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Poi Oh Poi 

Karen Macklin takes the temperature of a growing, meditative, and fiery dance form known as poi.

Wednesday, Nov 3 2004
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"I'm obsessed," she says, and it's an understatement. When she's not talking about poi, she's practicing it. When she's not practicing it, she's teaching it. When she's not teaching it, she's talking about it. She wants to bring health, empowerment, and enlightenment to the masses through poi. It's a noble pursuit, and she just might succeed.

But her aspirations don't stop there. She also wants to get ridiculously rich. And surreptitiously skinny. She wants to expand her teaching business from a niche market in San Francisco into a multimillion-dollar international enterprise, and she wants to build her own celebrity to help propel her business forward. And, as a sort of icing on the cake, she also wants to become something of a superhuman teen idol.

Forget Glitter Girl. She wants to be Glitter Goddess incarnate, she says.

And she's not kidding.


Isaacs hails from a Long Island suburb called Lynbrook where she grew up with four siblings and two overachieving parents. In high school, she was an honor student immersed in everything under the sun: speech and debate, piano, the school newspaper, and the Miss Teen New York Pageant. She initially wanted to study journalism and music in college, but wound up with a computer science degree as a result of a dare from a computer geek boyfriend. "He said, 'You could never do that,' and I was like, 'Screw you, of course I can,'" she says. "And not only did I do it, I did it before he did."

Isaacs' life, it seems, has been full of dares, but her biggest challenge has been her weight.

She says the pounds began to creep on in high school, after she had the first of several abusive relationships and slapped on 45 pounds in three months. By the end of her freshman year, she was nearly 200 pounds -- and by the end of college, she was up to 300.

"The love of my life just disappeared one day, and my grandmother was dying, and I had no facility for dealing with these things," she says. Her turning point was an ill-fated shopping trip right after college graduation; she discovered she was a plus size 26. She emphasizes the plus.

"So I walk home with these horrible clothes, and I'm walking up this flight of stairs, and I am out of breath at the top," she recalls. "And I was like, 'Wow, I'm going to be dead by the time I'm 30.'"

Isaacs started losing weight after she moved out to San Francisco in the mid-'90s and stumbled upon the electronic dance scene. She came across poi unexpectedly at a party in 2000, while she was already in the midst of her transformation from oversized, corporate New York denizen to body-conscious San Francisco performer.

At first, she says, she just did it for stress relief. Eventually, she couldn't put it down.

To look at Isaacs now, it's hard to imagine her at 300 pounds. And to witness her current poi performer lifestyle, or to listen to her business voicemail (which tells you that she can't answer the phone because she's "out busy glitterfying the world and putting all of the sparkles in the sidewalk that you see everywhere"), it's also hard to imagine her working a 50-hour-a-week desk job as a systems engineer. But she says the business and computer skills she learned at three different tech-related jobs (two of which she was fired from because, she says, she was not "playing by the rules") prepared her for running her own business. "I wouldn't have had the models. I wouldn't have had the marketing skills. I am the sum total of my experiences."

In fact, Isaacs is convinced that her business would not exist but for the Internet and her knowledge of it. She says she gets 40 percent of her business from the Internet and arranges 85 percent of her bookings through the medium. "And have you seen my Web site? It's gotta be over 100 pages at this point," she says, giggling.

Isaacs, who loves to quote statistics, is referring to her latest achievement, a comprehensive, Web-based, poi-training program that, she says, is the perfect distillation of her life experiences. It breaks down the learning process for poi into simple moves, which can be seen from a variety of angles in short video clips. "I think of that as being such a revolutionary way to think; like OK, let's teach a kinesthetic art form over the Internet," she says. "It is so the embodiment of my experiences."


We're in SOMA on a Monday night, and Isaacs is about to teach a beginner class at the Temple of Poi (which doesn't actually look like a temple). A clean, white-walled, gray-carpeted, 560-square-foot studio in the basement of a small shopping complex on Mission Street between 5th and 6th streets, the temple has a Styrofoam dropped ceiling and masses of poi-like objects hanging from the front wall. The perimeter is lined with colorfully taped Hula-Hoops, big red "Got Poi?" bumper stickers, a state-of-the-art sound system, and charts and diagrams. The room can fit about six students and their flailing apparatuses; the vibe in a beginner class (I took one) is something of a mix between a meditation lesson and an evening at the Power Exchange sex club: There's a lot of concentration going on, and a lot of self-flagellation.

"You're thinking it through instead of feeling it," says Isaacs, who wears a black sports bra and shiny green athletic pants, to a pretty brunette with fair skin who has red blotches -- the result of failed attempts to control circling poi -- all over her arms. "Let your body lead you."

It sounds like the advice a salsa teacher might offer, but after a few classes, you soon realize that a little toe-stepping is nothing compared to getting repeatedly smacked in the head with a beanbag. (It's recommended that male students wear cups.)

About The Author

Karen Macklin

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