Written by Parisa Eshrati
Flow artist/hooper Jessica Packard talked to us about the performance and therapeutic aspects of flow arts, and how music plays an integral part of finding the meditative state of flow.
Parisa: For the readers who have never heard of flow arts before, could you give us a quick description of what it's all about?
Jessica: Essentially, flow arts is dancing with a prop and using that as part of your motion. There's a series of tricks and skills you can develop to make it more of a performance art. Flow arts is also a blending of circus arts and other kinds of dance; a lot of people put their own styles into it, whether they do modern dance or even mix in some martial arts. There are tons of different props one could use, including fans, contact staff, poi, etc.
What does it mean to be in a state of flow?
The state of flow is when you’re not really thinking of what you’re doing, you're just engulfed in motion. When you first start there is some general training of how to do develop skills with your prop, so it doesn't come right off the bat. Once the movements become natural, they become so ingrained and like second nature.
It’s similar to that feeling of when you’re driving that same path home every day. You’re aware that you’re driving home but you might not notice everything, your mind is off thinking about something else. That’s like the state of flow with flow arts. You’re in it, doing it, connecting with the music, and interpreting your flow that way. It’s definitely a type of meditation or a way I can release certain things I’m feeling. If I’m feeling anxious I’ll find my groove with a hoop and get in that trance, or if I’m feeling aggressive I’ll play a harder song and connect my emotions that way.
Tell us your background on how you got involved with flow arts. Do you have a main prop?
I’ve always danced throughout my life. I grew up doing jazz, ballet and cheerleading, so I’ve always loved movement. When I got into grad school for graphic design, I worked 90-100 hour weeks with class and homework and didn’t have much time for anything else. I was really missing out on connecting with movement, and I also hated going to gyms so I wasn’t staying active. At that point, I had been to some music festivals so I had seen some people do mind-boggling tricks with hula hoops, so I knew it was a thing. I learned a few tricks at a festival but that was really it.
Then, one time with a group of friends, we went to a bar and I saw they had hoops lying around. I went up there to show people what I could do, honestly just for a funny party trick. I gripped the hoop lifted it over my head, and it flew out of my hand and hit my friend in the head. I figured if I ever were to do this in public again, I need to not hit people in the face. I started looking up tutorials on YouTube and got addicted to learning tricks. It started off as just wanting to learn a fun party trick to show off a unique skill, but it turned into this obsession. I couldn't stop learning more about flow culture, and that lead me to be in a hoop tribe and I'm a professional hooper today!
A lot of people first see doing flow arts at electronic music festivals. Do you know how these two cultures become ingrained with one another?
I’m a hoop nerd of the internet, so I’ve actually read some interesting stuff on that. There's this band, The String Cheese Incident, that's a jam band infused with bluegrass, electronic music, and psychedelia. Legend has it that back in the 90's, The String Cheese Incident started throwing big hoops made out of irrigation tubing into the crowd as a means for people to groove more. People took those hoops and got really creative with them, and of course there’s inspiration from traditional circus arts or even gymnastics. That’s kind of how it grew into the festival scene, since String Cheese plays a lot of festivals.
I imagine there's a lot of traditional roots with certain props as well.
I know some specific flow arts have traditional roots. Poi, for example, was originally used in Maori culture as a way to train warriors. It helps with coordination, strength and flexibility in your arms. Same thing with contact staff - that stems from martial arts. Of course it’s not as regimented when you're doing it for flow arts, but there’s a lot of interesting cross-over between martial arts and what's now used for flow props today.
Now I wanna delve into your relationship with music and flow arts. Since you first got introduced to the scene through electronic music festivals, did this influence the type of music you'd flow to?
I mixed it up. It took me awhile to get that flow to music, because at first when you start you want to be so regimented with tricks. My music taste started with heavy bass music, like Bassnectar, 'cause I was surrounded by it and it's just really fun to groove to. Sometimes, though, you want that more organic sound so I'll listen to live bands like String Cheese. I tend to gravitate to the electronic scene – not like the EDM or techno though. Hooping is big in the EDM scene, but that’s not my taste. I prefer some of the more mindful types of electronic music. Overall, I can’t really find my flow unless it’s a song that I’m really gravitated to.
What are some specific artists that you’ve been really into lately and you'd recommend people checking out?
I use SoundCloud a lot cause you can find a lot of great underground artists and DJs on there - so I'd definitely recommend using that as a source. There’s a song called "Moon Dust" by Jaymes Young that I really like. It's a little moodier and darker with some glitch to it. Another artist, An-Ten-Nae, has a deep, soulful electronic sound that I really love. It’s not like the hard hitting in-your-face stuff you'd hear at like a rave or something, it’s more deep bass stuff. I used to listen to a lot of rap in high school, so a lot of my taste stem from that. I like Diamond Saints, Minnesota (especially the song "Stardust Redux"), and Manic Focus, whose song “Circles” actually features a famous hooper in the music video.. STS9 is always a go-to as well. They're great mixture of having that electronic feel but it’s all from an actual band, so you get that jam band feel but you can get that electronic rhythm to bounce around to.
Is hooping to electronic music easier than other types of music for you?
I think each style of music kind of translates into your state of flow or how you transition between tricks. The more hard hitting stuff is good for throwing tricks 'cause it makes it more dramatic. I can do arm breaks and it makes it look more intense when I'm following those hard beats. But you know, sometimes you want to be more blissed out and listen to something less intense. It just depends on what I’m feeling. If I just wanna jam out, I’ll gravitate towards electronic music with other influences too. Beats Antique is a classic choice among performers. I mean, one of their band members is a stage performer so it’s really well-suited for performances. Some people in the community think it’s a little over-used, but it has that world fusion that makes it a little more cerebral and unique which I love.
When I perform, I don't always get to choose the music. I’ve had to perform to Cirque du Soleil type music a couple of times. One of the directors told me to pretend like I’m Svetlana from Cirque du Soleil [laughs]. I had to play into that character, if you will. Sometimes you have to adapt to the music and find a way to connect when you’re performing. I imagine myself to be that character when I’m dancing to music that I didn’t pick. I have to find something within myself to play those parts.
Aside from just finding music to perform to, how important is music for you to find that therapeutic aspect of flow?
I use music as a part of the experience. If I tap into that Svetlana character for Cirque du Soleil type-performances, I need to bring out something inside myself. I use music to do that because it has that capability of evoking things out of you that you didn't even know you had. I mean, how many times have we been at a concert and felt something we haven't experienced before? The music is going to shape the way you perceive things and thus influence your movement.
It’s similar to that state of flow, because you’re not conscious of it but the music will gravitate you to move in a different way depending on how it makes you feel. I use music to bring out certain emotions. If I want to bring out the ballerina, I’ll put on some classical. It helps set the mood. There are a lot of performances where I'll have to perform to a sexier sorta song, and that can be uncomfortable when it's not generally the type of attitude you exude. Those challenges are good, though, because it forces you to explore these different aspects of yourself that you haven't faced before - and music is the perfect way to guide you there.