Thursday, August 8, 2013

My Journey Through Flow Arts

Time for something a little bit different. Flowtoys has asked people to put up their "flow stories" on Facebook, and, as I really like Flowtoys, I thought I'd do so, and did. And then I thought "I should edit this a bit and put it on my blog, because I have one, and I ought to use it more." So, here it is.

Prior to high school, I had very little interest in any physical activity; I pretty much figured that as long as my body was working well enough to keep my brain alive, that was good enough. My parents, on the other hand, were determined that I ought to still get some sort of regular exercise even after I hit junior year and no longer had to take mandatory PE. No, they did not introduce me to poi- they decided I should join the internationally-acclaimed high school rowing crew. Predictably, I absolutely hated it. But, in the meantime, I had some friends who did glowstringing, and I thought that was coolest thing ever and determined to figure it out. The basic butterfly in particular totally blew my mind. I was totally uncoordinated, and I accidentally re-invented some basic meteor spinning, having never heard of it before, just as an excuse to avoid having to use my cruddy left hand (ironically, I still suck at meteor spinning). From glowstringing, via YouTube tutorials, I got into poi, and made my own set by tying shoelaces to tennis balls (flat shoelaces are still my favorite tethers). After a couple of months, I quit rowing, and I'm pretty sure my interest in this weird poi thing that at least got me out of a chair was a significant factor in my parents letting me do it.

Then I graduated and went off to college. Prior to this point, I was certain that I hated dancing- I went to exactly two dances in high school (Junior and Senior Prom) and spun glowsticks. College gave me a lot more opportunity for dances (residence hall dances, student association dances, etc.), and, figuring that I ought to have some way of figuring out how to engage in socialization, I made myself go to them and got through it with glowsticks. Eventually, it clicked that poi is dance- just using your arms more than your feet. Prior to that moment, I had been almost entirely focused on technical spinning. Afterwards, I found myself opened up to exploring a whole new world of body movement, and started playing with freehand light tracing to try to force myself to develop some "danciness" independent of the motion of the poi.

Looking for good tutorials on YouTube had led me to Nick Woolsey's videos and Playpoi. During my second semester at college, Playpoi started putting out videos on double staff, and I decided I had to figure out staffs as well. So, the next summer, I got myself some dowel rods from Home Depot and started playing. From the start, I was fascinated by the connections between staff and poi patterns, analysing which patterns would transfer between the two forms, which couldn't, and why. I still frequently get a lot of my new performance ideas by learning a new trick with poi and then thinking "what's the closest I can come to replicating this with a staff?" or vice-versa.

Then I took two years off from life to serve on a mission for the LDS Church in Ukraine. In what little free time a missionary has, I practiced poi with shoelaces tied to tennis balls, and staffs with broom handles, spare PVC pipe, or whatever was at hand. During that time, my mom shipped me my first set of two flowlights- so much better than chemical glowsticks! Having no access to videos or other spinners for two years, I credit that period with helping me develop my own sense of style as a simple unavoidable necessity.

When I got back and started college again in 2010, I was totally hooked on flowlights. I got myself oggpoi, crystal cases (still using shoelace tethers!), and collapsable staffs and went to town out on the lawns in my apartment complex nearly every night. When I met new people around campus or new people moved in to my complex between semesters, it became not uncommon to be greeted with "hey! you're that guy with the lights!" Based on my glowsticking roots, I took to using double-ended crystal poi, mixing in techniques from handle spinning and meteor hammer; I've seen lots of people do tosses with poi, and even use weighted handles, but nobody outside of the glowstringing community play with two equally weight ends. One more thing to add to my personal style.

I heard rumors that there was another poi spinner in the campus juggling club, and I should go hang out with them, and I thought maybe that would give me the chance to finally try out some partner poi stuff- sadly, no luck. Poi is unloved in the juggling club. But, I did get a ready-made group of friends who like to do all kinds of other prop-manipulation arts, and started doing performances for libraries, school groups, the homecoming parade.... Then in the spring of 2011, I found myself sitting next to a chocolate fountain at a dance and simultaneously next to a girl who I was certain was merely waiting for her date to get back from the buffet table. Turns out, she was single, also drawn to chocolate fountains, and wondered if I could show her how to spin lights, 'cause those looked just so awesome! By this point, lots of people had asked to borrow my lights for a few minutes, or wondered if I could teach them, or told me how they wished they could do that, but no one ever followed through for more than 5 minutes. This particular girl, on the other hand, to my shock and amazement, asked me to dance, got my phone number, and set up regular weekly poi spinning lessons. Needless to say, we became friends, and I finally got my partner-poi-partner.

