Poi Oh Poi

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

It's about 9 on a Wednesday night at the Horseshoe Pit, a little enclave in Golden Gate Park where dozens of burners have gathered to light up and spin their fire toys. There's a distinct smell of white gas and lamp oil, the sound of pumping techno beats, and, unbelievably, the sight of a slew of homeless people sleeping through it all on the benches surrounding. People are asking for Glitter Girl, who's just arrived and spreading herself thin among the crowd before she takes the concrete stage.

Glitter Girl is the stage name for Isa Isaacs, who discovered the electronic music scene in 1998 and got her nickname because she was the girl at the parties who always had ample amounts of body glitter in tow. Isaacs is the organizer of the fire powwow tonight and, for many, the evening's main attraction. She's here to do what she does best: spin poi.

The poi in question is not the Hawaiian condiment that might be found beside a roasted luau pig, but a movement art that originated with the Maori women of New Zealand and has evolved into an alternative form of dance here in the West. It functions as both performance and a meditative practice -- something of a mix between modern dance and yoga, or juggling and tai chi.

Bridget Harrison practices poi.
Paolo Vescia
Bridget Harrison practices poi.
Isaacs the teacher.
Paolo Vescia
Isaacs the teacher.

A poi performer holds a string in each hand; attached at the ends are colorful balls or beanbags. These objects are manipulated in the air to make intricate patterns; once sufficient skill is obtained, the manipulated objects become special balls that are lit on fire. Isaacs doesn't only spin poi, she teaches it to hundreds of aspiring spinners throughout the Bay Area.

Tonight, everybody is aflame, though not everyone is spinning poi. Some people are twirling flaming staffs, something like giant cheerleading batons, and others are Hula-Hooping with fire. The staffs have wicks on the ends; for the hoops, the wicks are affixed to little spokes all around. It's cold on the sidelines, but in the center of the action, you can feel the burn.

Wearing only natural fibers, including cotton bandannas to keep their hair protected from accidental frying, Isaacs' students surround the premises eager to talk about Isa, their poi guru.

Vikki "FireSpice" Friedman, a pretty blonde who's wearing black leather pants and pink and red hair ribbons and has a glittered nose, came to Isaacs with particularly unusual difficulties. Her apartment burned down seven years ago in a four-alarm fire, leaving her with no possessions and an intense fear of flames. Unable to shake the phobia, she came to Isaacs for help.

"I really didn't want to go through my life with this fear," says Friedman, 30, now an instructor for and the chief financial officer of Isaacs' relatively new school, the Temple of Poi. "The night I lit up with fire was extremely liberating. It extinguished all of this fear and negativity that I'd been holding on to ....

"[Isaacs] opened doors for me that I never knew were closed."

Jamie "Sparkaluscious" Najmark, 28, was in a car accident several years ago; doctors told her she'd never be able to do serious physical activity again. Isaacs changed that. Now, she and Najmark do poi-dancing gigs together around the city.

"The way she performs is very much the way she lives her life," says Najmark about Isaacs. "She's so fully integrated, that she doesn't even have to think about it."

Isaacs lights the wicks on her Hula-Hoop and her poi. For a few moments, she is dancing in complete harmony with both -- an act that her peers know her for -- and the crowd of onlookers is mesmerized. The edgy, excited energy she displays in everyday life has morphed into a liquid succession of motion and flame, and she seems to be moving into a meditative state. Then, something strange occurs -- the Hula-Hoop breaks and goes flying across the way. Isaacs, who was being filmed, is seriously bummed. "That's never happened before," she says.

Though she stands just five feet, two inches tall, the 35-year-old Isaacs commands attention. She has something of a pretty, girl-next-door look to her, with brown curls framing a mass of freckles on her face. But there's more to her presence than looks; somehow, she seems as comfortable around fire as an Olympic swimmer around water. She says it's dancing with poi, rather than fire, that brings her to altered states of consciousness. For her, poi dancing is a holy act.

"When you're in the flow, you're rapidly going between who's the leader and who's the follower ... you're riding the line, like yin and yang. You are both at once," she says. "When I'm totally in the flow, I don't know what's going to happen next, but it happens."

She's even had what she calls "poigasms," in which she says her whole entire body vibrates with an overwhelming intensity.

If you're wondering which drug she's on when this is all going down, she insists that her out-of-body experiences are not drug-induced, and she's careful not to advocate for drugs of any sort. "My intention is to take poi outside the Burning Man community," she says quite seriously. "So if I want to take it to Middle America, I have to have an impeccable reputation."


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