Accelerating Your Learning Curve

By January 19, 2009Articles

Flagging can be engrossing and rewarding regardless of your level of proficiency, and there is no end state one must achieve.

However, I found that until I had built a pretty good repertoire of moves or “vocabulary” from which to express myself, I went through cycles of excitement and boredom. As I discovered and mastered a new move, I was ecstatic, but when that move didn’t prove to magically elevate my flagging I would fall back into feeling stuck and uninspired.

Because I was isolated and not learning moves other than what I could glean when I went out, the excitement peaks seemed few and far between and the more mundane plodding plateaus quite lengthy.

Below are some musings I would like to share that might help you accelerate your learning. Some of these I arrived at myself, but most come via of Xavier, Phillip, Dan or others.

Check Your Assumptions

The first 3 years I flagged, I just assumed that all the wonderful stuff I saw people doing was a series of distinctly different moves that “someone” had shown them and they had dutifully practiced. The only move I knew was a “crazy 8” and I assumed that the moves I was seeing were completely different. In reality, almost all the cool stuff I was admiring was in fact, just slight variations and/or refinements on what I already knew. However, not realizing this, I severely limited the way I experimented with what I knew. E.g. “I’ll keep doing this until somebody shows me how to do one of those really cool moves.” In hindsight, I could have been perfecting my planes, changing the angles, arc, speed, placement, timing, etc. of that “boring crazy 8” and my flagging would have progressed much more rapidly.

Instead, thinking the cool moves must be much more complicated and advanced, I taught myself to fly the flags in opposite directions. I kept practicing this thinking at some point it would morph into one of those really cool moves I was seeing. It never did….. Ironically, “opposites” have become part of my repertoire (maybe someone else is viewing them as a really cool move 🙂 ), but my flagging would have benefitted much more if I had been refining and experimenting with the “basic moves” I already knew.

Refine Your Planes

Newsflash: Half the moves that Xavier and Phillip do that knock your socks off are things you already know. They just execute way, way better.

A good place to start is looking at your planes.

There are times when flagging in multiple planes is desired and aesthetically pleasing, but it should be a choice. The straighter your flags fly (either in front/back or right/left) the greater their impact.

Practice in front of a mirror. Realize how sloppy those circles look.

Back yourself up against the wall. Within three minutes, the instant feedback of hitting the wall will force you to self-correct.

Practice Non-Preferred Directions

You’ve really mastered that new move, but chances are you always do it in the same direction or with the same hand leading.

It may not be fun, but it’s worth the time and practice to figure out how to do it with your left-hand leading or going up, instead of down.

One may look as good as the other, but having the option of doing either will invite more freedom, variety and variation in the future.

Break Your Patterns

The good news is once you learn a move your body won’t forget. The bad news is once you learn a move your body won’t forget – and will want to repeat that move, that sequence, that transition in the exact same way over and over, every single time. I consistently find this is my biggest barrier to learning.

We watched a friend flagging last nite who in the last few months has become fearless (no, it’s not just a new drug). He constantly changes directions, the shape of his arcs, where he is placing his “circles”. It looks as if his flags are inventing where they want to go and dictating that his body follow. Although at times, this throws him off balance (the Joe Cocker effect), the overall impact is one of freshness, discovery, and excitement and over time many of those newly created moves will become refined and integrated.

If we all flagged this adventurously, we’d be learning at a much quicker rate.

Flag to different music.

The faster the music the less likely you will be to break familiar patterns. Play some slow spacey trance; some gentle melodic latin grooves; some Middle Eastern tracks where the sitar invites you to undulate, not “execute”.

Try practicing “separates” (flags not in sync) to some slower hip-hop — let the beat force you to try something new.

At home, I rarely flag to club music. When my 87 year old Dad visited, I spent an evening flagging to Benny Goodman. It was a bit of a stretch, but my Dad loved it.

Focus on moving, instead of flagging.

If you don’t already turn, start. It’s easy – turn in the direction the flags are moving. If you tend to just turn back and forth, consciously stop yourself and experiment with taking a second or third step in the same direction. This will force you to change what you’re used to doing.

Imagine you’re on a stage that’s 12 x 12 and you want to utilize all of this space or it will be lost to “dancers’.

See what happens when you take multiple steps backwards, multiple steps forwards, and then throw in that Janet Jackson Rhythm Nation 90 degree turn and “hustle” the width of the stage.

Dance, instead of move.

There’s a big difference. It usually requires a song you really like and that you haven’t over-played. Let your self-expression take precedence over your flagging – see what you discover. Blake, my partner sometimes asks me “Did I look dumb? I was really getting into it.” Since I’m usually too self-absorbed to have noticed, I evasively respond, “Did you enjoy yourself?”

