Poi1 come in pairs2. A single poi can be visualised as a tennis ball attached to a string. You hold the other end of the string in your hand and spin this to the side of your body drawing a circle with your tennis ball. Now visualise this with a poi in each hand, both hands spinning at the same time. The lengths of string vary, but it is roughly the length of your arm. You don't rotate your arm at the shoulder, but rather at the wrist.
Origins of Poi
The art of poi originates from the tangata whenua3 of Aotearoa, New Zealand. There, they use balls on the end of a flaxen string (the poi), one in each hand. Poi can be long or short and are used in games and martial arts training. They are also used in kapa haka, Maori singing and performance groups.
It's not just an historical practice - the art is still very much alive. Traditionally, poi have also been used to maintain suppleness, flexibility and strength for tasks like weaving or warfare. Traditional poi practice increases concentration and reflexes.
Poi varies from tribe to tribe in terms of origins and practice. An example is this history from the north of New Zealand.
Then for the Western influence and the popular addage 'If you love something, set it on fire'. Fire poi are generally slightly longer than traditional Maori poi (although lengths vary) and are made of a kevlar wick on the end of a length of chain or metal cord. When soaked in fuel - usually paraffin (kerosene) - and set alight they create a dazzling trail as the poi are spun.
Nowadays, poi come in many different forms with tails, flags, LEDs, glowsticks, UV active props and pretty much anything else you can think of being spun. There are many skills that you can learn, gradually growing more complex in nature.
How Do You Define Western Poi?
Poi is unique. It is neither a circus skill or a martial art, and in its modern form it isn't really a dance. Rather, it is a conglomeration of all these. You can dance with poi - many people mix it with circus skills - and there is a lot of crossover with similar martial-art forms (chain-whip, rope dart) - but it is unique in that its impact very much depends on the person using them.
How Do You Get Into Poi?
Although there are many 'how to' Poi books and Internet resources, try finding a local society. The social aspect can be as fulfilling as the spinning! Check out your local papers or directories for clubs that cover circus skills, as poi usually comes under this umbrella. Don't forget that many university societies don't actually require you to go to the university to join the society.
Some places will allow you to borrow equipment, and some will require you to have your own. When buying poi remember that as a beginner you are likely to get moves wrong and potentially hurt yourself, so soft poi are usually the way to go. A cheap beginner set can be made from a pair of knee socks with a tennis ball/juggling ball in the toe of each with a knot to keep them in place.
And finally, remember to have fun!