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.
The signature of poi.
Paolo Vescia
The signature of poi.
The equipment of poi.
Paolo Vescia
The equipment of poi.
Paolo Vescia

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."


Only 10 years ago, Isaacs was a 300-pound corporate-tech couch potato living on the East Coast. Now, 125 pounds lighter and in better shape than most (her resting pulse, she says, is 56), she's known in the performance art circles of Burning Man as a master poi teacher and performer, and, having been a finalist for the past two years in the Circle of Lights competition held by the New Zealand-based Home of Poi organization, she's starting to gain international recognition. Her business, the Temple of Poi, is the Bay Area's only school devoted entirely to flow and fire arts. Since its opening in 2002, more than 500 students have passed through its doors.

"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.)

"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.

"I was an angry, negative, bitter, blame kind of person," she says about her old self. "I was choiceless, that's what it was. The biggest shift in my life was learning I had choices."

These days, poi is the focus of Isaacs' attention, and she has reason to be proud. She started a booming business with an obscure art form during a recession; she's garnered two Circle of Light nominations; and now she is going to be featured in Time Off for Good Behavior: How Hardworking Women Can Take a Break and Change Their Lives, a book by Mary Lou Quinlan due out next year. Isaacs performs regularly across the Bay Area as a dancer and DJ, creates art installations for large-scale events, and has an adoring fan base in San Francisco.

All the same, Isaacs hasn't completely left her past behind. She's still a shrewd, diligent capitalist who openly admits she can't live a "starving artist" life; despite her Zen-like teaching practice, she laments that the business, while prosperous, is still not making six figures.

And she still has a serious verbal edge. If asked about dating, she's dismissive, to say the least. "I don't need a partner. I am a multifaceted individual. I see myself as a revolutionary thinker and a forerunner in who I am and how I push the world," she says. "Most people can't keep up."

And then, of course, there's the weight, which hangs on, fading ever so slowly, like a bad memory.

But what Isa Isaacs wants, really, is to transform, outwardly, into her internal representation of herself: "a sprightly, artistic, powerful, self-reliant, self-dependent, soft, generous, caring, beautiful, compassionate, wise preacher and being, representative of the best in all of us."

"It's totally superhero-ish," she admits.

We're looking at old photos of Isaacs now, of her at her heaviest, eating a massive piece of cake. At first, she seems proud of what she's overcome, then suddenly she gets body conscious again, wondering if she should be holding off on press until she's at her physical prime.

"I've been in this process of being really conscious of how I'm trying to build a personality, like a celebrity personality around myself, so that I can create the publicity necessary to propel the business forward," she says. "And my story will be even more compelling when I'm thinner."

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