The art of spinning poi originated with the Maori people of New Zealand. It is not known when poi dancing was created by the Maori, but it pre-dates their first contact with Europeans in the early 1800s and likely goes back to as far as 1500 A.D.. Poi is still practiced by the Maori, but for this article, we will focus on the history of poi as it intersects with the broader juggling world. It should be noted that performance club swinging, a long-standing form of juggling, has had a profound influence on poi swinging. You can see the similarities by viewing the work of famed juggler and club swinger Harry Lind in the following video.
Another influence has been from the world of martial arts, most clearly in the use of the 9 sectioned whip, which you can see below.
Another influence on modern poi is the art of stringed glowsticking, also known as glow stringing. Starting in the 1980s raves in New York City and in the UK, this art of spinning glow sticks attached to strings is popular in the rave, EDM, and general music festival scenes.
While modern poi certainly has been influenced by traditional poi and various other performance arts, I also recognize that much of the development of the art form has happened in the non-juggling / stand-alone poi community.
Poi has become a big part of the juggling world over the last few decades. I first saw tail poi being spun by jugglers in the very late 1990s. Then sock poi appeared, and now we almost exclusively see contact poi, which was developed by Ronan McLoughlin in 2007 after he was influenced by club swinging. However, as I’ve researched juggling over the years, I’ve occasionally found earlier examples of poi, or at least poi-like props and skills, being a part of a juggler’s act. Let’s take a look at these examples.
Robert Ganthony and R.H. Douglas
In the 1896 book Bunkum Entertainments, written by Robert Ganthony, the author includes a chapter on juggling. The act that he describes in the book is a parody of a standard juggling act of the time and includes quite a bit of faked juggling stunts and a few that are actually legitimate. One of the skills he attempts to parody is a three ball cascade. You can see his description of his method of fakery below.
As you can hopefully make out from the description, the faked juggling was done by swinging a ball on a thread in each hand (like poi) while swinging a third ball on a mouth stick. While this certainly isn’t poi as we know it, it is the earliest example we know of where a juggler swung balls on the end of a rope or thread.
Van Wyck’s Swinging Fire Balls and Bolos
Most sources stated that performances with fire poi were first done in the 1950s in Hawaii as a tourist attraction. However, it would appear that jugglers were swinging flaming balls much earlier. In a Van Wyck juggling prop catalog from around 1905 we see the following item listed for sale.
Now, it is possible that this prop had a solid handle rather than a cable or rope attachment, but I doubt this, as flaming swinging clubs already existed, as you can see below.
Therefore, I believe that the prop illustrated was just a large fire poi.
It should also be noted that Van Wyck also sold bolos, the poi-like prop used by Argentinian gaucho performers. The bolos are like long poi with a hard ball on the end that strikes the floor as they are spun, creating various rhythms. You can see these “South American Bolos” listed near the bottom of the following Van Wyck catalog from the year 1900.
Argentinian gauchos have been performing with bolos, also called boleadoras, for around 400 years. If you’re not familiar with their use of bolos, please watch the following video.
The poi community recognizes the influence that bolo performers have had on the development of the prop, so it’s interesting to see it associated with juggling so far back.
Kathi Gultini and Paul Pohl
Kathi Gultini was one of the greatest female jugglers of the early 1900s. You can read about her life and career by clicking here. In the 1930s, she formed an act with her husband Paul Pohl and worked under a variety of names, including Pool and Pool. One of the acts they performed was with props resembling oversized contact poi, which they spun in poi-like patterns. You can see them pictured below.
Joe Marsh’s Eccentric Ball Juggling
In the 1940s, British juggler Joe Marsh had the idea of juggling balls with black ropes or wires tied to them that would blend in to a background and make for a unique looking juggling pattern. As you can see from his illustration below, this looks quite a bit like modern toss juggling with contact poi.
Ruslan Fomenko is a juggler from Ukraine who juggles and swings poi-like objects that he calls sviaska, which means “bundle.” They are large stage balls connected by a 3 foot rope. He developed this act in the early 1990s at the circus school in Kiev. A previous performer had worked with the same props, but had only done swinging with them. Ruslan learned swinging with the props but also mastered toss juggling with them, performing up to five.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing his amazing act, please check out the videos below.
Gil Pontius – Dr. Stardust
In the mid-1990s, Gil Pontius, an environmental scientist with a Ph.D., developed an act as Dr. Stardust that incorporated props similar to giant contact poi that he spun while bouncing a ball on his head.
You can see his unique act, which he refers to as The Orbitals, in the following video.
Gil competed with this act in the 1996 IJA Championships. He developed the act after suffering from tendinitis in his wrists, which preventing him from doing more traditional juggling.
A few short years later, tail poi started showing up in the juggling community and poi has continued to be a thriving part of the juggling world ever since as it continues to evolve and develop.
Poi passing is one of the newest innovations in poi, with artists such as Armin Taeschner and Brutal Keith paving the way. Below you can see a video of Keith Marshall and Antonia Mae of Throw Poi demonstrating passing and duo work.
Chris Kelly has been at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of toss juggling, especially with numbers, using poi. He was also the first poi performer to make the Top 40 Jugglers Poll, doing so in 2018.
Poi continues to merge more and more into the broader juggling world, as poi integrates toss juggling, contact, club swinging, and other skills and as toss juggling, especially with clubs, continues to pick up flow moves from poi. Poi has rightly become a large part of the juggling community.
If you know of other examples of early poi or poi-like performances being done in the juggling community prior to the mid-90s, please let me know.