What is Poi?

Poi is an ancient art originating in the Māori tribe of New Zealand. Made by attaching a weight to the end of flexible cord, the poi are held in each hand and swung around in circular patterns, becoming extensions of the body and a magnifier of our movement. There is little information about the origin of Maori amusement prior to European arrival, but from the fragments that exist poi is believed to be part of the “dance” section of the whare täpere, meaning the “house of entertainment.” The other 5 sections of the whare täpere were musical instruments, songs, games/amusements, storytelling, and personal adornments/makeup/clothing. One early account of poi by Edmund Halswell, the Protector of Aborigines and Commissioner for the Management of the Native Reserve, reads:

"These are their principal manufactures: they make, however, baskets in colours, and toys of various sorts, such as balls very neatly made of black and white plait, which are swung by a cord in a peculiar manner, whilst the performers, many in number, sing in excellent time. Most of the women excel in this, and the exact time, the regular motion, and precise attitude which is observed by all the performers, are peculiarly striking" (Paringatai).

Another, by Lieutenant-Colonel St John in 1830, states:

"One pretty haka they have, in which each performer holds a ball with a short piece of string attached, and the different motions given to it with great rapidity and in perfect time form a pleasing accompaniment to the monotonous dreary sing-song recital. At times the voice seems to proceed from the heel, it is so deep (Paringatai)"

But it wasn’t until the 1860's, during the wars waged against Māori, that the history of poi gained clarity. Te Whiti and Tohu, two Maori leaders committed to resisting the European land invasion through non-violence, utilized poi as one of the three symbols underpinning their religious teachings. According to Karyn Paringatai,’s dissertation, Poia mai takue poi: Unearthing the Knowledge of the Past, “As part of their religious philosophies Te Whiti and Tohu used poi as a spiritual messenger in order to direct their followers’ attention to more peaceful ways of living despite the rising tide of government control” (Paringatai). The poi dance was also accompanied by a poi song. Though chanting was always connected to poi dancing, Te Whiti and Tohu used it as a religious messenger, for it was an open and trusted medium for delivering historical accounts, religious sermons, and political speeches.

After the wars poi spinning in the Māori tribe took on the role of attracting tourists, and poi spinning across the globe slowly expanded. Today poi has gained international popularity as part of the skill toy family and is practiced in many different styles for recreation and artistic performance.


Project Goals and Applications


Part of the appeal of poi spinning is its potential to be utilized as a tool for achieving a higher level of consciousness and a focusing of inner awareness. According to G.I. Gurdjieff, we are stuck in a loop of automatism. Our body unconsciously cycles through daily movements in the same way the movements of our emotions and mind have become mechanical. To combat this Gurdjieff created a system of “sacred movements” which utilize non-habitual motions to break these cycles. Poi spinning shares the same catalog of techniques as those practiced in Gurdjieff’s sacred movements: polyrhythms, new postures and transitions between them, and full integration of the mind, body, and spirit. As a tool for breaking these mechanical tendencies and altering the associative processes of thinking and feeling, poi spinning opens new neuropathways and bridges the two hemispheres of the brain.

Furthermore, Gurdjieff proposed that we exist amidst three worlds– “the outer world”, the impressions received outside of our bodies, visual and tangible, invisible and intangible; “the inner world”, the automatic flowing and functioning of the organism; and “the world”, the totality of the functioning and the connection between the outer and inner worlds, yet a world on its own, dependent on neither. It is in the formation of these three worlds that the key to attaining “the world” lies, for the first two worlds are formed on their own, while the third is formed exclusively by the intentional connection of the functions of the first two. This intentional connection is created by stopping the flow of unconscious thought and achieving complete concentration of the mind, thinking only of what one wants to think of. In doing this one can learn to think without distraction, and to subordinate the unconscious psychic processes. Essentially, through this kind of focused attention one can achieve complete concentration, and through this concentration one can achieve being in the “moment”, or being in a “trance”, or in Gurdjieffian terms, “the world.”

The Orbitar, through a combination of non-habitual movements and the triggering of audio cues via voice and hand controls, requires attention free of distraction, allowing complete concentration of the mind as described by Gurdjieff. By using a fully immersive, multi sensory tool, the Orbitarist may begin to see the oscillation between the outer world and the inner world, giving him/her an understanding of how to blend the two.


Because we relate to the outside world through our senses, the Orbitar is an ideal vehicle for bridging the gap between the inner and outer worlds due to its rich connection to multiple senses. The Orbitar generates data on the movement of the Orbitar satellites as extensions of our body, and that data can in turn be represented as an audio score. Thus, by mapping the relationship of movement to sound we can map the relationship of movement to the world outside of ourselves. In order to document this relationship I will create a new system of notation for pieces composed with the Orbitar. I also plan to create an interactive digital player which will give users the ability to operate the Orbitar system virtually. This will allow for greater exploration of its compositional potential, and also visually layout the connections between body, satellite, and the audio waveform.


