Contact Staff: Where Are We Going?

Starting up this website and the Facebook page has prompted me to revisit some old videos from several years ago – we’re talking the days before YouTube here so we’re practically in the dark ages. Re-watching these great videos has made me wonder: “how far have we, the staff spinning community, come in the last ten years?”

From what I can see, it’s not as far as I would have hoped. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not really pessimistic about this, I don’t think contact staff is dying or anything – if fact it’s probably more popular than ever. I’m more interested in why we don’t seem to have developed all that many new tricks or pushed the boundaries of what can be done very far in the last six or seven years. (Perhaps we’ve come farther than I give credit for – I’d love to hear arguments to the contrary.)

As far as I can tell – I don’t keep quite such a close eye on these inferior arts – poi, diabolo and juggling are all still moving quickly in their own ways. Has anyone noticed how many people are doing four diabolos low these days? I’m sure a couple of years ago this was extremely rare. Why doesn’t contact staff appear to be moving forward so quickly?

To understand my point, have a look at these sources. Hosted on MCP’s site we have LAB 03 (large) and Leeds 2 (large), then over on YouTube we’ve got Meast’s stick vid 4. Chronos was busting out super hard Matrix combos and variations that I haven’t really seen elsewhere. These videos are well over 6 years old but the tricks and people in performing them remain some of the best, even now.

Think about it another way. How many new tricks have been developed in the 7 years since 2006 compared with the 7 years before, when contact staff seems to have developed quickly through the hands of people like MushyPea Steve and Drew Batchelor and then via MCP, Rob ‘Bluecat’ Thorburn, Sandy McClure and Tim Chown, among others.

It seems like 2006-2007 was when contact staff started to hit a plateau. As I mentioned, contact staff, at least in the UK, has certainly grown in popularity since then. The general standard has also increased; there are many more good staff spinners at festivals and conventions now than there were back then. It’s the top level of staff spinning that seems to have faltered, not staff spinning in general.

Perhaps we’ve reached the limit of what can be done. I don’t believe this is the case though – things can be made smoother, tricks can get more complex and combination building can continue to develop.

Part of the problem may arise from the staff itself; it’s a very simple prop and that may limit the possibilities. Three balls or clubs, two poi or a diabolo, string and pair of sticks all provide more variables to create tricks with.

It can also be harder to practice contact staff than some of these other props. A staff is a big object and unless you’re lucky enough to live in a big house with a room you can spare you need to be outside or in a hall somewhere to train. I live in the UK so the weather certainly limits me in the winter… and in the summer too, come to think of it.

The slowdown could be a symptom of the art’s maturity. Like our own personal learning curves, the gradient is steep to start with but then slows and plateaus for a while before the picking up again. Maybe we’re on the cusp of another burst in the art’s development.

However, it’s not like things have been totally stagnant since 2007. We’ve been exploring groundwork and using the legs more and double staff contact has come a long way since those days. Dance has also been used to enhance contact staff more than it had been in the past – Aileen Lawlor and Linda Farkas have been the pioneers in this department. Personally, I’m not a big fan of just prancing about while you manipulate your prop. The difference with these two is that they both mix an excellent level of technical ability into their staff work too. Plus they prance about very well.

The other area of development that has been toyed with for a while but was really cracked open by No Sweat at the end of 2011 is acrostaff. Acrostaff, or doing acrobatics with or on a staff, or while doing contact moves, is, for me, the most exciting area of development and where I’m trying to take my spinning currently (partly because I’m sh*t at prancing about). Technically, a lot of these acrostaff ideas aren’t really contact because you’re holding onto the staff, but mixing this style of staff manipulation with contact looks and feels great.

So, things may have been moving slowly in contact staff for a while but there are people breaking new ground. I hope we’re going to see the art develop a bit more quickly over the next few years but even if it doesn’t I, for one, will carry on spinning as there enough challenges in the current landscape to keep me entertained. I’ll just spend less time drooling over YouTube videos.

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