Hey, If you really care about what “everybody& thinks, then you shouldn’t be flagging.

Some of my friends admire my flagging – but others find it completely embarrassing. Blake says, “It’s definitely gayer than baton-twirling”.

So stop worrying about how you look and express yourself to the music. The moments where I find the energy to flat out dance while flagging are always the most enjoyable.

Inhabit new spaces.

If you usually flag at eye level, experiment with flagging above your head. If you typically bring a move behind your back, force yourself to bring it across your front instead. When you turn and immediately go into your usual three-point weave, force yourself to keep your hands from overlapping and see what happens if your flags have to stay on their own sides.

Notice where you’re not flagging. Is there a whole space behind you that you don’t utilize? Do you ever see how close your circles can get to your ears? What if I were to tell you there is value in spending a month experimenting with the different ways your flags can slide down your back or over the back of your head or up and down your shoulders?

“Walk” your fingers down the length of your flags and try flagging as big as possible. Notice how much slower and deliberate this is. Practice this for awhile and then go back to your usual flagging and try to periodically throw in one of those “big moves”. (Pin-wheels are an easy move to try this with).

Alternate rhythms and experiment with speeds.

A simple “crazy 8”, when done close in on both sides of your body, can look very different as you begin varying the speed.

Start with the flags following closely, but then let one flag begin falling farther and farther behind. When they are alternating (completely opposite), keep this going and experiment with taking steps forward or backward as you continue to flag.

Try having both sides of the “crazy 8” come directly toward you – falling in perfect straight lines on each of your sides. Now slow this movement down so that it is controlled enough that you can almost hit the sides of your face.

Experiment with pulsing (putting energy into only one part of the movement cycle, e.g. accelerate as the flags go up, but then let them complete the circle and fall completely on their own). See how slow you can do this movement before the flags actually collapse. When they finally begin collapsing, let them fall and then “pull out of the nose dive” into something else.

Enhance the feeling of flow.

There is something to be said for flagging fast and deliberately, but softening your flagging and focusing on flow can often lead you into more meditative and exploratory places.

One technique (I learned this from Xavier) I call “snakes”. Choke up on the flags so you’re holding the corner or just a few inches down from the corner on the long cord. Start by casting the flags (like your fly fishing out to the side) and then let one flag follow the other.

If you are leading with your right flag, you’re left hand will start following toward the end of the right flag (as if it is just one long flag like the ones used by Chinese gymnasts). See if you can just keep one flag following wherever the other goes. It’s often best to lead with your non-dominant hand.

All the limitations and inhibitions about how your body moves will apply here, but it’s slowed down and you may find it easier to give yourself permission to move your flags in new directions and new ways.

A more advanced technique that I may not be able to adequately describe involves changing the center point of your circles (whether a spin, simple crazy 8 or three-point weave). Normally, your hand is kept at the center of a circle and the flag rotates around this center point. (Ideally the radius is the same all the way around). To drastically increase the sense of flow, you can move your hand out from the center of the circle and move it in its own circle with the flag still circling around your hand.

Huh? Imagine a bicycle tire with its hub as its fixed center point and all the spokes in place to keep the tire spinning. This is the typical way your flag moves around your hand. But imagine if the spokes were suddenly removed and you wanted to still have the tire spin around the hub. You would need to hold the hub with your hand and move it in a circle so that the tire could still rotate around the hub.

This description may not be sufficient, but experiment with your hands making small circles inside the larger circles made by your flags. I found this to be the one “technique” that really did have major impact on much of my flagging (Thanks, Phillip!).

Avoid being a purist.

There’s definite advantage in playing with poi and fans and in spinning flags of different sizes, weights, and fabrics. You don’t have to embrace or master each, but try them periodically to get ideas and to shake up your routine.

I find it’s much easier to learn a new move with poi and then transfer it to flags. Without the flags flapping, the poi quickly train my body to do it right (so I won’t hit myself). I highly recommend poi for a starting place for practicing planes (poi require it).

For the same reason, however, I find it’s much, much easier to discover/create new moves with flags than with poi (there’s a two-dimensional rigidity that poi re-enforce).

Using different types of flags is a great way to encourage new movement and new ideas. Let the flags introduce themselves to you. Take advantage of the unfamiliarity. Instead of trying to do your usual shtick, notice how the flags feel differently and how they invite you to fly them. Spend the first few minutes just “moving with them, paying attention to what feels novel and accentuating and experimenting with that. Allow them to trigger new impulses and encourage different energies.

Make mistakes!

