Dan Betlejewski’s tools couldn’t be any simpler but it’s what he can do with them that’s important.
With a flick of his wrist, maybe an arm reach above his head, Betlejewski turns a piece of rope with two rubber balls attached at opposite ends into a spirograph of color. He can juggle with them, spin three at a time, throw one in the air and catch it without breaking his rhythm or dropping the others.
Betlejewski has been spinning poi for more than 15 years. Many locals know him as Dan the Fire Juggler, who wows the crowds at the Del Norte County Fair.
To his fellow flow artists, which includes a community of jugglers and hula hoopers, he’s The Poifessor and he’s among top 10 poi spinners of 2017.
“When I first saw the Top 10 list it was in 2012. That was the first time they did one,” Betlejewski said of the annual list created by professional poi artist Ben “Drex” Drexler. “I went I want to be on that. I set myself a goal basically and I just practiced and practiced and practiced.”
Poi involves swinging tethered weights in a variety of rhythmic patterns. It has its origins with the Maori people of New Zealand, according to Betlejewski.
Betlejewski was 15 when he saw his first flow artist. Having been born with a heart condition in which his aorta and pulmonary artery are on opposite sides of each other, Betlejewski said he was always fatigued, having to force himself to exercise when he really wanted to sit and nap.
But when a friend of his dad’s, an “old hippie lady” called Sunshine, handed him a flaming staff, Betlejewski knew that’s what he wanted to do.
“At first I loved lighting things on fire and twirling them around; it was just the biggest kick in the world,” he said. “Then after about a year and a half I started loving just the poi themselves and that made me get up and want to do it with just practicing. It no longer needed to be night time. I didn’t need an audience. I just wanted to play with my toy.”
Under Sunshine’s tutelage, Betlejewski and a handful of local teens formed a small troupe. The group disbanded as Betlejewski and his friends got older and graduated high school, but, he said, he kept right on spinning poi.
“You can juggle them, you can spin them around, you can do contact rolls,” he said, adding that he practices about 4-5 hours a day. “After our group disbanded and we all went our separate ways, most of my influence and inspiration came from videos I saw on the internet. That’s where I found the top 10 list.”
The annual top 10 list stems from videos Betlejewski and other poi artists put on social media platforms like Instagram, Youtube and Facebook. The list’s creator, Drexler, shares them on his own YouTube page and people vote in the comments on the ones they like best, Betlejewski said. Betlejewski described the list as half popularity contest, half peer review, but because the poi community is relatively large — there’s 20,000 in the Facebook group Betlejewski takes part in — only the most creative and unique make the top 10, he said.
“It feels nice to have the community say ‘hey, I was inspired by you,’” he said. “I feel like my content was worth putting out.”
Now that he’s fulfilled one goal, Betlejewski said he’d like to show his craft to others who may not be familiar with poi. He has recently joined a new Grants Pass-based performance troupe called Rogue Valley Flow Arts with his friend, hula hooper Caitlin Hofer, also known as Isopuppy. The group has already appeared at a couple of performances, he said.
Hofer, who has been a hula hooper for five years and has a handful of awards under her belt, including Hooping.org’s International Hula Hooper of 2015 award, pointed out that Betlejewski’s skills are known worldwide. Drexler’s top 10 list includes a poi spinner from Russia and Australia.
“I’m trying to get this guy to get his passport because he keeps getting gigs out of the country,” Hofer said, adding that she has taught in Mexico and Canada and has performed in Germany. “We got offered a gig in India at the Bombay Tech Fest. He’s nationally known, but he could be international.”
Betlejewski said rather than do two or three performances a year, he’d like to do two or three a month. He and Hofer will perform at the California-Oregon Jefferson Cup at the Del Norte County Fairgrounds on Jan. 20.
“I spent all this time practicing I think it’s time I let people see my art rather than hide it away in my living room and on my back deck,” he said.
Reach Jessica Cejnar at email@example.com.