Poi Love Camp

July 1st 2014, 8:35:00 pm

Poi Love Camp was an 11 day retreat focused on becoming better poi spinners, held in Costa Rica, and run by Nick Woolsey, the man behindPlayPoi. Also teaching there was one of the spinners who has inspired me the most: Jonathan Alvarez, and also the mind-bendingly talented Alien Jon.

The retreat had been on my radar for a little while, but it wasn't until a few days before Christmas when I decided that I really wanted to get out of the European winter that I started seriously thought about going. A day later I had bought flights and tickets to what ended up being one of the most fun fortnights I've ever had. Impulsive travel planning at it's best.

It was held at a property right next to Cerro Chirripó called Finca Mia, a beautiful eco-retreat up in the hills, with a pretty little river running through the property.

Just about everyone attending stayed at the same hotel in San Jose for a night on arrival, so we could all get driven out to the site together in a minivan the next day. It was astonishing cool to come down for breakfast and find Nick, Jonathan and Jon all seated around a table talking about poi. The guys from the videos you've watched over and over, trying to work out what sort of voodoo they're using to pull off tricks that appear to defy physics, now right there in front of you, and you're eating breakfast with them. I was actually kind of star struck for most of the first day and felt too intimated to actually even spin in front of those guys.

There was some pool side video making in the morning with Nick and Jonathan trying to spin underwater, and general mingling and getting to meet everyone there.

The minivan ride was lots of fun, everyone discussing how they got started spinning, how long they'd been doing it etc. There were some great stories told, but I think Jonathan's story telling abilities deserve a special mention, he's nearly as good at story telling as he is at poi. But stories told at Poi Love Camp, stay at Poi Love Camp :P

Every time the van would stop for any reason, people would jump out and start spinning, to the amusement/confusion of the local Ticos, many of who'd never seen anything like it.

When we arrived at Finca Mia I got lucky and ended up with a cabin to myself called the sunrise cabin. It only had 3 walls and a curtain for the fourth wall, facing the direction that the sun rises. It was kind of surreal having a room that just opened straight out into the forest!

As the sun set that first evening, loads and loads of fireflies started to appear; at first I wasn't sure it wasnt just that thing where skin cells in your eyes float around and sparkle, but I got up close to one with a light and saw it really was a glowing little bug. They made the place feel like a some sort of magical pixi-land with little glowing dots all along the pathways. There was actually quite a lot of wild life on the property, loads of lizards, hummingbirds, even an armadillo that came stumbling through on occasion!

It was really lovely getting to get to know everyone at camp. Everybody was very friendly and approachable and after a few days it felt like I'd known these people for a whole lot longer than I had.

Days largely consisted of yoga first thing in the morning, followed by a very varied and delicious organic breakfast and some time to relax or go for a quick swim. I stuck it out with the yoga for about a week before giving in and coming to terms that my calves and hamstrings have become way too tight for most of the poses these days. One day I'll have to really focus on getting some of the flexibility back I lost while I was injured, but attempting poses way beyond my limits isn't the right path to that.

A bit later we'd spend a few hours leading up to lunch back up on the yoga deck working on various poi skills with a big focus on getting the basics super solid, various methods of counting/timing to fit better with music, performance and choreography.

Lunch would be another healthy buffet of amazing food, followed by a bit more free time in which I often took the chance to swim in the river. The water was a little bit fresh but very refreshing when you're all hot and sweaty from the mornings activities, and it was lovely to warm up in the sun on the rocks afterwards.

In the afternoons we'd head back up to the yoga deck for more workshops, often building on the stuff from the morning, or practicing a choreographed piece that Nick had us working towards to film for a video.

Dinner would be another organic feast. One night we had some soft-shell tacos and they were pretty much the best tacos I've ever tasted!

I learned loads of stuff in a short period, and became aware of a number of weak spots in my basic skills that I needed to work on. I've previously learned a lot things only in anti-clockwise, so while I can do a lot of different things I'm often limited in what I can move between seamlessly because I'm not comfortable with the direction required to do so. It's good to have realised that it's a problem so I can go back and focus on the basics for all the different permutations to make everything flow together a little more easily.