The three major artistic goals of the Orbitar are to create a fully immersive multimedia musical instrument, to reconnect the powerful ancient Maori traditions with the future of poi spinning, and to creating a unique form of performance art.
The Orbitar is the first musical instrument of its kind. Fully immersive, multimedia, and multi-sensory, it allows users to make contact with music in unprecedented form. Completely customizable to suit each individual, controlled by voice, touch, and movement, Orbitarists experience music in 3-dimensions, through mind, body, and spirit. The addition of control via voice connects the Orbitar to the ancient Maori tradition in which poi spinning was executed to specific poi songs, or paitere, composed by the Maori women. The poi would be sent on an imaginary journey around the events and details of the composition, accompanied by dance and singing of the composition. The Orbitar brings this powerful ritual into the technological era, giving performers the ability to express their own paitere with precision and grace, creating a unique performance and musical composition with every spin.


The Orbitar can be used for:
- Physical and mental rehabilitation/therapy/self-improvement via the techniques described in the theoretical goals section
- Recreation
- Performance art
- Creating musical compositions in a non-traditional manner


Project Influences


G.I. Gurdjieff was a philosopher, teacher, and mystic. He believed that people were generally stuck in a state of “waking sleep”, and in order to truly perceive reality we need posses a greater consciousness through connecting our inner and outer worlds and thus understanding the intimate connection between our 3 functions: physical, emotional, and mental. Gurdjieff’s exploration of non-habitual movement through his “sacred dances” is the backbone of utilizing the Orbitar as an extension of the body to focus inner awareness. Gurdjieff is discussed at length above in the “Goals & Applications” section.


Harry Partch was interested in corporeality and tying music to the natural speaking voice. He worked with a 43 tone microtonal scale of his creation on custom-made instruments he invented and built. He was also interested in connecting ancient ritual to modern music creation. According to writer David Quantick, “The sheer size of the instruments compelled musicians to move in a different way, which led to a new form of performance, part dance and part ritual theatre” (Chesworth). Partch’s philosophy and work resonates with the key concepts behind the Orbitar on many levels. His concern with corporeality, the attitude, posture, and active physical involvement of the musician, is the driving force behind the principle of utilizing the Orbitar as an extension of the body to explore non-habitual movement. Partch’s concern with tying music to the natural speaking voice is the driving force behind the vocal component of the Orbitar and the necessity to explore non-traditional scales and tones. And Partch’s concern with ancient ritual is the driving force behind the necessity of the Orbitarist to be a simultaneous singer, dancer, composer, and poi spinner, and to draw upon poi spinning’s ancient Maori roots. In the words of Partch:
"My music and my instruments are the expression of an ancient tradition in which sight and sound unite toward the achievement of a single dramatic purpose. This is not concert music, it finds its highest purpose in collaboration with other arts, with dance, with tragedy, with satire, with farce... in ancient ritual, primitive ritual, everything was involved" (Chesworth).


Founder of The National Institute For Play, Stuart Brown has studied and cataloged the effects of play in all stages of human and animal life to demonstrate its importance in sculpting the brain and achieving success and happiness. Specifically relating to the Orbitar is Brown’s research on Body Play and Movement, one of the 7 categories of play Brown has defined. In his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Brown states, “Play is nature’s greatest tool for creating new neural networks and for reconciling cognitive difficulties. The abilities to make new patterns, find the unusual among the common, and spark curiosity and alter observation are all fostered by being in a state of play” (Brown). Poi has always been considered a form of play. In ancient times poi was part of the whare tapere, or the house of entertainment, where people gathered to engage in leisure activities (Paringatai). Today it finds a similar home under the term “skill toys”, which encompasses props used for dexterity play or object manipulation such as hula-hoop’s and yoyo’s. Poi is intrinsically playful, and is a powerful tool for fostering innovation, flexibility, adaptability, and resilience, which according to Brown all have their roots in on Body Play and Movement.

Poi as a form of play also bridges the gap between the outer and inner worlds as described by Gurdjieff under the “Goals & Applications” link. According to Brown, “Real play interacts with and involves the outside world, but it fundamentally expresses the needs and desires of the player. It emerges from the imaginative force within. That’s part of the adaptive power of play: with a pinch of pleasure it integrates our deep physiological, emotional, and cognitive capacities." The Orbitar is a powerful tool for learning about the self movement that structures an individual’s knowledge of the world. And because poi spinning is done for its own sake, arising out of innate motivations, it typically occurs during periods of the most synaptic neural growth. The act of playing with poi lights up the brain and gives form to internal inchoate desires and needs.

Brown, Stuart. Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York: Penguin Group. 2009.
Chesworth, Darren. The Outsider: The Story of Harry Partch. BBC, 1974.
Paringatai, Karyn. Poia mai takue poi: Unearthing the Knowledge of the Past (A critical review of written literature on the poi in New Zealand and the Pacific). Diss. Univeresity of Otago, July 2004.