Why you should care
Because it’s like dancing inside a rainbow.
A group of Google employees watches open-mouthed as 28-year-old Aisha Thiessen snakes her fiber optic whip around her body, as though encircling herself with a rainbow of fireflies. They try to copy her moves with varying degrees of success, some smacking their faces with the whip. Thiessen, a UX designer at Google, is one of a few whip-dancing teachers in the world. “Some people use it like a matador, hitting people,” she says. “Then I have to take it away!”
Fiber optic whips — a festival alternative to hula hoops and poi (involving tethered weights and a tough learning curve) — have been around since 2011. But they’re just now gaining traction, partly due to lower material costs and partly because gloving (dancing with LED-enhanced gloves) has been banned at top festivals amid safety concerns. And who can deny there’s something irresistible and otherworldly about dancing with rainbow-sparking whips?
“It’s a shiny, sparkly, magical device; wiggle it and it looks amazing,” says 30-year-old Brian Pinkham, an electrical engineer and creator of Fiberflies PixelWhips, the first fiber optic whip for sale. So far, he’s sold 10,000, and he predicts a 20 percent bump in sales this summer — fueled in no small part by the mainstreaming of S&M culture, from 50 Shades of Grey to San Francisco’s annual Folsom Street Fair and LGBT Pride parades, and the role festival fashion plays in public life. “The fact that BDSM accessories are becoming so popular is simply a reflection of BDSM becoming more mainstream,” says sex therapist Vanessa Marin. “Accessories like choker necklaces and cuffs allow people to play around without fully immersing themselves.”
It’s amazing to see families — not ravers — play with the whip.
Prisna Nuengsigkapian, CEO of FlowToys
Pinkham’s initial experiments entailed duct taping fiber optics onto an LED light source … and a good number of self-inflicted injuries. But his next attempt was breathtaking, according to friends who pushed him to launch an online store and demo the whips at festivals. “They’re such a new prop that there’s a lot of unexplored territory,” he says. “There are very few videos, let alone tutorials, online.”
The dazzle rests in the whip’s handle; just press a button to shift the light’s colors and patterns, which ripple through the fibers like a psychedelic jellyfish. Pinkham’s working on a pro version where people can create their own patterns using Bluetooth, but he’s facing competition from brands like Space Lace, Trip Whips, the Space Whip and the BitWhip, with prices ranging from $80 to $200.
“People love moving lights,” says Prisna Nuengsigkapian, CEO of FlowToys, an Inc. 5,000 company that sells festival accessories. She says whips are less intimidating than hula hoops for beginners, and the gloving ban has shifted millennial interest toward using whips. But not everyone sees the value in whips. “It’s more of a novelty,” says Moses Albo from Emazing Lights, a gloving company that took in roughly $13 million last year.
Emazing Lights is credited with bringing gloving to a general audience — and proving that festival props are a viable business (while creating spin-offs like the International Gloving Championship). Well before LED and fiber optics grabbed the spotlight, there was the humble glowstick, originally designed as a tool for the Navy and then quickly adopted by party-going ravers. But though glowsticking had its own techniques, it was low on the totem pole of creative expression — unlike gloving and whip artists — nor did anyone brand them effectively.
And with branding comes serious money. The electronic dance music business amounts to $7.1 billion, according to the International Music Summit, with 1.4 million people attending events (an 865 percent jump since 2007). And with millennials making up the majority of attendees, companies are angling for their eyeballs and cash.
However, while some see a growing revenue source, others hold a decidedly dismissive view of fiber optic whips, a symbol, they say, of the commercial direction festivals have taken — weekend warriors vs. the Coachella crowd. “Festivals have changed a lot in the last five years,” says Nuengsigkapian. But she argues that the change opens the door for new participants. “It’s amazing to see families — not ravers — play with the whip,” she says.
So are fiber optic whips here to stay or merely the latest gateway tool into more complex props? “With poi, you can bash yourself in the nuts,” says Pinkham. In fact, there are so many poi and hoop injuries that most festivals now offer workshops focused on preventive safety practices for dancers. To date, no whip injuries have been recorded. As for Thiessen, she never gave a thought to hula hoops or poi — but she was instantly hooked on whips. Since 2014, she’s taught at over 20 festivals and she’s planning Instagram and YouTube tutorials for novices.
“I love the sensuality of curving the whip around my body,” she says. “In a dark club, it’s like you’re this magical fairy in the middle.” Magic fairy or festival fanatic, these luminous whips give everyone a chance to light it up.