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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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"Everything you'll ever need to know, you can learn in poi," Isaacs says into a head-mike she uses to instruct over the background bass.

When Isaacs is not talking about the butterfly move or planes of motion, she speaks to philosophical concepts behind the practice of poi. She talks about patience, compassion, and "flow," referring to her self-designed teaching paradigms that indicate levels of mastery, from beginner to "flowster."

Because poi instruction is relatively new in the U.S., Isaacs created her own curriculum, a 10-week process that leads most students from clumsily knocking themselves around to "spinning fire." Her own learning process, she says, was severely thwarted because she had no instructor. "I totally sucked," she recalls. "I didn't have a breakthrough for a year and a half. But I didn't have a teacher and there really weren't people teaching it at the time. Now, I have students who know more technically in 10 weeks of classes with me than I knew when I first got paid professionally."

Because Isaacs is self-taught and at a level of expertise that's beyond many of her peers', it's hard to find anyone qualified or willing to give a critical account of her practice. Nick Woolsey, a professional poi artist who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, knows Isaacs but has philosophical reservations about commenting on her practice. He says he's so critical of his own performance that he's not comfortable judging someone else's; he also questions the standards by which poi can, at this point, be judged.

"I think all of us are still beginners," says Woolsey, who won the Circle of Light award last year and just opened his own poi/yoga/tai chi school in Canada. "There are not a lot of people who have taken it to higher levels. That's why I'm [considered] so good at it. It's such a small pool."

Isaacs is more positive about the state of poi and its prospects for growth; she believes it can become an Olympic sport. But Woolsey thinks that idea a little premature. "I don't think there's anyone at an Olympic caliber for what we're doing," he says. "Maybe in 10 or 20 years."

Olympics-bound or not, poi is gaining ground. In the past four years, the number of fire dancers at the Burning Man festival has grown from a few hundred to more than a thousand, Isaacs says, and poi Web sites show huge increases in usage.

Woolsey, meanwhile, says most cities on the West Coast have at least one person teaching poi classes professionally, and major cities often have several poi instructors. Interest in poi is going global, too; Woolsey says he's in contact with dozens of fledgling poi companies from Honduras to Bangladesh to Tasmania.

And then there's the coolness test: Madonna's into it. She had a poi dancer on her latest tour.

But popularity aside, poi is also good for you. Among the advantages of practicing poi are improved coordination, decreased anxiety, increased muscle strength, and improved sleep patterns.

The best place to go for the most comprehensive lowdown on poi is the New Zealand-based Home of Poi Web site (www.homeofpoi.com), a business and online community that promotes poi activity and sells poi-related products. (Isaacs' site, www.templeofpoi.com, is also a good resource, though more local in scope.) The Home of Poi receives 25,000 visitors a week, has 12,366 registered users, and is currently the largest online poi community in the world, says founder and governing director Malcolm Crawshay.

Crawshay, who heads up the Circle of Light competition, says Isaacs' video was selected as a finalist because of her unique style of spinning.

"She incorporates a total body movement with her performance," he says. "The poi are an extension of her. She has a good flow and varies her tempo. Some poi dancers are able to do this with ease, and Glitter Girl is one of them."


We are sitting in Isaacs' flat, and she is talking about, well, fat.

"So this is like one roll," she says, pinching her belly. "But, like, I can remember a time when I had three."

Isaacs is proud of her bodily transformation, but she's still a ways from her goal: size eight. Her weight comes up in conversation often. It's like the goddess' Achilles' heel.

Her pad, which she refers to lovingly as "Evolutionary Manor," is a two-bedroom apartment in the Sunset that she shares with her best friend (and life coach) Jason McClain. Her hair is piled up today in a big clip, her toenails painted pink and purple, and she is making us an intense vegetable juice concoction of ginger, celery, cucumber, kale, beets, and garlic.

Evolutionary Manor is a friendly, lived-in flat with a mainly unfurnished front room, which leaves plenty of space for Isaacs' poi-ing and hoop-ing. Isaacs' housing situation has changed dramatically over the course of the past several years, during which she went from living in a posh 13-room house with a couple of friends when she worked in tech-land to a grungy wall-less warehouse shared by six people after she got fired. Her current place is something of a happy medium between the two.

"At first, I was like, 'I'm going to go back into corporate America, I'm going to make it work out,'" she says, about losing her high-paying job. "But I lost all of my references when I got fired, every single one ....

"I expected to be on that path for the rest of my life; I had no anticipation of ever being derailed by poi. Ever."

Isaacs was in debt when she was fired, and her finances took a major dip; but she's not sorry for it. She talks a lot about being "disintegrated" in the past, about living two separate lives; now, she says, there's no distinction between her play and her work.

About The Author

Karen Macklin

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