British Columbia

More people trying poi for a mental and physical challenge

An ancient traditional Maori dance that became a popular performance art at music festivals, is now becoming popular for people looking for a fun and challenging activity

For those looking for a new activity to boost the body and the brain, give poi a spin

Nick Woolsey demonstrates a popular poi move. (Jennifer Chen)

Whether it's Zumba or a sugar-free diet, January is often the time when people want to try something new. For those looking to expand their brains and challenge their coordination, poi could be the answer. 

You may have seen poi at a traditional Maori performance in New Zealand, or at a music festival where performers spin fireballs on chains, but now poi is becoming more than just a novelty.

Nick Woolsey, a professional poi artist and teacher, has been travelling around the world for more than a decade, teaching poi. He's currently teaching a series of workshops in Vancouver.

So what exactly is poi? When I went to visit Woolsey where he teaches, at Studio East in Vancouver, he had several variations of different balls on rope, all in pairs.

Woolsey says the word means "ball" in Maori. The Maori have an ancient dance called the poi poi, using weighted balls on ropes. The dancer swings the poi to create different rhythms and patterns.

He says poi has its roots in the Maori tradition, but the poi we see today outside New Zealand has taken on other forms.

Fire poi helps popularize the art

In the last century, someone decided to use a pair of chains with kevlar tied at the end, instead of the grasses that Maori people used. The kevlar absorbs fuel and is used like a wick, but the material doesn't burn, so it is used to spin fire — what's called fire poi. 

Nick Woolsey displays a variety of different poi toys for different effects. (Jennifer Chen)

"This is what spread poi around the world," says Woolsey. 

He says it's a beautiful way to perform, but you can also use different tools, such as LED poi, an LED-battery-powered ball on string, and that can produce different effects.

The first steps to learning poi

One of the first exercises Woolsey teaches people is to hold their index fingers in front of them, pointing at each other, and then try and circle one finger clockwise while the other finger is circling counter-clockwise.

"If they liked the feeling of having solved that riddle, I'll say 'Great. You're probably going to like poi.'"

The next move is to get the poi in people's hands, to try a similar motion while swinging the poi in opposite directions at the same time.  

For Woolsey, there are huge mental and physical benefits to practising and performing poi. "It's really fun … your body has to create a whole new coordination to allow you to do the next level of skill." 

"Because of the balance, the dexterity, and all this left-right criss-crossing... it's as much of a brain gym than it is physical." He says studies have shown it's very good for the brain. 

Poi is a growing movement, says Woolsey. At the moment in Vancouver, you may see it in the park, or at music festivals.

The general public, he says, isn't really aware of poi at this point. "It's like yoga 30 years ago."