Identity Shifts Through time

Recently I’ve been in various discussions about practice and how it evolves as our relationship changes through time. This is true for poi and other flow artists, although this concept can be applied to other practices, like music, which I’ll compare in this article as well.

In the beginning of our practice our focus is often on simply dispelling our general ignorance. The truth is — and I posit this is a universal truth — we never know what we don’t know until we do. What that means is we don’t even know enough in the beginning to have much of an idea of what we need to do to progress in a broad sense even if we have some specific ideas. In poi, this may translate to not knowing what foundational skills will garner results in a deeper sense like understanding planes and timing in a structural context, or how to execute a basic figure 8, isolation, or fishtail as related to foundational mechanical techniques. In music, this might translate to understanding the theory of a scale or note, or from the perspective of mechanical technique, a fingering position or cleanliness of execution of the sound being made through the shape of your mouth.

As you develop more competence (which usually offers more confidence as well), instead of looking at fundamental theory and mechanical techniques, you likely start considering the practice in a larger sense. With poi, this might be the ability to string moves together; with music, this might be the ability to string notes together. In both practices this can be something you consider first with one hand, then the other and then concurrently executing both hands. It’s also true that these practices deepen through time as well.

Artist: GlitterGirl Photo: Aaron Sesker

At the onset, in poi it might be simple combinations like chasing the sun which is really two transitions put together. A weave fountain is another combination beginners might take on, though in both cases, it’s a matter of stacking skills on top of each other to create more complex combinations. In music, this might look like learning chords (which are stacked combinations of notes) and then learning chord progressions — again, stacking combinations from the earlier building blocks. Again, it starts out as short combinations, and as skills increase with these combinations, they then become the building blocks of more complex combinations.

At a certain point, practitioners often arrive at a place where they feel a sense of satisfaction with their progress. This can be for many reasons — their initial goals were satisfied; they no longer take the same interest in dissecting the structure as they did as beginners; they may feel a sense of comfort that is easy to relax into and doesn’t require pushing against challenges that aren’t as much fun; or a shift in goals.

Let’s consider the last idea about shifting goals. When we start out, the identity of beginner is a natural and easy one to adopt in our practice. Often heavily focused on drills, it is very much about iteration (of the drills), again and again, until we’ve found a place of competence with them. The natural progression then is to move from this place of iteration to a place of generation where the artist in us wants to create something as an expression of our Self. This shift in identity from beginner, to some level of competence, and then the subsequent shift into exploring what it means to be an artist in the particular practice isn’t something everyone chooses to take on because the reality it there is always more mechanical technique one can develop and as such, the practice of iterating drills to develop those techniques is endless. If you’re not motivated by the grind of this endless exploration at any given time in your practice but you are motivated by other elements of the practice, that’s a fine choice if you allow it to be!

Despite the endless nature of the potential exploration of mechanical technique, we can still choose to engage in the separate practice of exploring expression of that technique. This can look like being a performer or not, though it generally includes working with a “piece” as a whole. In music, one might think of this as a song. In poi, one might think of this as performing to a song or maybe a single burn with fire. In both cases, the exploration has shifted from learning the building blocks to learning how to express those building blocks in a cohesive, sustained sequence (aka, piece). At this point, identity can shift from technician or beginner to performer. 

It should be noted that learning to execute a set of moves to a song or learning to play a song on an instrument is not in and of itself the totality of a performer since performance also involves an audience. As such, a whole new skill is developed: the ability to be in connection with the audience while sustaining the sequence. Keep in mind moving toward performing involves multiple skills being practiced: the mechanical technique of sustaining the sequence, the artistry of expressing the sequence, and the connection and influence on the audience while artistically sustaining and expressing the sequence.

Influencing the audience may not seem like much of a skill, but if you’ve ever seen a masterful comedy show where the comedian read the room vs a less skilled comedian who didn’t, you can see direct evidence of the distinction between “working the crowd” and not. Fortunately for neophyte flow performers, audience impact is something easier to achieve for poi and flow artists using fire because even low skill fire artists are impressive to the non initiated. As such, fire performers have something of an advantage and, at the lowest level, simply need to not make big mistakes through the song to impact most audiences. That’s a double edged sword of course. On the one hand, it means low skill performers can get gigs easily enough which is great when you’re starting out. At the same time, it can also mean higher skilled performers won’t truly be appreciated since audiences can’t discern much of what’s happening which often leads to higher skill artists not being valued for their offering and outbid by lower skill performers since there isn’t as much demand for high cost, highly skilled artist. Yet.

The bottom line though is that as one moves into being a performer, while one isn’t necessarily drilling and grinding on new content, one very much is practicing. The practice simply shifts context.

All too often I hear people say, “I was just messing around and I didn’t get in any practice.” I find that mindset to be detrimental to the practitioner in the long term sense because it devalues the practice they are doing. Practicing having masterful access to the building blocks we know very much is it’s own practice. By having “flow” practice under our belt, we are preparing ourselves for having better performances because we are supporting the advancement of the ease of access to the technique which leaves more space to have connection with the audience in the performance.

The same thing happens as the practice progresses yet again where we move from practicing sustaining a song to actually learning how to create our own music or choreography to perform. At that point, artists are not only performers or musicians — they are also creators: choreographers or composers.

This is an entirely new dimension for the practice and one that isn’t particularly available to the beginner. Which is to say as a beginner, one may not even consider the identity of choreography or composer. Yet the movement through these identities can deeply inform our practice.

When we’re struggling with finding motivation to practice, it can be useful to consider the intent behind the practice and where one’s interest truly lies. Updating our understanding of our selves by stepping into relationship with what we want now that we’re no longer a beginner can help revitalize our practice. There’s no shame in wanting to practice choreographing with a set of techniques one knows — or composing a song in a key signature one finds comfortable. While it may not be advancing the underlying mastery of the mechanical technique, it very much is advancing the technical aspect of the creator skills and advancing the generative nature of the artistic expression created by building something new. Choreography and composition are their own art forms and practicing them can, without us doing any new mechanical technique practice, help us understand the structure of our experience more deeply by having us see it through a different lens.

If you’ve been at your practice for a while and are feeling less than motivated, perhaps it would be helpful to consider other facets of your identity as related to the practice which may be more motivating than grinding the mechanical technique that might have been more exciting years ago. Giving yourself the spaciousness to allow your practice to unfold in new dimensions may very well be the shift in mindset that fosters a reconnection to your practice passion because it brings a new identity to an old relationship which can be juicy and fun. This doesn’t work for everyone, but it can work for people who find themselves shifting their attention away from the grind and feeling some way about it that is a downer. To allow yourself to move into new ways of relating to your practice is to allow yourself to become something you weren’t before, even (perhaps especially) if it doesn’t look like what you expected when you had less skill. ✨

Ready for private instruction? Want to try Zero to Fire in 4 Hours! Or if you want to join our next beginner class or have other questions, contact GlitterGirl directly or subscribe to our newsletter for mailbox delivery of this and other articles written by Temple of Poi founder and visionary, GlitterGirl, who has been a full time flow arts coach and instructor since 2002. If you seek professional guidance associated with creating a safe performance, obtaining a permit in San Francisco or other personalized coaching, contact GlitterGirl directly for a free consultation (GlitterGirl <that pretty little ‘at’ symbol> TempleOfPoi <daaaaaaaught> com).

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