Why you should care

Forget your music festivals — this is where it’s at this summer.

Performers have been juggling flaming swords since Camelot jesters entertained King Arthur (in my mind, anyway). But jugglers have generally performed on their own or in small troupes … until now. A new movement is on its way: hundreds of jugglers, fire breathers, martial artists and other “flow artists” travel the world to performer-only festivals.

After a gang of innovators launched Santa Cruz’s Fire Drum festival in 2002, some attendees were inspired to start their own local festivals, and the trend has been gathering steam ever since. More festivals popped up around the country, and flow artists now run a few dozen major annual festivals (and a good deal of minor ones). There’s even growing international interest, with festivals spreading like wildfire as far as Russia and Japan.

It’s hard to draw borders around what makes something a “flow art.” Fire dancing, contact juggling, hoola hooping and swordplay all make it into the mix, but flow artists use plenty of other objects and movements. One practitioner recalls watching a flaming swordfight in which one fighter fought on stilts in an Uncle Sam costume, and the other fought naked. At its core, flow arts are about using movement and external objects to get into a state of “flow,” which practitioners describe as “present moment awareness.” (That’s an actual psychological term, too, by the way.)

Artists travel from all across the globe, arriving by planes, trains and carpools. The crowds include people of all ages, a mixture of methodical professional dancers and, yeah, blue-haired Burning Man types. Both groups are key: the dancers and martial artists make it a place of quality art and learning, and the Burning Man folk make it a community. Participants volunteer as greeters, kitchen aids and groundskeepers, and attendees generally eat together.

Very few audience members come; it’s almost all flow artists themselves, from curious amateurs to wage-earning professionals. The few who come just to watch usually end up getting involved. After all, how many hours can you sit watching fire dancing without wanting to try it? Anywhere from fifty to five hundred people attend.

Grisha Goldmacher, a physician who came to flow arts through martial arts over a decade ago, thinks there’s something special about flow artists. “They’re freaks,” Goldmacher said. “But they’re organized and dedicated freaks.”

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