Spin Away Your Self-Quarantine Blues With Flow Arts

If you haven’t heard of flow arts, you might be familiar with its showier sub-variant, firespinning. Bystanders often ask how we got into firespinning. The simple answer is that you start by spinning the objects while they’re not on fire. That’s flow arts.

liam & luis hooping

More broadly, flow arts describes a sort of blend of object manipulation and dance expression that facilitates your ability to access flow state, so named by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975. Flow is an enjoyable state of energized focus, effortless attention, and total absorption that occurs when we are in the zone, doing some internally motivating activity which we are skilled at, yet at a level which challenges us. It’s often seen in art and athleticism, and flow arts combines both.

the video that got me into poi, thanks jon

The confluence of movement, flow state, purpose, skill development, and community makes flow arts an excellent anti-depressant. Since I started practicing flow arts in 2014, it has consistently helped improve my mood, become my primary form of exercise, and become one of my two main social communities, introducing me to friends all over the world. I’ve also really enjoyed developing workshops and teaching it! There’s no magic cure for going through a really shitty time in your life, but flow arts can be incredibly helpful mentally, physically, and by bringing together a community of people who are working on themselves.

Kate did her PhD research on the positive effects of poi spinning on physical, cognitive, and emotional health.

I was actually scheduled for this week to perform my first ever flow act, but it got postponed indefinitely on account of pandemic quarantines. *tiny violin plays sadly* To cope with being robbed of that opportunity by the universe, I wrote this introductory primer to help grease your entry into flow arts.

What’s so great about flow arts?

Your goals aren’t measured in reps or numbers

(unless you’re trying to beat a juggling record)

Flow arts are a motivating exercise form for people who don’t like doing reps or going to a gym, or people who enjoy physical puzzles. In this respect, it has a lot of similarities to dance, martial arts, or parkour. It can be helpful to learn a framework, but there are infinitely many valid approaches to go about it.

I run out of attention span in 20 seconds if I’m trying to do reps of something. But when trying to figure out a weird movement idea or a new trick, it feels easy to keep working on it for 20 minutes without noticing the passage of time. Your mileage may vary, but that’s the story of how I looked in the mirror 6 months after picking up fans and realized my deltoids had accidentally gotten super ripped.

I love this session, where Willow and Justin take a relatively intro poi move called a 1.5 beat, and then proceed to figure out how to do it in every possible way.

It’s a gentle introduction to body awareness

Movement arts such as dance are great at building body awareness, but can be so freeform and expressive that it’s more intimidating to start there. Flow arts offers some easier initial structure for movement newbies because you can always pick a trick to do if you don’t feel like dancing.

Flow arts is an exceptional movement gateway for shy or traumatized people, because you can focus on the inanimate objects you’re holding, instead of the potentially scarier medium of your own body. Object manipulation is a great pathway to building up one’s body awareness and comfort and indirectly addressing physical anxiety or dysregulation.

I always got frustrated with myself when people told me to “just express your true self”, because I had never had a physical sense of true self to express when I first started. It took many years of flow practice to help me develop a sense of belonging in my own body before I sprouted the ability to dance, but it worked for me.

There’s an old joke in the flow community that we all have trauma and flow arts is our coping mechanism. While I can’t verify that this is strictly true, you would be hard pressed to find anyone embedded in the flow community who wouldn’t say that flow arts has radically improved their relationship with themselves.

For more on how body awareness facilitates one's emotional self-awareness and self-regulation, read The Body Keeps The Score (Bessel van der Kolk), a foundational overview on PTSD neuroanatomy, research, and mind-body integrative treatment approaches.Or Trauma and Expressive Arts Therapy (Cathy A. Malchiodi) for more on different expressive arts therapies.

It’s accessible

Props can be inexpensively DIYed if you don’t have the budget to spend on professionally made props. Flow arts can be practiced anywhere you have a bit of open space, like a living room, backyard, driveway, or public park. Many flow artists freely share knowledge in person or online, but please support teachers if you are able.

Because it’s so accessible, the flow arts community is not gated by factors like whether you can afford a studio membership. A lot of us get introduced to the community through beginner classes or sheer luck, but the bulk of our group practice tends to occur in public parks or other freely accessible spaces.

