So the wonderful folks at Flowtoys have asked me for my flow story, and like most things I do what I'm going to give them is going to be a little unconventional. It's not necessarily my flow story, but the story of five people who whether they realize it or not are directly responsible for the artist that I am today. We'll call this a thank you to all of them for actions big and small to push my journey forward :)
I went to my first Burning Man in 2006 and it blew my mind wide open. I'd been a bookworm growing up that had always been drawn to both inventive thinking and art but always a step out of pace with his peers. On the playa for the first time in my life I was with other people like me and I felt like I'd come home! I also saw firedancing for the first time--seeing my first conclave is still one of the most beautiful experiences I can remember in my life. I came home and decided I had to learn how to do it. A little asking around told me I was looking for someone to teach me poi--weird name, but alright.
A friend of a friend said he could help me out and we got together so he could teach me basic reel turns...and I was an utter, miserable, complete failure. After two hours of his patient tutelage, I could not complete a turn without hitting myself and I gave up. I don't think I ever would have tried it again but for the fact that my roommate, a guy I knew from college named Brian Sipsey came home from Christmas in Thailand with a set of poi purchased at a street market for me. "You'd wanted to learn this, right?" he asked. I didn't have the heart to tell him I'd already found out I was terrible at it, so I accepted the gift with a smile and a hug. And I started playing with poi again...and my world was never the same.
In my first year of spinning, I would hang out at Confluence Park in Denver and pick up the odd trick here or there from the other fire spinners who'd show up there on Sunday nights. Eventually, we ran out of stuff they could teach me, but I was still hungry to learn. In particular, I was intrigued by reports of performing a weave behind the back. Nobody could really show me how in Denver, so I started doing searches online in hopes of finding tips. And that's how I ran across Nick Woolsey's tutorials. Nick's way of breaking down the moves to step-by-step progressions where each new skill learned led to a new breakthrough was exactly what I needed to break myself of bad habits while expanding my repertoire. And it seemed like clockwork: every time I finally got to a point where a move felt natural, Nick had a new video up for me to learn from.
When the time came that I started making my own videos, I thought back to Nick's effortless style of talking to the camera, addressing the viewer like they were a close friend. I felt like I knew him even though we still to this day have never met in meat space. I loved feeling that connected to another person through the otherwise cold medium of the internet, and I resolved to treat people watching my own videos with the same warm and openness. 340+ videos later it hasn't failed me once :)
In 2007 I'd made an important life decision: I was ready to leave Colorado. I'd lived there since I was an infant and had close friends I'd known since as far back as elementary school, but I felt the pull of connecting to a world larger than I had access to in the Rocky Mountains, so I packed a car full of the things I felt I most needed in life and drove east to my favorite city in the world: New York City. I spent the winter there looking for work and meeting fascinating people in NYC's burgeoning fire scene. Just a few weeks before Christmas at an artists' collective called Wonderland in Queens, I saw a spinner doing things I'd never seen before and could not get to make sense in my head. The poi seemed to careen around each other in three dimensions in ways that didn't seem possible.
I went up to the tall, lanky kid who was cracking these glow toys. He said his name was Christian, though most people knew him as Insignia, and what he was doing was called atomics. He showed me how they could be seen to move in two different ways depending on what angle you were viewing them from. Again, I couldn't wrap my head around what he was showing me (a class with Alien Jon years later finally gave me the breakthrough I needed to make sense of it) and politely thanked him for his time. We would frequently run into each other at other spin jams and gatherings in and around the city till I moved south to DC when I finally found a job. A few weeks after I published my first tech blog I returned to New York to attend two friends' going away party with fire spinning on their roof. Christian was there and he asked me how to perform the tricks in my first video. Him...that guy who'd blown my mind scarcely a year before was now asking me how to do something. Something big had changed in that moment, though it took years for me to figure out what it was. I was now not just a consumer of an art I loved, but a creator and inventor within it. Christian remains a close friend to this day and someone I always look to for inspiration. And despite your pleas to the the contrary, sir, can still totally school me ;)
A few months after I'd moved to DC I'd connected with a local spin jam that happened in Northern Virginia. Tuesday nights were celebrated by driving out to a home in Alexandria and watching people in the back yard spin into the wee hours of the night. As June rolled around and the temperature and humidity climbed toward the triple digits (yes, both of them, sadly), we received word that three poi masters were coming to town to teach workshops. I excitedly signed up for every class that I could and eagerly awaited the appointed day to roll round and pick up a thing or three.
