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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Most props can be inexpensively DIYed from common hardware store scraps 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 financially 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 fancy studio membership or fancy equipment. 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 person with a formal academic background, geographically embedded in a horrifically inequitable tech monoculture, the socioeconomic & background diversity of the flow arts community is critically grounding for me. It’s helped me become way 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 only knew technologists and theorists who had never had to work a non-desk job before. As much as I love the math community, it would really benefit from more perspectives; I highly recommend movement arts to anyone else who feels enbubbled and seeks 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, by virtue of honing their performance skills, are unbelievably charismatic performers with powerful stage presence and amazingly well put together outfits, and this can often feel be intimidating to newbies who feel like they should strive to be that way. However, your flow journey can take many different shapes. I’ve been flowing for nearly a decade and I almost never film myself (oops). You don’t have to be a performer to be a flow artist, you can just goof around in the park in your pajamas like me!
Many flow artists enjoy performance; some flow artists never want to perform. Some 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.
A lot of bystanders think firespinning is the end goal, and it’s really not mandatory. While some people absolutely live for the crackling and whooshing of fire props, there are lots of people like me who actively prefer our props to NOT be on fire because it limits our ability to experiment with prop-on-body contact. I admit that fire is 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 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.
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 great first prop because they’re easy to DIY out of socks and beans, they have the best codified terminology and largest body of extremely well made online video tutorials for beginners, 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.
The only downside of poi is that they have a steeper learning curve than most props. This is good for skill cross-transfer, but if you feel like a steep learning curve would be prohibitively discouraging for you, then you might start with a staff, hoop, or rope dart instead. They will not teach you as many cross-transferable skills, but they will get you off the ground a lot faster.
- 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 video playlist made by me and some friends. You may also find Instagram practice logs you like via these tags: #flowarts, #flowmiesofearth, #stopdropandspin.
- Do you have mobility issues? Rope dart is the most full-body prop and involves a lot of lunges. Poi can be shoulder intensive, but is relatively forgiving to the lower body. Staffs are very heavy and can be arm intensive. Hoops are very lightweight. All flow arts are great for strengthening your body in general. However, if you have serious injuries, you should probably avoid certain props at first.
- 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 like timing based puzzles, you may enjoy rope-based props like poi and dart. If you enjoy feeling a lot of inertia or you come from a partner dance background, you will probably enjoy dragonstaff. If your motivation level depends on immediate gratification, you may get further starting with a single-wield prop, like staff, instead of a dual-wield prop, like poi.
Where do I get props?
General prop shops
- Flowtoys — specializes in LED props; known for making the most robust LED capsules on the market, w/ lifetime warranty
- FlowOnFire — wide range of props, lots of customization options for color and size, amount of options can be a little overwhelming but they’re friendly & will help you out
- Renegade Juggling — juggling and circus props
(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 have more specific preferences.)
Make your own props
- 3 ways to make poi from everyday items by Kate Riegle van West
- 3 designs for DIY poi by Drex
- Poi from a piece of cloth
- How to make sock poi by Kids Craft Room
- Buying or DIYing a rope dart for any budget by me
- How to make a hula hoop by RubyHooping
- Practice dowel/aluminum contact staff by Jeremy Menefee
(you can also use PVC pipe, which is more forgiving when you hit yourself)
- $10 DIY PVC dragon staff by April Choi
Most common props can be satisfactorily DIYed from household or hardware store materials. I used DIY poi and rope darts for many months before feeling a need to upgrade. Fans are an exception because they are a rather tricky shape to DIY. You can get inexpensive fans from Home of Poi, though Forged Creations makes the holy grail of exceptionally well balanced fans.
Beginner learning resources
- Beginner poi series by PlayPoi. (more body-oriented approach)
- Beginner poi series by Drex. (more pattern-oriented approach)
- 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.)
- SpinPoi fundamentals series by Kate Riegle van West.
- Beginner hoop series by Deanne Love.
- Home of Fans tutorials.
- Fan transitions game by me.
(For that classic feeling when you know how to hold and spin fans, but then aren’t sure what to do next.)
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 take a moment to shake out your shoulders.
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.
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.
- Poi Chat
- Contact Poi
- Rope Dart Tech
- Techy Fan Spinners
- Club Tech (club juggling)
- Juggling Home
- Contact Staff
- Dragon Staff Chat
- Flowmies of Earth
(Flowmies: I’m probably missing a bunch, please help me fill this list in)
Frequently asked questions
I am inherently incapable of doing flow arts because I have no sense of hand-eye coordination / I’m not in shape / I’m not a super sexy badass who owns a fire katana and leather pants. Should I give up before even trying?
NO. FALSE. Neither did any of us before we started practicing a movement art!! Hand-eye coordination and badassery can only be developed through practice, not through being born that way.
If you don’t already have some other movement practice like dance or martial arts under your belt, of course you will start out feeling clumsy and needing to take a lot of breaks. That’s super normal! When I first started doing poi, I could only do it for 5-10 minutes before taking a break, and I hit myself in the face with them constantly.
The only way to get good is to fail a lot and learn from the failures. Persist, and before you know it, you’ll be 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 at all (look how many flow artists are also professional clowns). Please come to a jam some time and observe the advanced flow artists “researching” extremely silly moves that involve falling on the ground, flailing a lot, or flinging a poi under the crotch and missing. We love silly stupid stuff! 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).
When will I stop accidentally slapping myself in the face with props?
The day you stop slapping a prop in the face is the day you stop challenging yourself. 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 as a beginner 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 kind of annoying, but, if you take fire safety relatively seriously and use well-designed fire props, it is actually not as scary as it sounds. I promise there are good explanations for this, but I’m not going to tempt you to try fire until you feel comfortable spinning things that aren’t on fire.
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