Poi Oh Poi

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

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.)

"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."

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