! We’ve come a long way!

So, what comes next?

 

Putting It All Together

 

I’ll admit it, I’ve been looking forward to this part of the article before I ever put pen to paper!

Now that I have outlined the process I follow, I’m going to go through the process myself and create a pole dance routine to show how it all comes together. Creating shows and being creative is one of my favorite things to do!

 

Tangential diatribe: In life, whenever we approach a project we tend to fall on (yet another) spectrum, that of architects and gardeners.

 

Architects are people who tend to build a structure for something before they start. If you prefer to create an outline for an essay and fill it out with details, then you might be an architect! Our resident pole maniac, Destynnie, fills an outline with so many details that in the end, she has an essay.

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“Let’s have a plan before we move forward so we don’t make mistakes.”

-My Friend James, A Notable Architect

 

 

Gardeners are people who tend to start moving forward and seeing what grows from that. If you like starting stories by pulling out a piece of paper and making sure your pen keeps on moving without much forethought, then you might be a fellow gardener in arms with me!

 

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“Moving forward and making mistakes IS part of the plan!”

– Elliot the care-free Gardener

 

 

Of course, we all fall somewhere on this spectrum; there are few absolutes!

Why did I bring this up?

I wanted to explain that the way I’m going to follow the steps I outlined above does not, and probably shouldn’t be, the same way that you do it.

I’m going to hit every part, but true to my gardener nature, I tend to be slap-dash.

 

Full Exercise List:

  1. Write Down a List of Your Favorite Moves
  2. Determine What Move Categories They Belong in and Find Your Performing Style
  3. Set Your “Stage” (Choosing Your Song)
  4. Figure Out Your Three Tricks (in order of 2 – 3 – 1)
  5. Listen to Your Song – Figure Out Where Your Transitions Will Be from One Trick to the Next
  6. Draw the Arcs (Chapters) Within Each Trick
  7. What Trick Will You End a Trick With?
  8. What Trick Will You Begin a Trick With?
  9. Filling It Out

 

1. Write Down a List of Your Favorite Moves

 

Unfortunately, I’m not a very proficient pole dancer, so I found this step to be difficult for me due to my limited move set.

  1. The hokey-pokey
  2. Excellent Butt wiggles
  3. Step around spin
  4. Dip Spin
  5. Fireman spin
  6. Chair spin
  7. Boomerang spin
  8. A very poor apprentice
  9. Back hook spin
  10. Spin kick to the face
  11. Basic Climb
  12. A very cautious Lady Sit
  13. Remi Sit
  14. No floorwork to speak of
  15. What is a transition? Isn’t that part of a car?
  16. Long walks on the beach

 

2. Determine What Move Categories They Belong in and Find Your Performing Style

 

When I did the above exercise, I found out that I’m a technical, dynamic guy who loves spins and dancing. I’m also high energy and hate going slow! The more momentum I have and the better I control it, the happier I am.

 

That is, however, an unfortunately small number of moves. With a list so small I don’t think that I would be able to fill up a full dance routine the way it is classically done.

…but that’s okay because I don’t need to do things the classical way. I just need to build a show!

 

3. Set Your “Stage” (Choosing Your Song)

 

Now, choosing your own song warrants an entire article itself, but we’ll try to be brief here:

The pace of your song should vary – ups and downs keep the attention of your audience, and it helps guide the pace of your performance.

 

Likewise, your song should be easy for you to dance to. You shouldn’t find it hard to dance at your own natural pace. The song should complement your performance style.

 

By doing the exercise above, did you find your performance style?

If so, great!

Pick a song that you believe will let that style shine in the spotlight.

 

Beyond your style, however, there are other considerations you should make with your song:

  1. Do you want people to focus on the lyrics of a song? If so, does it tell a story?
  2. Is the overall pace of the song slow or fast?
  3. What personal meaning or emotion do you want to convey in the song?

 

By asking yourself all these questions, chances are, you have a few songs in mind already. If not, that’s OK – now you can listen away with a standard in mind.

 

4. Figure Out Your Three Tricks (in order of 2 – 3 – 1)

 

 

Remember how earlier we defined a “trick” as the three main elements of your show, or a sequence of moves?

