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At Fifth Elephant

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Circus at Fifth Elephant. Photos by Saifi

This is more of a Spin Matsuri post than one for Mediatinker, but in the interest of keeping my travel journal full, I can tell you about the personal side of attending a tech conference as a circus person. That's what I call myself these days, when people ask. "I'm a circus person" or sometimes "I'm a circus performer" even though I don't perform all that much. And then I launch into an elevator pitch about social circus.

Anyway, I was asked to perform at the event, but that morphed into me leading some Stretching for Geeks sessions in between talks and doing two circus playshops. I made juggling balls and brought hoops and scarves and it was great fun. In fact, there are eight new jugglers in the world now. I'm really proud of the guys who came and played and practiced until they got it.

Having run and organised plenty of events myself, it was interesting to see how it is done here, by my friends at HasGeek. There were about 1000 people in total, with a two track, two day program and vendor booths, too. There was lots of networking time and space for everyone. They had an epic lunch setup with interactive buffet elements like a freezing cylinder that made kulfi, salad bar, tons of veg and non-veg buffet options and live cooking. I ended up with the lunch boxes both days (since I was circusing during lunch time) which were also tasty.

In addition to circusing, I spent both mornings greeting the attendees outside the venue and directing them to registration. That meant people knew my face and came to me with questions and problems. Even though I was a last minute addition to the team nobody knew that! So lots of times I had answers and sometimes I didn't. I also got up in front of the 800 seat auditorium to make announcements and moderated and impromptu flashtalk session when one speaker had to cancel. I had a lot of interesting conversations with attendees and staff, received many compliments about my ability to keep the enthusiasm going, got a couple of job offers, and made some possibly useful connections for my social circus activities.

All in all, The Fifth Elephant was a great event, even for a circus person. Zoupi enjoyed it, too.

Juggling in Yangon

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I spent the past week in Yangon, Myanmar, for a juggling festival & social circus project organised by Serious Fun in Yangon. Me and two dozen other international jugglers flew in to do shows and teach workshops all over the city. We worked with disabled kids, a monastery school, rescued child soldiers, and the general public.

There were so many great people. I reconnected with Andrea, the head of Spark Circus, and we'll be working together on some stuff in the coming year or so. I got my first volunteer for Spin Matsuri India, Elad, an Isreali juggler who will be in India later this year when I'm there, too. I watched in awe as veteran performers did their stuff: Haggis, Ben Zuddist, Maike, & Captain Finhead are the sort of performers I want to emulate - skilled, able to play to all ages in any condition with aplomb and good humour. I made connections with circus people, tech people, and new friends from all over the world. I also met a juggler, Mike Twist, who lives two stations away from me in Tokyo. We have very little overlap in our circles, which is rare for long-term foreigners here. I'm sure we will meet up and do more together in the coming months.

I learned to juggle two balls in one hand. Seems like it would be easy, but it has eluded me forever. Roo, a 15 year old, stared at me the way only teens can until I got it. I simply could not let myself fail and I didn't stop until I could do columns in both hands and inside and outside cascades, too. I also managed to juggle (1 whole juggle) clubs, another long-standing goal. Alberto taught me the tricks: throw to the outside, not forward; sing circus music while doing so. The music made it work. And I also learned to bend balloons - I can make a balloon sword. Slowly and carefully...but I can do it and it will only get better from here. Practice, practice, practice!

The highlight of my week was the praise I got from my fellow jugglers regarding my skill at stage management. Yep, I am not the best juggler (in this group, I was the the worst by far) and my performances are less polished than they could be, but I am fearless backstage and it was a treat to know that performers I respect recognised that.

Filming "Stars" on Niijima

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Here is the latest video with the Frolicaholics. We filmed it on Niijima during Guru-Guru Camp and it was such fun that I want to share the behind the scenes bits. 

The Recording
We sat in our campsite early in morning - there were no other campers in residence yet - and tried perhaps ten takes, adjusting our position relative to the Xoom recorder. Tod's toy xylophone is a lot louder than my voice and ukulele, so he had to sit back on the bench while I cozied up to the table. We'd brought lots of recording gear, including an extra mic and a stick-on pickup for the uke; we even considered going into town to record in the karaoke room, but...too much trouble. The sun was warm and we didn't want to move.

Rob also filmed the recording session, so there are some clips from it in the video. Look for the ones where my lips sync up perfectly. We'd planned to play back the recording through my amp and sing along to it, but that was just too much work. I am pretty sure we never sang the song at the same tempo twice as we continued filming. The fact that my lips sync at all is Rob's editing magic.