Perhaps this is just a convenient excuse on my part, but I maintain that if you never drop the flags, never have a flat, never royally fuck-up a move than you’re playing it way too safe. Mistakes mean you’re learning something new. Recovering from mistakes means you’re learning something new.

See what you discover trying to unwind that flat. Try throwing the flag up and catching it in order to unwind it. You dropped it. Throw it up again and see what move happens when you eventually catch it.

Flag with others

I recognize that this isn’t possible for everyone, but finding a flagging partner or buddy, is a guaranteed way to increase your learning curve. Initially, I learned solely on my own, which was exceedingly slow (although it probably helped me develop my own style).

When Xavier started a class at the gym, my flagging started improving. It wasn’t that I suddenly learned tons of new techniques, but the learning became more frequent and I found even small pointers, very helpful. One nite he told me to start turning – that brought big changes. Another nite, while watching him teach beginners, I realized that I primarily flew my flags downward, but rarely upward. Besides increasing my variety, upward flagging looked better – who knew. Another nite, Dan showed me how to more fluidly bring my flags behind my back. (Still working on that). 🙂

Class was definitely helpful, but the biggest jump in my learning curve came when Blake, my partner decided he could flag too. Initially, it was instructive just realizing I didn’t have the words or concepts for how to teach him or even show him what he wanted to know. Teaching flagging requires understanding more astutely what’s going on as well as finding ways to effectively translate that understanding.

Given I tend to learn intuitively and kinesthetically, this was a challenge for me. As Blake picked things up (about 50 times faster than I had), we began having flagging sessions, where we would take turns flagging while the other watched. I started learning all kinds of things from watching him. I realized there were many moves I already did, but had no idea that’s what they looked like. As I watched him do moves he had learned from me, I could then imagine how those same exact moves could be tweaked to look like some of the “cool moves” I had been coveting for years. Blake was also quite adept at unconsciously picking up new moves as he watched others. He’d unconsciously bring them home and I would point them out and eventually learn them by watching him.

After two years of flagging together, I still occasionally show him something he hasn’t mastered, but more likely it’s me asking, “How do I do the reverse of this move? ” A more significant source of learning is the feedback and encouragement we give each other. We track when the other “falls into the zone” and describe what changed and what we liked about it. There’s no quicker way to accelerate learning than to say, “That looks really good, you should do more of that.” An added bonus for the two of us: we somehow managed to avoid imposing our usual competitive lens and instead found ourselves being inspired by what we each saw the other doing. (Hmmm. Maybe they should prescribe flagging instead of couples counseling).

Develop Your Own Style

Although it’s necessary to learn new moves if you want to build your repertoire, there is a tendency to focus primarily on technique and give little attention to developing your own distinctive style.

Your favorite flaggers probably know a lot of moves, but I bet a lot of why you enjoy watching them is because they have developed their own style. Phillip is athletic and exhuberant; Joe delights and engages with the crowd. Xavier goes inward and becomes inscrutably flawless – each circle ever tighter and closer to his body ; Dan carefully executes one trick after another, seamlessly linking each to the next; Glen casts huge sweeping flags in nuanced, fluid wisps as if he’s conjuring a mystical steaming brew out of a mysterious cauldron. Yeah, but they’re all masters, what about the rest of us?

We just had the pleasure of hosting Amy for a Thursday nite of flagging. Amy, who hasn’t been flagging more than two years (?), epitomizes the power and beauty of finding your own style. She puts all of herself into her flagging – combining traditional Asian fanning, her meditative yoga sensibilities, her joy in slow, graceful, movement, her unerring desire to be true to herself. Her flags are mere extensions of her limbs and what you are observing is Amy in all her beauty, not just Amy flagging. And case in point, while she was here on Thursday, she spent an hour trying to learn one stupid move that I didn’t see her use the entire time I watched her flagging at the club last night. 🙂

~ Lanz Lowen

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Join the discussion One Comment

  • Earl E. Hughes says:

    Hi,
    I started flagging here in Houston TX, exactly 2 years today April 5 which was on my birthday. My Flag Daddy taught me and gave me a set of flags that night. He made me the happiest person in the club (South Beach). I hope that one day to make it to the annual flagging in San Francis’ park. I am the only flagger here on the floor for about 1 to 2 hrs on Saturday nites and sometimes on Friday nites. Flagging does a numer of things for me. I love to entertain, it’s exercising, it takes me to a comfort zone mentally, and it’s enjoyable. However, I am having a slow start on making my own flags. I actually was in the Houston’s Gay Pride Parade as one of 3 flaggers. That I am looking forward to doing again this year. I just want someone know that is alive and well portrayed here in Houston TX….even if it is only me.