The scene: a lightly smoky bar. A live improvisational jazz-funk fusion band sets a bubbly, energized mood. One by one, then two by two, then four at a time, hoopers ALIGHT? the tiny dance floor space, pulsing and rocking with the beat. The crowd looks on in admiration. Bar patrons murmur appreciation and critique for the swerving, sweaty gyration of each hooper’s technique. Make no mistake about it, these hoop dancers came to show off their skills and wow the crowd. The spontaneity of movement displayed by each dancer in turn belies their intense focus. A typical Sunday night at Hurricane’s Bar and Grill in Delray Beach, Florida? Typical for anywhere in the known festi-jam-party-verse, for that matter? HARDLY. This, ladies and gentleman, is a Flow Battle!
Ok, pause. Who in their right mind would try to make a battle out of hoopdancing??? Well, I did. And I did it for good reason.
For many years I’ve been participating in and running poetry slams. If you think the idea of ‘judging’ a flow battle is hard, imagine trying to assign a number to a poem! And Yet: nearly every performance poet who is actively writing and performing on the professional scene have cut their teeth in some competitive environment or another, be it at a poetry slam or in submitting material to literary journals. The very nature of taking the stage with someone else sharpens your skills; inviting you to really polish and present the very best you have to offer. Why? Because you know you’ll be judged, that’s why!
Judgment can be hard. It can be completely subjective, totally skewed and potentially skewering to a fragile ego or identity. Flow Battle is not for anyone to take too seriously; time and again, those who allow their competitive standing to be a ladder to high self-esteem find themselves only in a higher place from which to have a devastating fall at a later date. We have a saying in poetry slam: the points are not the point, the point is the POETRY. Woe to the poet who forgets the simple fact that, more often then not, the ‘best’ poet loses. Crowds are fickle, crowds of critics? Doubly so. And if your primary objective in life is to appear pleasing to others, well… you may find that competition is a very lonely place to indulge your mission. Certainly, you’ll be missing out on the opportunity for genuine camaraderie that is so often readily available in this environment.
Yes, I said: genuine camaraderie. One of the most counterintuitive and breathtakingly beautiful aspects of participating in a structured and deliberate, artistic, competitive environment is the unique way it fosters a sense of community. The community that is forged in the fire of competition is strange and strong. As a coach at a national youth poetry slam a few years ago, I marveled at the resilience of the winning team, who refused to be featured in the final promotional photos alone, and stood up to pressure from a slew of adults representing a major television network to send their message: we are all ONE TEAM, ONE VOICE. The competition, something they had been working toward for months and months, became barely an afterthought for these kids: it faded into the background of an extraordinary celebration in the convergence and meeting of like minds! Their stand, up on that stage in front of all the cameras and even their own parents, was to say, “we just had the time of our lives co-mingling and enjoying each other’s artwork, each other’s contribution to our artform. And now that we’ve had this experience, we aren’t going to let it go just because YOU feel that we should now categorize ourselves based on this one arbitrary moment and decision!”
An excellent example in the performance art community of the consistency with which competition brings out the best in its participants is in the discipline of breakdance. The sheer enjoyment and appreciation given to all competing b-boys and b-girls is electric. Leaving a b-boy circle I thought – MAN! I’d love to see serious skill get some serious admiration in MY community! Then I realized, I already had.
Hooping.org’s Hooping Idol was just such a competition, and while some spoke up early against it citing potentiality for hurt feelings and divisiveness, the reality turned out to be quite the opposite. Most of the contestants became tight friends, while many of my favorite hooping videos of all time resulted from it. Everyone rose higher. How often, when hooping with others, do you really take time to stop and admire the hoopers around you?
SO YES: I made a Flow Battle. I designed the ‘rounds’ to include an ‘open flow’ session where all the competitors had 30 minutes to feel the music, work the room and enjoy a spontaneous, free-form jam with each other in an open environment. The judges picked their four favorite hoopers from the group of six, and they were split up randomly for 2 head to head flow rounds. Winners received cash prizes, and the venue received rollicking good entertainment! And even though there was money involved ($200 for first place!), the experience was roundly seen as an opportunity for some serious sisterly love: at one point in the competition, one of the contestants grabbed the microphone out of the host’s hand to ask “Can we do this every week? This is incredible!”
[Flow Battle features Kristen Benson, Cassie McKenney, Meredith Ewen and Ingrid Schindall]
So as Hooping.org takes it’s next step into the ring with The Amazing Hoop Race, giving us something to be excited about for Fall, don’t worry – there will be more flow battles here in Florida to come.
And for my local hoop girls and boys: as I was writing this article, I got an email inviting me to come and compete in a hoop competition at another local venue next weekend – and I can barely wait! Now, when inquisitive strangers catch me walking around with my hoops and ask: “oh, are you in some kind of a hula hoop competition or something?” I can easily, truthfully and authentically squeak: “YES I AM!” See you in the ring!