The birds singing in the background at the beginning are the real birds at camp. Our dawn chorus.


The Filming
Rob wanted to make this video to play with some new gear he's gotten since last year's camp - a very long lens and a star tracker. He'd planned to capture some of us hoopers in front of the moon, but the moon was only a crescent while we were there. So we switched to sunrise and sunset shots. 

Rob & I became adept at waking up before dawn to walk over to the beach. My favorite camp memory is waking at 4 and climbing up to the top the stone monument on the hill between camp and the shore. It was windy up there and a long way down. The koga stone is very grippy, fortunately, as the top of the monument is slanted like a roof. Rob got the shots he wanted of me hooping with the sun rising behind.  First I sat and did poses, then when the sun was up far enough, I stood up to hoop. That waist hooping, which you'll see in the video, is rather wonky and tenuous thanks to the gusty wind and my fear of falling. I didn't topple but it seemed so likely. Pushing my boundaries was a very good experience - and it happened before morning coffee.

Most of the shots of me and Tod playing our instruments were filmed at camp or in the "stone animal zoo" next door. We filmed for two days while camp was relatively empty, and then again as the flood of campers left on the last day. I think I sang Stars about 60 times. 

The kissing bits were taken on the other side of the island at the port ferry terminal - we sneaked up onto the balcony after the building closed to catch the sunset. So naughty. That same afternoon we also filmed on the beach and rocks near the ferry to the general entertainment of passersby.

Actually, I was not feeling well that day and napped in the tent while Tod & Rob went location scouting. They called me two hours before sunset and asked me to come because they had a plan. I put on my costume, shoved our instruments, Tod's costume, and everything else we'd need into my bike basket and pedalled out of camp to a chorus of "Yabai!" from the next camp over. Hmph.

The LED hooping happened on the hill in Habushiura Park one night after dinner. I love the shot of the hoops coming at the camera. Rob was great at directing motions that seemed strange at the time, then look so amazing on screen. Tod, Alice and Harusa did the trippy stuff, Sareh executed a lovely solo even though she was falling asleep, and we all did the impromptu group choreo.

One evening we had a sunset hoop jam on the beach near Yu no Hama Onsen. After some freestyle hooping, we lined up for group movements and Rob got us to frame the sun, then pull our hoops away. The shot is reversed in the video so that it looks like we move into perfect alignment with the sun. Yay for editing.

For Camper
The mysterious dedication, "This video is for camper" is a Niijima in-joke. Our friend, Takashi Miyagawa, spends his free time making tables, benches, and other things from scrap lumber. He's even made barbecues from old gas canisters he saw sin half by hand. He brings them to camp labelled キャンプ用 FOR CAMPER. There is a huge collection of Takashi's practical furniture and we are always grateful for him and his creativity. So this video is for camper.

Me, the Sea, and the Sunrise

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One of the quiet delights of camping on Niijima is a morning walk to the beach. This year, I saw several sunrises emerging blood red from the ocean. For some of them I was busy hooping while Rob filmed me for our video project.

Sunrise. I am sitting atop a 4 meter high koga stone monument. Rob is about 100 meters away with his long lens.

The Frolicaholics Play Hoop Lounge

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Memorable birthday! Instead of going out to dinner or pigging out on cake, Tod & I played a show at Hoop Lounge. We were in a terrific line-up of acts that included a diablo player, a performance artist, and a Cirque du Soleil dancer/clown. Backstage was warm and chatty as we got to know one another.

I performed on my birthday because I wanted to promote our upcoming Guru-guru Camp activities. We sang the song that we'll use in the video Rob is making at camp. Stars is one of my favorite Sophie Madeleine songs. I love the delicate sound of Tod's toy xylophone in this one.

My horrible stage fright wasn't so horrible this time, though you will note a look of relief on my face after we finish. At least there is no terror on my face while we are playing. I am feeling more confident about making music and that helps keep the worst of the jitters at bay.

A Hoop Lounge performance isn't right without a little hooping in the act, so I combined skills to sing, play and hoop all at once. It is not as easy as walking and chewing gum at the same time; I've been trying and failing at this for months. It felt triumphant to get it working here. This Roger Miller song was perfect for some new Tokyo-specific lyrics, too. And an elephant reference...