For this section, I’m going to use the PSO competition to help define what three tricks I’m going to do.

 

According to the rules, I need to use both the static and spin poles, but what ratio is needed is left up to me!

This is the layout I have to work with.

Fortunately, the work has been done for me:

 

 

There are already three very accessible things I can use for the three props in my show!

Static Pole > Floorwork > Spin Pole

This is fantastic!

 

Now, it’s up to you whether you start with static and end with spin pole, or vice versa.

Just remember the 2 – 3 – 1 formula; whatever pole your best tricks are on is the one you should end on.

 

5. Listen to Your Song – Figure Out Where Your Transitions Will Be from One Trick to the Next

Now, the flow and energy of your song should move up and down to keep the attention of the audience. It should also allow you to easily transition between props.

Does the music stop, leaving the audience anticipating a powerful moment to start back up at the end of your spin pole section?

Well, that sounds like a perfect time to transition to the floor or and showcase something stunning on the floor.

If the music is lilting and energetic, with a slight pause between your starting position and your first trick, perhaps that’s the best place to transition to your first trick.

Mapping out your routine like this is all work you can do on the pole, on a notebook, or in your mind – preferably all three places!

 

6. Draw the Arcs (Chapters) Within Each Trick

Ready for another exercise? I hope so!

Remember earlier, when we were talking about pacing each trick?

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Each trick has a beginning, middle, and end, and should be structured using the 2 – 3 – 1 paradigm we just talked about.

To make this easier to visualize I like to think about the show as a large over-arching story. Then I think about the tricks as complete chapters, each with their own self-contained, smaller, story.

Trick-ception: Pacing a Good Trick

 

 

Take out a notebook or piece of paper. Preferably, if you’re using a notebook, use the same one you did the performance style exercise on.

You might recognize this exercise from earlier – if you do, fantastic! Now that you know your song, you’ll keep that in mind, or even listen to it, while you map out your show.

Draw out a line to represent the timeline of your song. If you’re using ruled paper, you can do this sideways. Make a line up representing the end of your song and the beginning of your song.

Now, make a line to represent a transition to your next trick – feel free to label these tricks if you know what order you’d like to do.

 

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We look at the first trick and break it into three parts. We take the middle and break it into three parts, and then we look at the end and break it into three parts.

– Trick-ception: Pacing a Good Trick

 

 

Now we dive into the second level of mapping out our show.

 

 

Each trick should have three sections: 2 – 3 – 1. Your second best, your middle part, and your absolute best moves.

 

7. What Trick Will You End a Trick With?

 

Now, which move do we want to end our trick or chapter with? Remember, this should be your absolute best of the best (for that chapter!)

When you get to your last chapter, remember that move will typically coincide with the end of your song, so it should be punchy, powerful, and take the audience’s breath away! The best of your best.

You can write this directly onto your notebook or record yourself doing it.

 

8. What Trick Will You Begin a Trick With?

Which move do you want to begin a trick with? Remember, each chapter follows the 2 – 3 – 1 pattern, so your beginning trick for the last chapter should be your best second-best trick.

It can get a little confusing when reading, which is why we’re using a notebook here.

Again, you can write this directly onto your notebook or record yourself doing it. However you will best remember the routine.

 

9. Filling It Out

Now comes the challenging part that you’ll probably revise a dozen times before you settle on something: filling it out.

It all starts with one question:

How do you get from point A to B?

Well, how do you need to get into your last trick? Great, how do you get there?

How do you need to get out of your first trick? Fantastic, where do you go from there?

Repeat this process until you’ve filled in the time necessary for that trick.

 

And Now…You Have A Show

 

Congratulations!

Now you have a roadmap to a complete performance.

By going through the exercises, you have created your very own show.

 

Of course, everyone may do these exercises a little differently. Maybe you don’t need to map out your routine, and you’re a gardener who can freestyle their way from pole to pole and come up with a cohesive show.

I hope, however, that the theory in this article alone has changed how you think about performing.

Perhaps, with any luck, it has made the whole idea seem much more achievable.

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