As a professional software engineer and former childhood math nerd geographically embedded in an inequitable tech monoculture, the socioeconomic & background diversity of the flow arts community is critically grounding for me, and it’s helped me become a lot more empathetic, civically/locally-oriented, understanding of different life paths, and aware of the impacts of flaws/obstacles in sociopolitical statistical collection methodologies than I used to be when I solely hung out with technologists and theorists (a community I love, but which would benefit from the complement of more perspectives) and thought about academic problems. Would highly recommend to other people who feel enbubbled and seek expansion.

Agency & customization

You can creatively make up your own goals as you go. While tricks are helpful to provide initial structure for beginners, you might spend different practice sessions working on your footwork and gracefulness, learning neat combos people have posted online, exploring concepts, or just dancing.

A lot of highly visible flow artists are very charismatic performers with powerful stage presence, and this can sometimes be intimidating to newbies who feel like they should strive to be that way. However, your flow journey can take many different shapes. Many people enjoy performance; some people never want to perform. Some people focus on the expressive dance aspect, others are very techy and like to make polyrhythmic multi-prop patterns, and many do both. Some people get really martial and aerobic. Some simply enjoy flow arts for themselves as a moving meditation. Some walk around balancing a ball on top of their head for the entirety of a festival. Some mostly practice alone; others are very socially active in the community. I’ve bounced between different ends of all these spectra at different times depending how I’m feeling.

Flow arts is so playful. THERE ARE NO RULES. Practice it in whatever way feels fulfilling to you.

my video scrapbook of Firedrums 2019, a.k.a. a real good time

A lot of bystanders think firespinning is the end goal, and it’s really not. While some people absolutely live for the crackling and whooshing of fire props, there are lots of people like me who actively disprefer fire because it limits our ability to experiment with weird contact moves. It’s a nice way to stay warm while hanging out at night, though.

Ok let’s do this

(Flowmies: this is a work in progress, please send me suggestions in the form of Medium private comments)

Props?

Props are the objects you manipulate. With enough skill, anything can be a prop — I’ve seen really great acts using tennis balls in their container, hats, coat racks, and plungers. (Once, I brought some baguettes over to a houseful of jugglers and of course they started balancing them on their faces.)

But, the props you’ve probably seen most often in the wild are poi, hoops, staffs (or staves if you prefer), and juggling balls/clubs.

actually not photoshopped! photo: cindy sparks

While similar physics principles of inertia and timing apply to all props, you get a pretty different subjective experience out of using different ones.

What prop should I try?

Quick answer: Poi are a solid first prop because they’re easy to DIY, they’re well codified, many people have made extremely clear video tutorials for them, and they’ll teach you body awareness and timing skills that will cross-transfer to nearly any other prop. If you’re not sure what you want, start there and they’ll enable you to branch out later.

Other considerations:

  • Insert inspiration to continue. Plenty of people don’t blast off until they see someone who moves in a really interesting way, and think “OMG I WANT TO MOVE LIKE THAT”. Look at videos until you find a movement style that inspires you. Here’s an inspiration playlist from me and some friends. You may also find Instagram practice logs you like via these tags: #flowarts, #flowmiesofearth, #stopdropandspin.
  • Do you have mobility issues? Dart and staff can involve a lot of quick lunging and turning, but poi is more forgiving on your lower body. However, poi can sometimes be shoulder-intensive. If you have shoulder mobility issues, you probably don’t want anything too heavy or swingy; hoops might be more comfortable.
  • You might find that you achieve flow state much better with a particular prop, and this can be a huge motivator. If you like asymmetric shapes, you may prefer rope dart or fans, while if you like symmetric shapes, you may prefer staff or hoop. If you enjoy feeling a lot of inertia or you come from a partner dance background, you might really enjoy dragonstaff. If you need to see results immediately to stay motivated, you might get farther starting with a single-wield prop, like staff, instead of a dual-wield prop, like poi.

Where do I get props?