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Miki and I got together this afternoon to do some acrobalance. Although I lead an acro segment in the Circus Fitness workshops, I'm not an expert. Miki's got lots of experience and I was happy to get some new ideas from her today, especially for training. I need more flexible hips and a stronger core to be a good base.

Winter Hoop Dance

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I joined a group on Facebook called The Hooping Game. Players are assigned songs, then have 48 hours to make a hoopdance video and post it back to the group. I got my song yesterday morning and braved the almost freezing temperatures at Yoyogi park to make my video.

You may notice the orange-hatted preschoolers passing by but you can't hear their little voices shouting "Sugoi!" as I danced near the fountains. Also not in the frame are the two dozen workers raking leaves around the trees. I added some interest to their morning, based on the stares and smiles.

I like this video. I haven't made a hoop video in a long time and The Hooping Game is going to give me some incentive to step up my game and dance more with evidence to prove it.

Hoopiversary #5

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It was five years ago today that I started hooping. What a life changing experience. Except, really, it isn't. I am still me but I dance more. I have always been drawn to creating projects, organising events, choreographing performances. Now I have a great excuse to do all of that - the hoop. Hooping still bring me challenges, opens doors, and gets me out into the world to meet people and have adventures.

Sometimes I feel that I haven't improved much after my first year of hooping. I learned a ton then with the influence of weekly classes and hooping friends who encouraged me to try hard. Since then, my skills have increased slowly and I never feel that I've mastered anything. Watching the emergent hoopers, who are so dedicated to artistry and technicality, makes me feel sloppy and lazy. But I am what I am and I love hooping no matter how I may compare to others.

To remind myself of the changes and advances I've made, I am sharing a retrospective of my hooping.

2008: This is a video I took one week after my first hoop class with Deanne.

2009: Here is one I made for a HoopCity contest in June.

2010: Enjoying some evening hooping in August.

2011: On a summer visit to the US, I got to perform with my sister.

2012: I captured this silent video in a practice session in September.

2013: And today I went to the beach to celebrate and commemorate.

Contests and mental blocks

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A few months ago, Ayumi and Mami announced the Japan Hoopdance Champion contest. It's a nationwide contest for all hoopers living here. I was excited to see it come together and I wanted to enter it not with any intention of winning, but in solidarity to the organisers and to connect with the broader Japanese hoop community. Cool.

But there is always a "but"... Being judged freaks me out. Enormously. I don't like contests, auditions, or job interviews. I actively avoid them. I usually create my own opportunities or wait for offers to find me, rather than seek out terrifying moments of judgement and approval. 

So here I was, trying to enter a contest. It would be fine. Right?

Since I'm known for creating large group hoop choreographies, I figured I'd submit a group entry. This proved challenging because nobody wanted to be in a group with me. They were too busy, too shy, or maybe everyone dislikes working with me, I don't know. But eventually, thanks to Tod's intervention, Kouichi and I teamed up and created a dance together. Group of two is still a group. We rehearsed a few times, shot the video, and the group entry was sorted! Sigh of relief.

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See how cute we look? Kouichi was a lot of fun to dance with.

At the same time, I thought I ought to create a solo entry, too, because that would be a true challenge. I dislike solo dances. I dislike contests. Let's take two bad things and put me in the middle of them. Yes. Great idea. So I devised a kinda cool dance routine to a ska song I love. I drew up storyboards. I tested moves. And then I looked at the contest rules in detail. No editing, no panning, zooming or multiple cameras - all part of my plan. I liked my idea too much to shelve it, so Rob and Tod & I filmed the video anyway while we are on Niijima. It was pretty. I am still editing it.

With less than a month left before the contest entries were due, I started to stress about the solo entry. Maybe I shouldn't bother? I need to bother. I alternated between trying to try to talk myself out of it and trying to film something. 

I filmed in my living room. I filmed at the park, in the carport, in the yard. I recruited Tod to help. I manned the camera alone. I filmed on the bluff in Yokohama. I tried a choreographed dance to a song I like. I played with my hoop move and dance word cards. I tried freestyle dance to whatever came up on random play. I tried ukulele and hoop together. Nothing seemed to work.

So many tries. So many different hoop dances...

Mental block? Mental bollocks. Every single time, I gave up before the end of the song. I started beautifully and soon it all fell apart. I knew it wasn't good and I stopped. Sometimes the "not good" was obvious like tripping over my hoop. Sometimes it just felt wrong. Regardless of my excuse, I filmed a lot of incomplete dances. Upon reviewing the video, it was never as bad as I thought it was. If I had just kept going, I might have had something nice. But I didn't and the deadline was getting closer and closer.