When that day hit, it was our first 100 degree day at the humidity sat at 90%. A couple forward-thinking individuals had cracked out some easy ups to give us shade from the sun, but they were limited in the number of people they could shelter. I'd wanted to take Ian Smith's class on dancing with poi--I knew at that point that there was such a thing as tech poi, but was convinced that it was beyond me. I looked at the descriptions of the other classes: isolations, linear extensions, etc, and saw big words I didn't understand. Ian's class filled up quickly, and it was a bad day to be out in the sun. Noel Yee was teaching linear extensions and linear isolations and there were only a couple people in that class...more to the point, there was still room in the shade for that one. I sheepishly walked over to join this class, hoping I wouldn't make too big a fool of myself. And then the unexpected happened: it all made sense to me. Noel used small pieces to break down big ideas so that by the end of the class I could do things I'd never thought possible. More to the point: it gave me the confidence to seek out other things I previously thought I couldn't do and broke down more and more walls. Every time I teach a class, I aspire to do what Noel did that day: take the impossible and give it to a student in small enough chunks that they're able to break through their own insecurities to find the spinner they can be waiting on the other side. I pray I live long enough to master this goal.
Two years into spinning, my girlfriend and I decided to spend Easter in Assateague, an island off the coast of Maryland renowned for a herd of wild ponies that roam its sandy shores. It was early and cold enough that there were few other people there or in the nearby Ocean City as we cruised the boardwalk in the chilly Atlantic winds. My girlfriend urged me to get up and do some spinning on the wall next to the boardwalk to the excited hoots and hollers of the otherwise bored shop keepers and waitstaff along the shore. She took what I think is likely the earliest footage of me free spinning on her camera and gave it to me when we got home. I excitedly popped it in to watch...and was horrified. I'd spent my whole life sitting at computers or desks, reading and programming. I knew I was physically awkward, but I didn't know I was that bad!
After a night's worth of thought, I went to the only place I felt was appropriate. For a few months I'd been teaching poi spinning for a local dance studio called Contradiction Dance. The owner, Kelly Mayfield, is a spritely, energetic spirit with an endless capacity to nurture others. Long ago, she'd offered as a perk that I could take any class I wanted as a privilege for being one of their faculty. I came to her and asked if I might finally take her modern dance class and she cracked a huge grin before telling me I'd be more than welcome. I started showing up every Wednesday for an intermediate dance class...and began what I think were the roughest four months of learning I've ever attempted. I was starting literally from nothing and dancing with people who had years of experience under their belts.
Kelly always told me I was doing well, especially on the days we both knew I wasn't. But like with poi, I kept working through the frustrations and disappointments, eventually taking multiple classes every week and dedicating myself to learning outside the studio. I was bad at it. I'm still bad at it. But after a year and a half of work, Kelly was putting together a dance concert and she'd decided she wanted some poi integrated into it. I came into rehearsal one day to watch what they were working on and one of the pieces in particular caught my eye. Kelly saw my interest and took me aside: "You want to be out there with them, don't you?" she asked. I confirmed that I did, and with her ever-impish grin she told me to go join them. I've been with the company three seasons and counting and have learned volumes about how to move my body and tell a story through my movement...all because Kelly took a chance that one day and helped a poi spinner find his voice.
There's a final piece to this puzzle, but it doesn't belong to just one person, it belongs to thousands of them. When I picked up poi I believed it was going to be a fun hobby I'd use in my off hours from work to give myself a nice physical challenge and I'd have something cool to do at Burning Man every year. Instead it's become the primary passion of my life, allowing me to connect with people all across the world, to learn and exchange ideas. To inspire and be inspired. The final piece of the puzzle belongs to you all out there on the internet, wherever you happen to be, for creating the warmest and most welcome home I could ever hope to imagine. For challenging my brain and bringing me ever closer to finding my peace and happiness in this world spinning things on the ends of strings. Thank you all for welcoming me home...I can't wait to see what happens next :)
"Happiness in life depends on how many times you get to say 'thank you' from the bottom of your heart."
- Kosuke Fujishima