The first time I saw someone doing poi was at a backpackers’ lodge. A girl was swinging and twirling two burning round objects, making flowery designs while the sparks illuminated the night sky. It was magical. I was transfixed by the pure mastery and skill of it all. Earlier this year I decided I just had to try it myself, so I contacted Firetribe in Cape Town.

“Poi means ball on a string,” explained Caitlin Leigh, the manager of Firetribe, Cape Town’s leading fire performance group and fire dancing equipment manufacturer. The company has been around for almost 15 years and was started by the owner, Jon-Peer Bouwer. Caitlin continues: “Poi has become the art of moving two of these balls on strings around yourself in all sorts of intricate patterns and motions.”

Poi originated in New Zealand and at first was just a container to carry eggs in. Then, Caitlin tells, carrying heavier objects in the poi became a way for men to become fitter and more flexible. Next, the Maori women decided to put lighter objects in the poi and design a dance with it. Today people light the balls on fire. This fire bug has bitten people all over the world especially in Europe, America and Russia. Caitlin comments: “The Cape Town community does exist – but the Russians do any of the flow arts really well.”

Dancing with poi comes under the umbrella term “flow arts”, a term which, according to Caitlin, refers to any kind of activity that requires a flow of motion in order to exist, whether it is dancing with your body or manipulating an object. “Gymnastics . . . ballroom dancing . . . all of this these are about flow. Even swimming has an element of flow – but then you might ask: where is the art in that? Therefore flow arts is a school of object manipulation where people can play with toys.”

As soon as I felt confident with some of the basics, it was as if time lapsed. I found myself travelling to some medieval world where fire eaters, jesters and jugglers were strutting their stuff in front of lords, ladies, kings and queens. The poi dancers of Cape Town do not call themselves “circus folk” for nothing. But poi is not just about doing a neat trick. Physically it builds upper body strength and tones muscles. It improves hand-eye coordination and also hand-hand and brain-brain coordination. Poi requires that both sides of the body work together.

I am particularly taken with the mental benefits of doing poi. Caitlin describes the mental state it induces: “Actively and consciously flowing in any kind of activity is a type of meditation. It is a type of focus, of being in the present moment in your body. A lot of people say that calmness, the ability to focus and clarity, transfer to other parts of their lives as well. It gives you that moment with yourself to play and have fun.”

For more information on poi and Firetribe, visit Learn how to poi at the Observatory Community Centre every Wednesday evening from 19:00 till 20:00. Rates: R120 (1 class); R380 (4 classes). Equipment can be borrowed.

Watch flow arts and some Firetribe people in action here:


(Video credit: Supplied by Caitlin Leigh and Firetribe)
(Main image credit: Supplied by Caitlin Leigh and Firetribe)