Obviously, I had a completion issue. And a fear of failure. And that "being judged" thing that I mentioned before. I'm not sure what else came into play, but I was ramping up the crazy scale.

Every failed attempt made me more stressed. I felt bad emotionally, and eventually physically, too. My heart started behaving strangely. My stomach was upset. My head ached. I was sleeping erratically. I had no energy. To relieve the stress, I tried to tell myself it was ok not to enter the contest, but I didn't believe myself.

Eventually, I forced myself to make one last try. I spent several hours in the kendo room down the street. I walked out certain I had something suitable; there must be an entry in those two hours of dancing. I made sure I danced all the way through the songs no matter how awkward it felt.

I watched the footage. There were several sweet dances, perfectly fine for entering into the contest. But at the same time, I also skimmed through the footage from Yokohama the day before. And there it was, among the shots I'd not even bothered to look at because of course they were terrible and useless. My entry! It was funny and I loved it.

The public voting for the contest runs from June 3 -17. I have no need to win, so you don't have to vote for me, but I'd love for you to have a look at the entries and see what amazing talent Japan hooping world has. There are 12 kids entries, 13 soloists, and 4 groups.

And if you don't feel like looking through all the entries and voting, here are my solo performance and the group entry Kouichi and I did:

Spark Circus: the work, the shows.

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The Sparkles at a fundraiser on Koh Samui

Where do I even begin the story of my circus adventures? The beginning seems so long ago. So I will start at the end.

Feb 22, 4 pm. I chucked my bags onto the songtauw heading to the airport. As I plopped myself on the bench and the driver pulled away, my circus family were singing "rum sum sum" to me from the porch of our guest house. This is the song we sang every day as we arrived and left the schools. I sang back to my friends and cried. The circus was well and truly over for me.

The previous week had been one of post-circus decompression, staggered departures, and a few reconnections on the road. In pairs and trios, some of the troupe went to Pai, others to Chiang Mai. There were plans to head back to the islands where we started. Some jetted off to Bangkok. Our goodbyes sometimes took place at the front gate of our homebase in Mae Sot, with hugs and waves in the pre-dawn.

For a month in Bangkok and Mae Sot, our circus family was as tightly knit as you can imagine. And like most troupes rallied around a show, it unravelled when the run was over. There is a core group all from Denver; they will certainly see one another. But will I ever again meet my fellow Sparkles offline? I can't rule it out, but I can't promise I will. I hope so.

Hard Work and Worth It

An early version of our schedule

We bound together so strongly as a group because circus work is hard. It is fun and extremely fulfilling, but at the same time, it is not easy. Our schedule was bursting with shows and workshops. Often it was two a day - a school show with workshops and then a fire show at night. Some days we split into two teams to fit in an extra location. We had a few days on the schedule without shows, and a fair handful of one show days. Some days we travelled far; other days the venues were right around the corner from us.

In between shows and on days off, we had myriad tasks to keep everything running smoothly - from taping hoops to arranging water purchases and shopping missions to restock supplies. The crew in charge of shows, workshops, and sound had setlists to plan and lots of communication with everyone. Our personal needs, like laundry, eating, training, and social connections, got slipped in somehow. The pace of life was fast. Time management is a key skill in the circus. 

The hard work, the hours put into so many different tasks, the stress of things not always going as was all worth it for the reward of smiles and love from kids and communities we visited.

Day Shows

Tink at Chicken School. Photo by Lavoz Solidaria

The fun and fulfilment comes with the shows. The energy of the kids in the audience at our day shows fed back in a loop every time. We gave our best, the kids grabbed it, multiplied it, and tossed it back to us. We busted out clowning and silliness, then offered an hour of workshops in hooping, juggling, poi, dance, and other circus skills. After a day show, our ride home was buoyant as we recounted individual encounters with the kids who wanted to hold our hands the whole time, who ran to wash their faces for another round at the facepaint station, or who learned so fast we couldn't teach them enough tricks in the workshops. 

It is hard, though, to understand that our circus is so outside the usual experience for these kids. Many of the places we visited were boarding schools for children whose parents are still in Burma - they call them IDPs, internally displaced persons. Some of the kids are orphans. Other schools focus on daily education for street kids, or rescuing them from sordid lives of slavery and prostitution. For some of our team, these were heartbreaking realisations. There were tears and quiet contemplation. These children have seen more of the bad side of life than I have, for sure. They live in better circumstances now - fed, clothed, housed and educated. This is a good thing. Hopeful.  Despite their challenges and sad histories, kids manage to be happy and childlike when the circus visits. 

