Go With the Flow

An Emeryville company has nourished the East Bay’s flow arts scene.


Photo by Damon Hudac - Creative Commons

Five years ago, Chris “Chachi” McCumber encountered a group of strangers spinning fire at a festival in Maine. Awed, he approached them and said, essentially, “I want to do that.”

The group was engaging in “flow arts,” a set of disciplines that combine dance with object manipulation and can include juggling LED clubs — Chachi’s prop of choice nowadays — or twirling a flaming staff. According to the Flow Arts Institute, the umbrella term refers to “a variety of pursuits that harmonize skill-based techniques with creative expression to achieve a state of present-moment awareness known as Flow.”

The objects that people use in flow arts are known as “flowtoys,” and they run the gamut from simple hula hoops to poi, which to the layperson look something like weighted orbs tethered to one’s hands with rope. Depending on what’s in their quiver, a flow artist might swing a flowtoy in circles, roll it up and down their arm, throw it in the air — anything goes. Some props are meant to be lit on fire, but many, like the classic circus-style clubs that Chachi favors, are embedded with LED lights, a more practical option that creates dazzling, colorful patterns in the dark.

The vast majority of flow artists partake casually, gathering at events called “flowjams.” Although participants inevitably do watch one another perform, they mostly flow alongside each other, similar to the crowd at a concert or a dance (but more spacious). Largely unstructured, there are currently no flow competitions, and although various styles and techniques exist, there is no formal methodology, either. In short, it’s a way to cut loose. “Watching your friends is better than TV,” Chachi said.

The Bay Area is something of a mecca for the flow arts, with a number of regular flowjams and dedicated spaces. “We’re pretty lucky here in the East Bay,” said Chachi, who helps organize a gathering known as Friday Night Lights with his friend Jacob “Tiktok” Turner (they both prefer to be called by their nicknames). In addition to continuing that event’s six-year run, Chachi works on the production team at Flowtoys, an Emeryville company run by the husband-wife team Prisna and Sean von Stade.

In 2004, the von Stades — who themselves met through a flowjam — co-founded Flowtoys in hopes of nurturing the positive impacts that the flow arts can create. “My motivation for providing flowtoys in the world is inspired by the positive effects I’ve seen, especially in young men,” Prisna said. “Many men are not comfortable in their bodies. They’re not comfortable dancing, but once you put a staff in their hands, they forget about their bodies and focus on moving the staff. Then, shortly after, they start moving their bodies.”

The von Stades ran the first iteration of Flowtoys out of their San Francisco apartment before relocating to a live-work loft in West Berkeley in 2007. But Flowtoys soon outgrew its home, and the pair acquired a small warehouse in the neighborhood, which they built out to house a small production facility with a workshop, office, and studio, where they filmed their own promotions as well as prominent flow artists who came through town. In 2014, the von Stades moved Flowtoys into its current home in Emeryville.

Today, Prisna and Sean continue to run Flowtoys, she in a managerial role and he as the more technically oriented toymaker. Including Flowtoys, five interconnected companies operate out of the Doyle Street location and assist with the production of Flowtoys, which range from LED poi, which is a prop with roots in Maori culture, to the Toroflux, which is described as a fourth-dimensional slinky.

In addition to making performance-ready props for average consumers and professionals —Flowtoys feature in Cirque du Soleil, among other productions — the von Stades use their Emeryville studio for events related to the business. Every Wednesday evening, they host a free, beginner-level, prop-based workshop. Although tutors often focus on poi, martial-arts-inspired disciplines like staff manipulation and rope dart are also in the mix. Then it’s time to play. “It often feels like a family gathering,” Prisna said. “People come together and share skills and techniques and inspire each other.”

Flowjams typically feature music of some kind, and flow artists are a common sight at many concerts and music festivals. “There is something special about dancing with props to your favorite music artist, surrounded by thousands of people who also love that artist, that can’t be replicated at home or in a park,” Prisna said.

However, the relationship between strictly music-oriented venues and flowtoys can be tricky. Some large theaters, such as Bill Graham Civic Center, have issued blanket bans on “objects that can be used as projectiles, such as glow sticks and Poi Balls” (presumably for safety reasons). Chachi said that sometimes security will give him a hard time when they see his clubs, but then loosen up as soon as they see him juggle — perhaps because they’ve realized he’s in control.

“Some venues love flowtoys; some don’t,” Prisna said. “Some venues simply don’t have the space to enable people to spin props safely for both the spinner and other attendees. Some spinners can be careless, other people can be clueless and think nothing of walking into someone spinning a prop. In an ideal world, event organizers would be educated on the benefits of the flow arts, and we could have flow zones dedicated to dancing safely with props.”

It’s not a difficult argument: The flow arts are ostensibly healthy, not just physically but mentally. “It engages the mind and body, and many would say soul,” Prisna said. “There is a lot of anecdotal evidence of how many lives it has turned around.”

One of those people is Tiktok, who credits the flow arts with ameliorating his depression. “It got me out of a very dark place,” he said. “It taught me to cope with my life.”

For the time being, flowjams are the obvious solution to avoiding conflict with venues. And pragmatism aside, dedicated flow events yield special results. “Whenever you bring together active practitioners or people who are enthusiastic about any artform, all sorts of magic happens,” said Prisna, adding, “having a space dedicated to the flow arts creates a crucible for learning.”

The flow arts remain largely characterized by exploration rather than mastery. “It is in this untapped frontier that many people are finding their flow, so to speak,” Prisna said. “This will evolve if it becomes more structured, but for now, many of us get to write our own stories.”

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