When summer break came, we talked on the phone just about every other day, but somehow I did not quite get the hint. During the next fall semester, though, she finally managed to convince me that I really wanted to marry her. Seven excruciatingly long months later, we got married just in time to shoot our first video for Circles of Light. In the meantime, I had tried introducing her to staffs, but it just didn't stick like poi spinning did. That is, until we both realized that, while I had always been into double staff (because two sticks are more fun than one), she loved single staff. Thus, I had to learn single staff. And of course, we had to figure out how to do it as partners. Sadly, my new mother-in-law was of the opinion that this whole poi spinning thing was extremely weird, and what is this crazy guy getting my baby girl into....
Until November, when we found out that, no, we did not win, but we did get on the 2012 COL DVD! External validation from an international competition went a long way towards improving my mother-in-law's opinions.

That fall, some new people had joined the juggling club- one wanting to learn contact juggling, and one wanting to sell some contact juggling balls. Thus we gained our third flow art. I'm still not very good at it yet (being distracted by the events of the following paragraph), but contact juggling adds a whole new dimension to the experience of flow arts- it's flow, but not as we know it, Jim.

Then it was time to start planning for the next year's video. I initially wanted to merge partner poi with passing patterns from toss juggling- but our toss-juggling-fu was not that good. Some day I'm sure it will make for some awesome performances, but after realizing we weren't going to make that work, we fell back to the idea of doing partner staff. Having no YouTube videos to look at for inspiration, we invented our own patterns for two staffs and two people- a mix of single and double staff techniques and interconnected patterns that are impossible with only two hands. In a fit of choreographic panic, we both somehow managed to go from sort of casually playing around to actually being competent with a single staff just in time to get a video in the mail.

A few weeks later (and just a few weeks ago, by now), we went to a big week-long family reunion in Island Park, Idaho. One of my brothers, who has three kids, lives just a couple miles away from me, and my wife & I have often ended up babysitting for him. Whenever we go, we've taken to taking our big bag of toys along. As a result, one of my nephews has taken an interest in contact juggling, both think staff spinning is pretty cool (one of them is in karate, and does a totally different kind of staff work), and my two year old niece has oodles of fun throwing juggling balls. Knowing there would be lots of kids, we of course took the big bag of toys to the family reunion as well. There we discovered that one of my other nieces seems to have a natural talent for contact juggling. One night, we did our video performance with glow staffs for the whole family, and afterwards took apart all of our equipment and let all of our (numerous!) nieces and nephews run around the yard with flowlights and oggs. They were a pretty big hit! In addition to the personal pleasure that comes from playing with flowtoys, it's enormously gratifying to see little kids get so much joy from play with some bright glowing lights and pretending they're lightsabers or fairy dust or whatever.

I have high hopes that we are inspiring another generation of flow artists.

Now, that's the end of my flow art journey (until I go and learn how to do more cool stuff), but I ought to add another little anecdote. Flowtoys has a really fantastic warranty policy, so when one of our spectrum lights started acting funky, I naturally wanted to get it replaced. However, it is nearly time for my wife's birthday, and I also wanted to buy her some new toys. It would be nice if I could the warranty items and the new order all packaged together so I could save a few bucks on shipping... but, oh darn, I waited too long to send stuff in, and there's no way the warranty items are gonna ship soon enough for everything to get to me on time....

Enter Flowtoys' exceptional customer service. Not only did they decide to process and ship out my order in 1 day rather than the expected "up to three" to make sure my wife got her birthday presents on time, they went out of their way to bundle in my warranty items even though my returns hadn't arrived yet. Not only do they make the best equipment you can get, they're really nice people.

Also, Home of Poi: they're based in New Zealand (the actual home of poi), so shipping can be a bit steep, but if Flowtoys doesn't sell it, HOP probably does. I haven't had any personal interaction with HOP employees to evaluate them on, but I do really like their stuff.