General prop shops

(To avoid overwhelming newbies with too many options, I’ve only included my favorite generalist shops, and left out many excellent specialty shops and fire-centric shops that you’ll surely find your way to once you discover more specific preferences.)

Make your own props

Lots of props can be satisfactorily DIYed from household or hardware store materials. I used DIY poi and darts for many months before feeling a need to upgrade. Fans are an exception. You can get inexpensive fans from Home of Poi, though Forged Creations makes exceptionally well balanced fans.

Assorted beginner resources

Poi

  • Beginner poi series by PlayPoi. (more body-oriented approach)
  • Beginner poi series by Drex. (more pattern-oriented approach)
  • SpinPoi fundamentals series by Kate Riegle van West.
  • Poi Chi by Nicky Evers.
    (The first few videos are prop-free body alignment/awareness exercises that will help you with any flow movement. Later videos assume you are already comfortable with some poi weaves and same-time transitions.)

Juggling

Rope dart

Contact staff

Hoop

Fans

A lot of festival instructors film short recap videos after their workshops. Search “intro <prop> recap” on Youtube for more material.

(Flowmies: please ping me if you have other beginner series recommendations; I did not know what was out there when I originally started)

Practice space & setting

Find a clear space where you can freely swing your arms and props around without breaking anything. A mirror is useful. Breathe deeply. Let your shoulders relax. As you spin for the first time, you will probably tense up, which will make it harder to feel your props’ momentum as an extension of your body. Any time you feel like you’re trying too hard, breathe deeply and let your shoulders relax again.

If you’re learning poi, it can actually help sometimes to practice in a narrow hallway, because it’ll force you to control your spinning planes and keep them parallel. There’s a similar trick for juggling: you can face a wall to force yourself to throw vertically instead of forward.

Music can be helpful! Here’s a flow playlist to get you started, but play whatever helps you feel comfortable in motion.

Community

Thanks to COVID-19, we’re stuck inside for a while and can’t have our usual in-person jams. Here are some Facebook groups I know of where flow artists & jugglers get together to mash ideas and share resources and practice videos.

(Flowmies: I’m probably missing a bunch, please help me fill this list in)

Frequently asked questions

I have no sense of hand-eye coordination / I’m not in shape / I’m not a super cool badass who owns a fire katana and leather pants. Does that mean I can’t do flow arts?

Neither did anyone else before they started practicing a movement art, punko! Hand-eye coordination and badassery are developed through practice, not through being born that way. If you don’t have some other movement practice like dance or martial arts under your belt, you’ll start out just as clumsy and quickly exhausted as most of us did. Persist, and one day, you’ll unsuspectingly become a graceful and supple leopard.

What if I look silly? Should I crawl into a corner and hide forever?

We were all beginners once, many of us enjoy teaching beginners, and silliness isn’t frowned upon; guess how many flow artists are also professional clowns. You are likely the only person actively judging yourself.

If your anxiety about being watched is more crippling than other people’s non-opinions, try practicing in isolation (shouldn’t be hard during pandemic times).

be like this elephant and just have fun

When will I stop accidentally slapping myself in the face with props?

You won’t. However, it will become less frequent over time, and it’ll quickly fade from a fear into a mild routine annoyance as you attain more control and body awareness. This is why we recommend starting with soft, squishy props, like beanbags wrapped in socks, instead of trying to go straight to metal-tipped fire whips. You can even make props out of plushies!

It can feel frustrating and demotivating to slap yourself in the face with your props, drop them, or get them tangled up! THIS IS SUPER NORMAL; do not despair. We all do this constantly. If I’m not hitting myself in the face at least a few times a session, if means I’m not learning enough new things.

The solution is not to avoid practice, but again, simply to choose your inevitable face-slapping objects wisely, so that you are getting slapped with squishy, friendly objects instead of hard, pointy ones.

Do you ever accidentally hit yourself in the face with fire?

Once in a while. It’s annoying, but, if you take fire safety relatively seriously, it is not as scary as it sounds. I promise there is an explanation for this, but I’m not going to tempt you to try fire until you feel comfortable spinning things not on fire.

autotelic polymath with an overwhelming compulsion to reverse engineer things I’ve never tried before