At several schools, we were feasted. I have to say that heaping bowls of rice with soup curry or fruit tasted so good after dancing and playing in the scorching sun. And even better than food, sometimes we were treated to performances by the students - a masked traditional dance, a stunning choreography performed through clapping bamboo poles, modern choreography with traditional singing. Even a Gangnam Style dance one night before our fire show. It was always a huge treat to get a return show from the kids because I truly appreciate the courage and practice that goes into live performance of all types. 

I brought two acts to the day show line up and they were both performed in most of the shows. As a solo performance, I did a clowning act with my hoop as a mirror. The kids got to participate in this one as I had them hold the hoop mirror for me while I smeared lipstick all over my face and then wiped some if it off onto my helpers and blew kisses to the audience. The other act was the WHD Dance (surprised?) which a group of six of us rehearsed. It was great fun to perform the WHD choreo with a bunch of terrific hoopers in such exotic locations. I wonder if there is any video I can add to the compilation...

There was a third act that I did only once in the very last show of the tour. Jew and I planned out a circus-y multihoop extravaganza with a crew of five hoopers but never managed to rehearse it with everyone. We were both eager to play it, so we pared it down to him, me, and Quinn and practiced on the road as we headed into the refugee camps north of Mae Sot. We busted it out in Nu Poe on our very last day and it was fun. I think it will be one of my acts for next year.

Night Shows

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I love fire. photo by Vincenzo Florama

Our night shows were a complete change of pace from the day shows. We were spinning fire (and occasionally LED) and this was outside my comfort zone, at least at first. I learned a heap about safety, fuelling, extinguishing, and performing with fire. It became comfortable and nearly routine. I truly fell in love with fire performing.

Our full fire show began with a group piece based on a Chinese 1000 hands dance. All of us aligned in a column, moving in sync and in sequence to present the fire on our hands in patterns and waves to the audience. It was a very pretty piece. Sometimes I was in this one, sometimes not, depending on my other roles for the show - running sound or acting as safety monitor.

Every night's show was a new lineup. We had more acts than time, so the show manager created a new set list every day. Sometimes performers were sick or needed to take time off for whatever reason. Sometimes the shows needed to be longer or shorter or had other constraints. After the set list was developed, the Safety team went into action and prepared a matrix showing who was going to man the various safety stations. We had three people with buckets and towels ranged around the stage to catch any flying props and potentially douse the performers. There were two extinguishing positions with damp towels and duvetene to put out the tool as the acts came off stage. Someone sat with our dipping station to help redip tools and ensure that the fuel was safely contained and kept away from the public. Troupe members switched from performance to safety positions throughout every show. It was sometimes chaotic.

Each show concluded with a spectacular of fire as everyone had a turn with their tools, overlapping entrances and exits so that there was an abundance of flame on stage. The climax of the finale was an acrobatic dragon formation made of three people with flames in hands and overhead, battled by April on stilts with a fire sword. There were always lots of grins on stage during that part and happy smiles as we took our bows. Often I missed the bow since I was extinguishing the dragon's tools, but I tried to be quick so I could run up at the very last second and squeeze my way into the line.

The acts in between were solo pieces. They varied from dynamic to lyrical and used a huge variety of flaming props - hoops, poi, staff, rope dart, fans. All of the performers were highlighted by "framers" who slowly wielded flaming props in the background to add more light and interest to the stage. I loved doing framing to accent other people's acts and everyone had their favorite people to frame them. Nikki and I were often waving isis wings in the background for Jew's poi act, with "palm candle girls" down front. I used fans or torches a couple of times when the regular framers were absent. My favorite framing performance was as a firefly in April's double hoop act. Nothing beats bouncing around using palm candles as lightning bugs. We all fought to get on stage for that act. 

My own fire act used mini hoops like fans to create a clock character. I did it many times - actually every scheduled show until I got sick - and each night it was a little different. I love the act and will continue to use it, with an aim to nailing the open armed turn that I never got quite right. My framers were two handsome men with torches standing behind me doing clock-y swishes and circles. I never got to see them in action. I wonder if there is video somewhere...

There is so much more to be written about the circus experience - from the special moments at each school to the personal awakenings I had while in the circus. But this post is long enough and those stories will have to come another day.

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