Local Flow Artists Spin Fire, Juggling Pins, and More
Hanging out with flow artists for an evening, you’ll find yourself asking a lot of questions. What, exactly, is poi? (Short ropes with balls on the end.) Is spinning fire scary? (Yes.) Is it dangerous? (Not as dangerous as you might think.) How many hours do you have to practice to get that trick? (A lot.)
There are also some inside jokes that you only get if you spin. How much hair you’ve managed to singe off, for example, is almost a badge of honor.
“I’ve burned off so many chunks of hair,” says Lux Luminous, a Somerville resident who co-hosts and organizes a weekly Boston Spin Jam at MIT.
“It smells really bad,” spinner Courtney Kottman chimes in.
“I’ve burned off my eyelashes before,” Luminous adds. “And also my nostrils. It was kind of windy one day, and I was levi wanding and it got kind of close to my face, I inhaled, and woop!, it happened.”
The practice of flow arts, a subset of circus arts, has spread worldwide—aided mostly by the internet—in the past 10 to 15 years.
“Flow arts puts everything together from hula hooping, juggling, martial arts, dance,” Luminous says. “If you are manipulating an object and you are dancing with it, that’s flow arts. I’ve even seen people manipulate slinkies.”
On a rainy Monday night in late November, the tall, long windows of MIT’s Walker Memorial Hall are illuminated. Through one window, a bright orange juggling pin flies into view, then falls back down. In another pane, a set of ropes dashes through the air. Forms spin and step, heads bob into and out of view. Inside, nearly 20 people are gathered for the weekly Boston Spin Jam, a dedicated time to mingle and practice various forms of flow arts.
Most people’s flow arts stories begin in the same way: someone they knew had a prop lying around—a hula hoop or a juggling pin—they picked it up, met a few people, and before long got plugged into the local “spinning” community, as it’s called among insiders. That’s how Luminous got started, who began practicing flow arts around 2009 when an ex-boyfriend started glow sticking and encouraged her to do something, too.
“I thought it was the lamest thing ever,” she says. “But I picked up a hula hoop, and when I wasn’t really all that interested in it, I found this prop here,” gesturing to the silver wand she’s holding in her lap. “This is a levi wand. Its technical term is a levitation stick. When I found this, I was hooked.”
Luminous demonstrates her levi wand work: By holding onto a short string attached to a balance point on the wand, she can manipulate the stick to appear to float around her body like magic. She sways back and forth, spinning the wand around her body. Its silver coating catches the light as it dips and swoons.
Kottman, another spinner who regularly attends the Boston Spin Jam, started a few years ago because her roommate was a hula hoop dance instructor. “There were hula hoops all over the apartment, so one day I just picked one up, and then about a year later I went to a flow festival where I picked up another prop, and the rest is history,” she says.
Festivals are another major aspect of the flow arts scene. You could go from one end of the country to the other and back if you were to follow all the flow arts events held each weekend, Luminous says. While certain music festivals and other gatherings like Burning Man or Electric Forest will include spinners, or “burners” (people who spin, swallow, and dance with fire), other festivals are devoted specifically to the advancement and practice of flow arts. These festivals range in size, but are organized in roughly the same pattern—spinning workshops and tutorials throughout the day, choreographed performances in the evening, and a big burn with fire spinning at the end of the night.
Luminous, a Minnesota native, first came to Somerville because of a spin festival at Tufts called WOMBAT (Winter Object Manipulation Bootcamp At Tufts). The three-day event was full of burns, around 32 workshops, performances, improvisation games, and prop swapping. Though most spin arts began to spread out of California in the early 2000s, Greater Boston has one of the largest spinning communities in the country outside of California, according to Luminous.
“I came out here, and I fell in love,” she says. “The Boston community is amazing. Everybody is so eager to learn and is super passionate about it.” Now, helping to organize local spin arts events is her full-time job.
Outside of festivals, spinners meet during weekly, casual-but-organized spin jams. A “jam” is simply a time to gather and practice, often outside or in a space with tall enough ceilings to accommodate juggling. There are a number of weekly jams in the Boston area: the Boston Spin Jam on Mondays, the Tufts Jumbo Jugglers on Wednesdays, the Medford Spin Jam, several jams in JP, and one in Salem that meets occasionally.
Each group has its own vibe. At Boston Spin Jam, most people bring their own props, but there are also a handful of props available for newcomers, thanks to a partnership with the MIT Spinning Arts club, which provides spare props. Unique to the Jumbo Jugglers at Tufts is a permit allowing anyone to spin fire as long as they are over 21 and complete the proper training.
The scene in Walker Memorial Hall is peaceful. Some EDM dance music emanates from speakers set up at the far end of the large hall. Between tall doric columns, people cluster in a corner, wearing colorful socks and chatting with one another, holding juggling pins at their sides. Others keep to themselves, small earbuds subtly plugged in as they practice their tricks.
One woman waves a large staff in circular motions back and forth along one side of the hall. She appears to be slicing the air, her staff like a giant propeller. A man with silvery blue hair moves in an otherworldly way, as if the rules of gravity are somehow altered in a bubble around his gliding form. He holds two batons in each hand and balances two more on the ends of those, floating the sticks while he steps and glides in his own little circle. Occasionally, he tosses the batons into the air and catches them seamlessly with the other sticks. If he drops one, his foot deftly kicks it up again. He looks like a chef, flipping invisible omelettes with his wands.
“I think the reason that people like doing it is because it’s problem solving,” Luminous says. “There is something really satisfying about laying out a trick, drilling a trick, getting the trick, and then actually nailing it. When you’re drilling over and over again, you get into this state of mind where everything is just flowing … that’s the sweet spot, that’s the flow state.”
Kottman is trying to reach that state. She practices shapes with a new prop: triads. Triads are simple, metal forms with three spokes. They took off a few years ago after several YouTube videos about them launched. Every once in a while, this happens with props, Kottman explains: Someone invents or discovers a prop, a few people figure out how to do cool things with it, videos are posted online, and poof!—across the country hundreds of spinners are trying it.
“YouTube was like the dawn of flow arts,” Luminous says.
“Now they have all these Facebook groups for specific props,” Kottman adds. “Dragon staff, levi wand, triads, poi. Every prop, pretty much.”
The internet’s role in flow arts doesn’t stop there. There’s a large Etsy market for flow arts props, in addition to many other prop websites that sell mass-manufactured props, from LED-equipped levi sticks to lighter practice props to more performance-worthy, fire-equipped apparatuses.
As the internet has helped flame the flow arts fire, it has also given birth to communities that bond around spinning. Luminous says everyone at the weekly jam has each other’s back; if someone has a question about a trick or needs help with their prop, they can ask anyone.
Zachary Kaplan, a senior at Tufts who runs the Jumbo Jugglers club, says spinning has been one of the closest communities he’s found in his college career.
“You go up to people to ask them how to do a trick, and relationships just grow out of that for free,” he says.