The acrobat spins her illuminated hoops around her body, making them trace ethereal shapes in the air. To her left, the juggler engages in a battle with gravity, perfectly timing his capture of a striped ball as he releases another one on its upward journey. To her right, a dancer narrowly evades attack by a pair of glowing orbs suspended on cables, rapidly chasing each other in an infinite loop.
These are flow artists, and they’re performing at the nexus of the old and new. Manipulating objects for exercise and entertainment dates back to ancient times. Today, the flow props, such as hula hoops, poi, and ribbons, are often infused with LEDs, glow paint, or other technologies that give them an otherworldly appearance.
That new aesthetic is because flow arts experienced a resurgence in the rave scene, where elevating consciousness and creating striking visuals were easily achieved through both performing and witnessing flow. Unlike in other performance forms, there is relatively equal feedback — and often, a blurring of lines — between the artist and the audience. The music is an integral part, and as one might suspect, flowing styles of music such as EDM and ambient pop are the preferred choice of flow artists.
Flow arts also overlap with contemporary circus arts, having developed out of their common ancestor, the sideshow. Of particular note is juggling, which emerged out of a Victorian exercise practice involving meels, lightweight clubs that originated in the near east. In time, juggling involved an increasing variety of objects and gained a comedic style. With the rise of cirque nouveau and its emphasis on human skills rather than battle reenactments, “freaks,” or animal tricks, juggling became a robust performance form in and of itself. Contemporary sideshow retains juggling, often with a literal edge as performers juggle knives, swords, or other painful objects.
Flow arts also have a significant role in ceremonial performance, most famously through the baton, although flag and rifle spinning are also popular in contemporary marching bands and drum corps. The practice of twirling and tossing a baton dates back to military parades.
Despite these strong ties to entertainment and ceremony, the flow arts — especially in the U.S. — buck convention in many ways. They are considered by many practitioners to be a way of life, rather than a performance form. The name describes not only the movement pattern of the prop but also the inner experience of “flow,” or meditative focus on a task. Unlike circus, which has become increasingly theatrical and, due to its risks, requires intensive training, flow arts encourages casual practice and the blurring of lines between performer and audience. In flow arts performances, hoops are even given to the audience to spin.
A similar approach is seen in the complementary subculture of acroyoga, in which people gather on a regular basis to perform partner balancing moves with each other. These events are called jams, and participants practice various acrobatic moves that require coordination with and support from your partner’s body. Like other flow arts, partner balancing can be a performance form as well as a means of exercise and bonding. When done well, partner balancing acts can be a seamless weave of bodies. I’ve seen incredibly sensual performances in which partners hoisted each other up, counterbalanced their weights, and struck entwined poses that defied logic.
To me, this unique style of acrobatics requires a lot of nerve-wracking practice to be able to achieve flow. My partner and I had to learn to balance our weight appropriately and get used to kicking each other in the face! (Speaking of bonding.)
In both flow arts and acroyoga, the practice is often considered to be a tool for personal growth and community building rather than a performance for an audience. Study and practice take on spiritual and/or academic dimensions, and thus flow arts schools or studios are frequently called “temples” or “institutes.” As a performer, I consider my art to be an extension of my spirituality, and I can see how the flow arts make a particular call for a meditative, selfless state in which the performer becomes a spiritual guide of sorts.
Still, plenty of flow artists perform for an audience, often blending different props with fire or LEDs. Many circus artists and burlesque performers have incorporated some form of flow arts, especially hooping and ribbons, into their acts. Such performances demonstrate dexterity and a command of one’s surroundings, and can be very sexy and thrilling. I love hooping, although I am terrible at the “hula” style we all learn in kindergarten. Instead, I focus on handhooping, in which I manipulate the hoops with my hands and arms rather than my waist.
Flow arts is quickly expanding to include new props and a broader community of flow artists around the world. What’s extraordinary about flow arts is its versatility and empowerment of audience members to cross over to active participant. You may not be good at spinning poi, but you’re welcome to try — and the community will welcome you for it. That’s the magic of circus. There’s a place for everyone.