How I overcame rejection to turn my love of poi into research

Kate Riegle van West had to battle to bring her circus life and her academic life together

January 16, 2017
poi, circus
Source: iStock

Ten years ago, while moping around circus practice with a torn rotator cuff, boredom and curiosity led me to try the most unimpressive prop under the big top: a sock filled with rice.

It didn’t involve flipping and flying through the air. It didn’t involve extraordinary strength or speed. It didn’t appear to involve much at all, just holding one end of the sock and spinning the other weighted end in circles. But as soon as I felt that unimpressive sock orbiting around my body, something happened. Something big. And I was about to spend the next 10 years trying to figure out exactly what it was.

From that moment on, the artform known as poi, the Maori word for “ball on a cord”, became a staple in my life; from opening a poi centre in Chicago to spinning fire poi at an international Jockey underwear convention. Yes, the costume they provided was Jockey underwear. And yes, I was on stage with supermodels. And yes, getting a spray tan was in my contract. And no, I did not get said tan in an attempt to uphold my morals, and therefore felt very pale, short and exposed.

After a few years of taking poi breaks throughout my day like a chain smoker, the obvious finally caught up with me: poi, the thing that I was doing for fun, and academia, the thing that I was doing for a career, could actually be one thing. Genius! 

A few months later, my master’s cohort and I gathered to critique “The Geometry of Poi”, a video installation that featured yours truly, you guessed it, spinning poi. What a breakthrough moment!

I eagerly awaited my classmates’ praise. “It’s kind of uh, sexy.” My jaw dropped. “Yeah, the way her hair is moving, and the poi are going around her body…” Oh just knock me out with a flaming poi and end my misery! The critique carried on while I sank into the dark crevices of my brain...sexy? I wasn’t even showing any skin!

After wallowing in the wake of the critique, I decided there were only two ways to proceed: keep poi and academia separate, or dedicate every ounce of my being to merging them. I chose option two. I never give up on a passion. 

I can say, with great certainty, that there are many different approaches to pursuing poi in academia and many different ways in which those approaches might not work. One such approach is poi as a musical instrument. The Orbitar, a poi that contains gyroscopes and accelerometers and sends data to a computer to generate audio, had an excellent debut performance at the end of my master’s degree. It was music, it was movement, it was technology, it was beautiful! And it was immediately followed by six rejection letters from doctoral programmes in which I hoped to continue working on it.

This led to a few years of wallowing and brainstorming, until I eventually found my way back to the poi/academia merger, but this time from a new angle: poi and health. And in a true uphill battle, I decided to not only completely switch disciplines (I mean, why not study health when my entire background is in media and art?) but also move to the other side of the world to do it. Upon my acceptance on to a doctoral programme at the University of Auckland, I headed to New Zealand not only to research the effects of poi on health in older adults, but also to learn more about the style of poi practised by Maoris, which is thought to be the origin of the poi practised around the globe today. 

I got straight to work planning a clinical trial, and after a year of researching, crowdfunding and recruiting, round one of the trial came to a close with the group who practised poi showing trends of improvement in upper limb range of motion, bimanual coordination and grip strength. A second round of the trial is set to launch this year, and I am praying to the poi gods that some statistically significant claims can be made about the benefits of poi on physical and cognitive function.

I want nursing homes to turn to poi like they turn to t’ai chi. I want schools to turn to poi like they turn to spelling bees and jumping jacks. I want scholars to turn to poi like they turn to the Rosetta Stone. I want to change the world with poi. But for now, I just want to be the first person in the world to graduate with a PhD in spinning socks. 

Kate Riegle van West is a PhD student working between the Centre for Brain Research and the Dance Studies department at the University of Auckland. She won the 2016 Universitas 21 Three Minute Thesis competition.

You can find more information about her research here.

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Print headline: Spin doctor: how I turned my passion for poi into research

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