We did some good exercises about developing left/right independence. Sort of like the old rubbing-your-tummy-while-patting-your-head, but on steroids. It's actually kind of funny to see how badly behaved my left hand can be when I'm doing something else with my right. Either hand can do it's part separately easily, but combined the left just falls apart. These skills become really important for Hybrids where one hand traces out one pattern while the other traces out a completely different one, creating some very beautiful combinations.

A lot of time was spent on footwork techniques to turn more smoothly and with less effort, and spotting while turning to reduce dizziness when repeatedly turning in the same direction. This seems to be stuff that people with a dance background have very little trouble with but having never really learnt to dance I found quite difficult. Thankfully a little bit of practice has improved things a lot but I still need to work on this a lot.

We did some work on counting different parts of motion in order to fit patterns to music better. Counting downbeats feels really natural to most people, but doing so means that most patterns repeat on an odd number, which when put to 4/4 music makes things complicated. For something simple like a 3-beat weave, you're stuck repeating it 4 times over 3 bars of music before things line up again.

While I can follow the theory about this stuff, I struggled really hard to actually find the beat a lot of the time. I know people joke about having no rhythm, but it honestly feels like the part of my brain that should help with this is seriously underdeveloped.

Nick had a set of Pyroterra Visual Poi at the retreat which he was kind enough to let me have a go of. From the first time I saw these on a video on Youtube I've been in awe, and then when I saw the $1500 price I was in even more awe. Getting to actually spin them was amazingly, fun and kind of disorienting (they're super bright), but also kind of terrifying. I'm sure they're probably pretty tough, but the though of having to pay for them if they got broken meant I was probably more worried spinning them than I've ever been with fire.

Jon and Jonathan brought along a lot of (at the time) not-yet-for-sale Flowtoys products which we all got to play around with. Lots of stuff from the new modular capsule line-up, capsule handles, compact capsule flower-cap poi, dual capsule tube poi, even capsule staffs! The capsule handles are so nice I'm pretty much converted to the idea of lit up handles, and I really liked the compact flower-cap poi.

We made a couple of excursions out into the local area. One day we made a visit to the nearby hot springs. There's natural warm water coming down the hill, but it's been routed into some concrete pools to make the bodies of water big enough to really swim it. It was a very relaxing way to spend a few hours just hanging out enjoying the water.

We got invited to come along to a local festival and rodeo where the group performed in the bull ring with LED poi. The PA did not have any way to connect an iPod so we ended up spinning to their selection of music, some Latin-American pop music songs from the charts. The crowd loved it and some people were even actually asking afterwards about getting the group to perform at other events. It was my first time in front of a big crowd and it was heaps of fun.

After the performance Jonathan decided he wanted to spin poi in the ring with the bulls. The locals weren't so keen on him doing this, but they he was able to partner up with a local guy who was shitfaced drunk, and tried to tie up a baby bull. The guy had somehow miscommunicated that Jonathan should try and tie up the bull's back legs up while the local guy grabbed it around the neck, which lead to some hilarious attempts to get it tied up while the announcer heckled him in Spanish.

One morning some of us made a visit to the local chocolate maker in the village. It was run by a lady named Tao, who showed us how they made their chocolate, grinding the cocoa beans in a juicer with some cocoa butter, then put in a conching machine that rolled the chocolate over for 3 days to get it silky smooth. We then got to take a batch from 3 days ago and make our own blocks of chocolate with our own choice of added flavourings. I made mine with crushed coffee beans, chilli flakes and sea salt. It turned out really tasty and didn't last long after I started eating it.

Another day the whole group took a trip to a nearby beach for the day, Playa Dominical. We had a nice lunch when we arrived, then went out in the surf and did some body surfing. It was incredibly fun and reminded me how much I enjoy the ocean. We had our afternoon poi class by the shore, then had dinner at a local restaurant before making the trip back to the finca.

We had two nights of spinning fire right at the end of the retreat, as we had some issues getting our hands on suitable fuel to burn. It was the first time I'd spun with fire since way back in Thailand, so I was a little timid about it and only felt up to spinning the first night, but it was great to see everyone else busting out their best performances. Especially enjoyable were Thomas spinning like a mad man to some crazy French psy-trance, AlienJon's beautifully synchronized slow swinging pendulums to an Ott song, and Nick spinning to "I'm too sexy" :P

After everything was done and dusted I hung around at Finca Mia for an extra few days afterwards. It was sad to see the group diminish but great to get to spend some extra time with the others who stayed on.