You brought a whip! Cool!
In the middle of a sprawling field on the west side of Lakeside Park – behind the playground, not too near the basketball court – about 10 flow artists walked toward a stock whip lying in the grass like a brown leather snake and smiled in agreement.
Amy Wilds, dressed in white linen pants and bare feet, picked it up and gave it a quick shake.
Ive seen a guy spin one of these while its on fire, she said.
It is, she said.
Dropping the whip and digging into her purse, Wilds, 31, removed two tethered weights called poi – hers were made out of Kevlar and covered in red, furry fabric – and began swinging them in circular patterns.
Someone a few yards away turned on a portable stereo. Down-tempo electronic dance music started playing and a few people started to dance.
Flow arts practice had begun.
Flow arts – the practice of moving in harmony with an object such as a ball, poi (rhymes with boy), rope or, indeed, a whip – can be traced back to the tribal movements of the Maori people of New Zealand, but in the United States they are most commonly associated with electronic dance music scene and the glow-stick dancers of the rave scene of the late 80s and 90s.
In Fort Wayne, the flow arts scene is small but dedicated and wildly entertaining. Wilds and her fellow LED enthusiasts practice at least once a week, preparing for more than a dozen monthly impromptu public performances during electronic dance music events at local bars and restaurants. Catching a performance is always a swirling, florescent, luminous and unexpected treat.
During a recent practice, the group – known as Flowcentric – chose from a variety of shared flow toys scattered on the grass at the park. There were ropes (heavily knotted on one end) that can be whipped around legs and envelope a twirling body; glowing balls for contact juggling, where the toy is manipulated to look like its floating from hand to hand; poi, attached to lengthy chain or stretchy fabric rope, which circle heads, arms and legs; and the whip, which Flowcentric member Max Tippmann, dressed in black and sporting a blond mini-mohawk, was brave enough to try.
Ow, he said, smiling, as the tail of the whip, slapped back toward his leg. I think I need practice.
As the group rehearsed, a small collection of middle school-aged boys stopped their football game and watched from a distance, looking equally curious and confused.
Is this a circus thing? one of them asked.
Come here, member Nick Shifley said, offering poi to one of them. You can try it.
Giving the boy a set of poi, Shifley began showing him how to hold his arms at his sides, spinning the poi like a jump rope. This is how most of the flow artists learned their craft, from other flow artists.
I started spinning 11 years ago, Wilds said, dipping into a large black purse to display her personal collection of flow toys. I had a friend from Elkhart who spun glow sticks. Later, I got involved with the Detroit Fire Guild and started spinning fire on rooftops.
Many of the members of Flowcentric also perform with fire props, flow toys designed to be set on fire. Although Wilds has liability insurance and the proper fire permits needed to use fire props at home, most local burns – gatherings of fire spinners, breathers and dancers – are performed secretly, away from the city.
Its an incredible adrenaline rush, Wilds said. Seeing photos does not do it justice. There is nothing like it.
When Wilds spins fire, she wears a hood or bandanna to protect her hair and carries a fireproof blanket to smother flames if necessary. She keeps it all in her bag, along with a fire extinguisher.
Safety first, she said, smiling.
Toward the end of practice, Flowcentric began mingling with another flow arts group, Hoopnotica, a local hula-hooping group made up of kids and adults. Tippmann and his friend Jules Tankel each picked up a hula hoop – decorated with Day-Glo tape – and began spinning them around their hips, legs, arms, neck and eventually hopping through them in time to the music.
A couple of dogs on leashes walked by, greeted each other and stared longingly at the swinging poi and wobbling hoops. Soon, the two groups were petting the dogs, trading tips and admiring each others skills. Wilds smiled and waved at some of the younger Hoopnotica members.
Theyre awesome, she said. Thats exactly what we need – kids. We need them to keep this circus going.